After a two-year gap, the crime-solving Rev. Sidney Chambers of Grantchester is back on the case — only to leave the village in pursuit of love and social justice abroad. We speak to series creator, head writer and executive producer Daisy Coulam about James Norton’s final day on set, Robson Green’s tearful goodbye to his on-screen partner and how it felt to write in Tom Brittney’s new main character, the Rev. Will Davenport. Coulam also gives a preview of the mysteries still to come on this upcoming fourth season.
Jace Lacob: I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.
Another sunny Cambridgeshire spring, another series of baffling murders pouring down upon the British countryside. For Grantchester, it’s just another string of cases for Inspector Geordie Keating and his priestly partner, the Reverend Sidney Chambers.
Geordie: I miss the old days.
Sidney: Which bit? The wars? The bombs? The abject misery?
Geordie: At least you knew your neighbours.
Sidney: The ones that weren’t dead.
Geordie: It’s not the same anymore. That’s all I’m saying.
Jace: But now, after years of public service, both holy and otherwise murderously helpful, Sidney is leaving the village. He’s pursuing a romance with the young American Violet Todd, but also seeking a higher calling of a different order.
Sidney: We can help people. We could do so much good.
Violet: You could get arrested for being with me.
Sidney: I don’t care.
Violet: You’ll be hated.
Sidney: I don’t care. I love you, Violet.
Jace: Grantchester series creator, executive producer, and head writer Daisy Coulam and her team knew they’d have to say goodbye to series star James Norton in this fourth season. But, she tells us, nobody was prepared for how much his departure would hit them.
Daisy Coulam: You know there were proper tears on set especially between Robson and James who you know they still meet up, they’re still buddies. They just got on brilliantly.
Jace: Coulam looks at the tenure of Sidney Chambers, his incoming replacement, Will Davenport, and the mysteries and storylines yet to come this season.
And this week we are joined by Grantchester creator, executive producer, and head writer Daisy Coulam. Welcome.
Daisy: Thank you very much. Nice to be here again.
Jace: Before we dive into specifics, take us back a bit to the development of this season’s arc. Going in you knew James Norton and Sidney Chambers would be leaving Grantchester. How did you approach this major departure in terms of story?
Daisy: In a way, well every series we try and come up with a theme. You know it might be trial and retribution or some kind of theme and this series because James is leaving it kind of meant that change became our theme you know changes in the air in Grantchester, it’s 1956. Things are changing. And so in a way be kind of because we knew it had to happen. Sadly James had to leave. We embraced it and kind of made it a part of the shape of the series as a whole. So his leaving was about new beginnings and Will coming in was about new beginnings for our show.
Jace: And why was it important to you that Sidney get a happy ending as it were?
Daisy: It’s really interesting. At one point we were gonna kill because you know that’s obviously one of the most dramatic things you can do but then you don’t want to spend a whole series kind of mourning the loss of a character. You kind of need to move on and sort of shake things up. So by giving him a happy ending it meant that we were free to bring in a new character and celebrate his ending and and celebrate Will’s new beginnings.
Jace: Despite the ending of the third season many viewers assumed that Sidney and Amanda could somehow find their way back to each other. Why did you opt to bring in Simona Brown’s Violet Todd as a new love interest for Sidney?
Daisy: I think Sidney and Amanda, we’d gone through every permutation of it and it felt to us we wanted to be brave and do a new story and I suppose for a to find a love interest that completed Sidney and um and he wasn’t constantly on the back foot and didn’t have a history with you know it’s a new a new dynamic and it just felt like something interesting to do. I think.
Jace: In the Sidney Chambers novels, of course, Sidney marries German immigrant Hildegard. Did you have any conversations with James Runcie about wrapping up Sidney’s story here?
Daisy: We we did and it’s funny because I suppose for us the series is kind of diverged so much from the books that it felt sort of slightly odd to go back to it and actually I think our Sidney is a different Sidney who I’m not sure Hildegard, our Sidney would and James Runcie’s Hildegaard would actually fit anymore although in the books it is lovely that he kind of gets married and has a child and you know who knows maybe it will fall apart with Violet and he left up there a few years time.
Jace: Did it feel like a luxury to be able to write Sidney’s storyline to its conclusion with James on hand and not have to wrap up those plot threads off screen as so often happens?
Daisy: Yeah I mean we were so lucky. I mean James from the moment we started working with him his star rose so quickly and we were you know there was a point where we could have lost him at the end of season three but he was very kind and he wanted to give his character a send off too so it worked out well for all of us and it was really sad. You know there were proper tears on set especially between Robson and James who you know are still they still meet up they’re still buddies they just got on brilliantly.
Jace: I mean what was the atmosphere like on James’s final day of shooting How emotional did it get on set? How much did Robson Green cry?
Daisy: What was lovely was the final scene, one of the final scenes they did which I thought was beautiful idea was James’s scene with Tom Brittney, who plays Will, so it was kind of the handover scene in the cell where they talk about Geordie and basically we wanted the scene where it’s the handing of the baton over to the new character to say, you know Geordie can be an idiot sometimes, but he’s a good friend.
Sidney: He’s a stubborn old sod.
Will: So am I, unfortunately.
Sidney: There was a time I would never break a confidence.
Will: Meeting a man of the law changed that, did it?
Sidney: Let’s just say Geordie gave me a new perspective.
Daisy: So that was one of the final scenes they filmed. Robson was there but watching behind the camera and then everyone just had a little cry and had a little glass of champagne and…Yeah, no it’s just it felt like the family lost somebody. But then Tom Brittney weirdly has exactly the same energy as James, he brings exactly the same quality of warmth and inclusion and it’s really we’ve just been really lucky.
Jace: We mentioned change. The season begins with Sidney and Geordie on a stakeout. Change as you say it is definitely an underlying theme this season with this first episode in the civil rights movement, how did you look to embody that sense of social and political transformation?
Daisy: Well it was interesting because for us we’re actually slightly pulling the civil rights movement forward in time to 56. I think it was slightly later in the 50s. But I was really inspired by, of all people, Lin Manuel-Miranda, who I read an interview where he was talking about Hamilton and he was saying the story of America you know that is the story of America then, told by America now. And I thought, I really want to do civil rights, I really want to do that. That sense of change, the world is changing and moving forward. And so that’s why we just wanted to do something quite explosive and kind of bold in the first episodes. I think it just worked really well for Sidney to have a cause, a social uprising, something that meant something to him and gave him purpose. And meanwhile we just we just tried to find really interesting characters. I suppose, I got slightly obsessed with Reverend Todd, this guy who has to embody religion and kind of has to sort of in the face of adversity has to be really calm and controlled and it’s like what’s that to be, you know, to be a man like that to feel angry and not be able to express it. I just thought this something really interesting putting him in a scene with Sidney and so to me it was about the civil rights movement. But it was also about characters that challenged Sidney’s view.
Jace: It’s clear that Sidney is bored. He’s stuck in a rut. He’s putting himself in danger with bloody heroics and listening to the virtues of baking soda, water, and a vigorous scrubbing with a sturdy brush. Psychologically where is Sidney’s head at when we pick up with him at the start of the season?
Daisy: He is, I think you’re exactly right, he’s bored. He’s seen it all he’s done it all he’s basically going through the motions at church that you know he’s a religious man and he will never be anything but religion isn’t exciting him anymore, and the world of Grantchester is slow and, you know, a bit murdery sometimes, but mainly slow and sort of kind of tame and he’s looking for more he just doesn’t know what he’s looking for. I think he’s he’s desperately searching for something and in walks Violet.
Jace: Reverend Todd’s talk in the church is interrupted by Gregory Jones and fireworks which sound eerily like gunfire. There’s a panic as people flee becoming trapped in a very small corridor. Sidney wears an expression of claustrophobia of pure terror. Is this meant to evoke a sense of PTSD from the war.
Daisy: Visually we wanted to do something that was sort of representative of his being trapped in his world in a way and trapped in these sort of backward thinking people who spread hate and he needs to burst out that door and move forward with positivity. That’s actually I suppose it is in a way it’s but is harking back to his war and the struggles he had with that.
Jace: Sidney and Violet appear to be holding each other up in this horrific moment. At one moment Sidney seems to pull her up as she faints. Is this intense moment what forges their connection?
Daisy: Yes. We always talked about, their relationship is forged in fire. They’re always, you know, they’re together in adversity. There was a stage direction in that where they kind of locked eyes and you know is it that in this intense moment of, ‘We could both die,’ you know, they see something in each other.
Jace: Violet cannot only put Sidney in his place but she also calls him out for his failures or shortcomings. Was it essential to you that he be paired with someone who would not only give him an injection of optimism, as we’ve said, but also provide him with that much needed cause or mission?
Daisy: Sidney is a kind of, he’s a wallower, as well. You know, he wallows in self-pity quite a lot and we really wanted a character that was like, ‘Hang on a sec. You’ve got everything, you’re a you know a middle class white man, what’s your problem?’ Kind of thing. Just — Sidney needed to be challenged and not only his religious life, but as a man, really. And I suppose that’s why we didn’t go back to Amanda, because I’m not sure she would ever challenge him. You know, she kind of allows him to be himself and I think he needs a..he could use a kick up the backside, if I’m honest.
Jace: Violet herself is a hoot. I love the scene where she pulls out that bottle of gin with the prostitutes.
Peggy: No offense, lady, but the last thing we need, is an uptight, bible-loving bitch telling us that Jesus will save our souls. He hasn’t saved us yet. And I’m pretty certain he ain’t going to save us now, so…
Violet: Any glasses that aren’t smashed or is this bible-loving bitch gonna to have to drink from the bottle?
Jace: She reveals herself to be a lot less straightlaced than the viewers might expect. Where did the idea or the genesis for Violet as a character come from, what makes her tick, as as her creator?
Daisy: Well we did quite a lot of research and well and found this not a huge amount on the women of the civil rights movement because although they were very forward-thinking bunch, the women in a way were treated like the sort of people to make the tea and you know support and facilitate the men. You know it was the 1950s still so. But it just it struck us that we wanted a woman who if she lived in a different time she would you know she’d be president kind of thing. She knows what she wants. She’s clear. She uses her religion for good she’s just feisty and brilliant. And also I just that kind of moments like that the gin, is when you get a nice character they start writing themselves a little bit. I didn’t know she was going to do that until I was writing ‘Oh she’s got some gin in her bag! Brilliant.’ So you know, you kind of you just embrace the, once you kind of know how you want them to be, I suppose, in a way you have to set up a character in one and a half hours or whatever you’ve got to make them stand out, and those kind of moments, I think, do help.
Jace: The seduction scene upstairs at the vicarage was as unexpected as it was passionate. Is it grief or passion or both that brings the two of them together at this moment?
Daisy: Well I think it’s both. It’s kind of bad Sidney at his best because it funny enough when I did the first draft, I don’t think he kind of kissed her. And we were like this is. Come on he’s got a you know he’s got to cross a line here because it’s Sidney. He always crosses the line.
Jace: He can’t help himself.
Jace: There are some stunning sequences in this episode. One of my favorites is a scene in which Reverend Todd played by the always extraordinary Patterson Joseph asks Geordie for a bowl of water with which to wash his son Charles’s corpse.
Nathaniel: May I have a bowl of water, please?
Geordie: You can’t touch him.
Nathaniel: I bathed him on his first day in this world. I shall bathe him on his last.
Jace: How difficult was it to write this this very emotional scene?
Daisy: Funny enough, that again, that’s one of the scenes where it just sort of I knew, I liked the idea that you bring a child into the world and you wash them on the first day and then he’s not going to stop now, it’s he’s gonna wash him on his last, and I suppose what I found interesting about Reverend Todd was that he’s quite sort of…not repressed but his emotions were held back and in that moment he’s gonna do something beautiful and sort of quiet, but without saying if you see what I mean he’s not a man of words necessarily to his family. He’s a man of action and I just that kind of came quite naturally that I love that scene as well. He’s so good, Patterson Joseph!
Jace: I mean it’s too good. He’s amazing, particularly in that in that scene and it’s the little things in that scene the sense of the intimate and the personal contrasted with the clinical and the impersonal — the tag on the corpse’s toe, the sterility of that police morgue. How much of that did you front load into the script and how much came out on the day via Patterson’s performance or direction?
Daisy: I mean a lot of that is Patterson and Robson and what I didn’t realize when I watched that scene having scripted, it was quite a, you know, sort of not basic script, it was quite sort of simple but what you realize is Robson brings something to it to you because he’s Geordie, he’s got four children of his own. And he’s not going to stand in the way of a grieving father. You know, he may have protocol and rules but he’s literally faced with a man’s grief. And so he’s sorry. I just thought they both brought brilliant a quiet sort of brilliance to it, really.
Jace: Before this next question, a brief word from our sponsors…
Jace: This episode marks the introduction of Tom Brittney’s Will Davenport the chaplain at Corpus Christi who, spoiler alert will take over as Vicar in a few episodes.
Jace: Did you strategize about how to gently introduce Will to the audience ahead of his eventual arrival at the vicarage?
Daisy: We did, because I’m aware of those shows that you know, it works very well sometimes you know you say goodbye to your old character and bang! You’re with the new character. But for us, we wanted to try something a little different and firstly we felt like we wanted to see Sidney and Will together. So because it just infuses it, then you feel like Sidney is giving permission for the Will to be in the show, in a way. And we wanted to give space to Leonard, for Leonard to have a little moment because, Al Weaver is a brilliant actor and he has quite a big role in the show as well, before Will arrives.
Jace: Will does give up the identity of the anonymous person who gave him the murder weapon to Geordie, who acknowledges what that must have cost Will personally to do before they shake hands. What does Geordie make of Will and how does this scene set up their future dynamic?
Daisy: I think the thing about Geordie is he…He lived vicariously through Sidney, that’s what they were. He always said his relationship with him was that they saw you sort of didn’t quite never quite fully got him, but really wanted his life and really found him interesting. And I think it Will there’s a similar thing he sees this guy. He sort of admires his, you know, his stance and his beliefs. It’s just like he finds him intriguing and I think likes him from that moment. You sort of, he’s annoyed with him, obviously for not revealing secrets but then they shake hands and you get in that tiny moment you get the kind of yeah, this could work, this could be a friendship we’d like to see. But they talked a lot about, Robson and Tom, talked a lot about their relationship being slightly different. The age gap it’s more kind of father and son. So it becomes something quite different from Sidney and Geordie. And it just gives us so much to explore. So it’s exciting.
Jace: Despite his negativity and gloom in this episode Sidney offers a word of advice to Reverend Todd.
Nathaniel: I can’t see God.
Sidney: God always leaves a path back to him. You will find him. You will. There’s grace in this world if you look for it.
Jace: Is that directed at himself as much as the Reverend?
Daisy: I think so. I think you have to struggle when you when you’re feeling miserable like Sidney is when, you’ve lost someone like Reverend Todd has you struggle to see the good in the world and I think through telling Reverend Todd that he’s sort of telling himself to you know see the good go out there and find it and Violet is his grace I think.
Jace: It’s a beautiful moment when Sidney steps aside to let Violet give the blessing at the Grantchester fete, and she gives an impassioned speech about standing together. Does this scene reaffirm her own sense of agency, her own mission and cause?
Daisy: Yeah, with that, that was we were very keen because a lot of these women in the civil rights movement didn’t get to speak. We were determined that she would in some way stand up there even if no one wants to hear it and no one really understands what she’s going on about because they’re a village fete, we wanted her to have her moment.
Violet: I am from a place of violence, oppression, and prejudice. You may look around you and think – who gives a damn – there is none of that here. But look harder. There is oppression. There is prejudice. There is suffering. And if one person suffers, we all do. If one person falls, we all fall. I truly believe there is a better time for all of us. One where we all have our moment in the sun.
Jace: Geordie sums up Sidney’s life as quote, ‘An endless merry go round — Sin. Feel bad. Drink. Sin. Feel bad. Drink.’ I mean is it Violet that breaks him out of this cycle?
Daisy: Yeah. I think it’s. She holds a mirror up to him and says, ‘Take a good look. You need to sort yourself out,’ and I think that’s what he needed. And it’s about as much about him finding agency and taking that power back, cause he very often, you know, it gives over to the whiskey drinking and the kind of staggering down the road drunk, he gives into those moments, and I think also Sadie, who is also somebody who helps him change he feels he let her down, and he knows he’s got to be better.
Jace: Sidney has previously struggled between his duty to the church and his parishioners and his personal desire for fulfillment, for happiness, for love. You can see in the scene where Sidney decides to go after Violet that it’s a monumental decision for him. That that’s weighing on him. What ultimately sways his hand?
Daisy: I think it just comes down to love, I think, and also here’s a woman who I think he says to her at that scene in that scene, ‘You made me a better person.’ And I think that’s what it is and that for me was what it was about. He felt enriched by being with her. And he doesn’t want to lose that. I mean he could, he could stay in that church and sit through all those meetings again but nothing will ever be as good as being with her. And I think, yeah I love that scene. I was, we were sat in the other side of the church watching him, going, ‘Oh go on, Sidney! Go after her!’
Jace: The kiss outside the church in a beautiful scene that’s full of love and optimism. In the script you write very simply, ‘Sidney kisses her, a most excellent kiss. Sidney has never been more sure of anything than this in his entire life.’ How does this moment change Sidney and how does the simplicity of that writing transform into that amazing scene?
Daisy: That’s so funny! A most excellent kiss! That’s like Bill and Ted, or something. No, the lovely director, Tim Fywell…I find it really fascinating, that process where you write something and you have kind of something in your head and then the director takes it and he picks in a big Steadicam shot and it’s all swirling and there’s, you know and the music — John Lunn composed this beautiful track that really kind of soars and suddenly that scene, you know, again just everything kind of came together, all these people came together to make it really beautiful.
Jace: This isn’t about Violet staying in Sidney’s world, but rather Sidney leaving to follow Violet into hers, a reversal of a common trope in popular culture. Was it important to you to not fall into that trap, that it’s Violet who has to give something up for the man in her life, rather than the reverse?
Daisy: Absolutely, absolutely. That was I mean at one point Sidney says, ‘Stay,’ and we wanted her to say no, because you know, her world is everything to her. And I think it says a lot about Sidney, how Sidney has grown that he’s willing to sacrifice some of the people he loves for somebody else, because he can be a little bit selfish at times so it was nice, yeah it was nice that Violet got everything and a chance to stand up and speak and be heard.
Jace: Sidney’s final sermon contains a message that we are never alone, one that seems to link itself thematically to Violet’s speech at the fete.
Sidney: It’s terrifying to step outside the bounds of our lives. Step away from those we love, from the friends we cherish. But sometimes we must. Sometimes God has a different path for us. One that feels impossible because we must leave so much behind. One that makes us feel alone. But know this — we are never alone.
Jace: Was this an intentional thematic flourish?
Daisy: It was a goodbye without saying goodbye. Because, you know, you don’t want to have endless goodbye scenes. And what was great, the director said to James in that scene, ‘Just look at Robson, and direct it at him, like you’re just saying it to him.’ And James cried then as well, actually he has a little, you know kind of whibble, cause it was it was he was saying goodbye as well, in a way, to his character. That was his final sermon and he was saying goodbye to the show, goodbye to his friends that he’d made over four years. You know gosh, it’s making me sad just thinking about it now!
Jace: The final scene with Sidney and Geordie broke my heart. Both James and Robson are so fantastic in this scene which radiates with pure emotion, particularly when Geordie takes Sidney’s hand and squeezes it. How hard was it to write this final scene between these two friends, both in the sense of Sidney and Geordie and in the sense of James and Robson?
Daisy: It funny enough, it was it again it was one of those scenes that sort of flowed because you knew what they say, and you knew as friends what they would — there’s so much that’s unsaid in that scene as well. But kind of watching what they did to it was just beautiful again. There was a lot of crying on set, though. At one point I heard the director go, ‘I need a tissue in here.’ He was crying, and it was really sweet. The room was going, because it’s just a friendship that you want to keep doing. But that’s what’s brilliant about Tom Brittney, is, he kind of swooped in and you know, in a way, just brought that same loveliness. And we’ve just been very lucky.
Jace: ‘One last game.’
Jace: When did you know that you’d want to end their time together on the show with a final game of backgammon?
Daisy: Well also because in the final book that James Runcie wrote, there is a sense that, in the book it’s much more, you know, one last case, and we were just thinking, what you know one last something would be good one last something. And it’s just that they’re remembering they play backgammon is one of their first scenes together and they talk about it in their final scene of that episode and it just felt like you know we’ve got to come full circle here, and you know a lot of their friendship was forged in that pub and over a backgammon table, and I just thought there was something quite sweet about that.
Jace: In many ways Sidney and Geordie’s dynamic is the central relationship of the series. Was it daunting at all to dismantle that and build a new one between Geordie and Will?
Daisy: It’s absolutely terrifying because you think, ‘Oh God if this doesn’t work, you know, you’ve got a lot of people’s livelihoods riding on it not let alone you know a show that we all love it a lot.’ So we want we just kind of very, very sort of protective of it. So to bring somebody new in was hard and it’s like where do you even begin, really? But that basically a group of us got together before the show started and we shared all our ideas and found quite quickly actually, Will’s character came together and you know once you can sort of hear their voice then things start to take shape and then once you see Tom — like we saw quite a few people, auditioned really good people, really good people. But Tom just had that — he’s such a sweetie, he’s so enthusiastic in a sort of…and that was what we needed. That sort of exuberance, and he just brought that in spades.
Jace: Without spoiling too much, there’s an increased attention on the characters of Cath, Mrs. C and Leonard this season as they each get their own storylines to shoulder. What went into the decision to give each of them more emphasis this year?
Daisy: Well every year we kind of we desperately want there to be room for them because they’re all not only brilliant actors, but interesting characters. There’s so much to kind of unpack about them, and I suppose in a way, not having it, having a bit of space with Sidney not there for a little bit, and it just gave us a few more options, I suppose and a bit more space just to explore them. And we were we were desperate to give them all you know I could do Leonard the series, or Mrs. C the series, quite happily, if I could. Spin offs. So yeah, it was lovely to do.
Jace: In the broadest of strokes, what can you tease about what’s coming up for the rest of the season?
Daisy: So there is a lot for everyone. Leonard and Daniel’s relationship is coming on apace, which is very nice to explore, but there will be some problems along the way, which will shake the vicarage. Leonard, yeah. Poor Leonard has some problems. Mrs. C, equally, there’s a kind of fractured relationship. We wanted to have a sort of dynamic in the vicarage, you know, the family is struggling without Sidney there so there’s a lot of exploration of that. And for Cathy, her decision to take the job. It was again, it was about exploring women’s experiences in the workplace and without giving too much away, tapping into that hash tag me too thing, just stop there, say no more.
Jace: Daisy Coulam, thank you so very much.
Daisy: No worries. Thank you for having me.
Jace: While the viewing public mourns the early departure of James Norton from the fields and pubs of Grantchester, Robson Green would like to remind you — he hasn’t gone anywhere just yet.
Robson Green: You know I’m the old guy. He’s the six foot two, charismatic, hyper-intelligent, beautifully talented, James Norton you know? It was tough, it was really, really tough. But the overriding arc of that moment was goodbye. But you have brought so much joy and love and generosity to the show that will be taken on by our new charismatic member of the clergy, Tom Brittney.
Jace: Grantchester star Robson Green joins us here on the podcast next Sunday, July 21 to explore life without his original crime-solving partner.
MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. Susanne Simpson is our executive producer. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Rebecca Eaton.
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