Directing Grantchester Season 6: Secrets from the Set
What did it take to create Grantchester’s most emotionally explosive and surprising season yet? From the holidays high of the Merries to the poignant low of Leonard’s journey, and the dramatic final episodes, we talked to Grantchester’s two directors, Rob Evans (Episodes 1-4) and Jermain Julien (Episodes 5-8) about the unlikely challenges of filming the season, bringing the best out of the cast and the surprising season finale. [Editor’s Note: This interview contains discussion of Season 6 plot points.]
It’s unusual in the series for an episode to be shot outside of Grantchester. Where was the Merries holiday camp episode was filmed, and what it was like taking the cast on this adventure?
Rob Evans: We shot the holiday camp exteriors at a former military barracks in Aldershot. Michael Fleischer (production designer) and the art department achieved something quite remarkable here. Apart from a handful of dilapidated buildings, this location was pretty much a blank canvas. The color palette for the holiday camp was perfect and standing in the middle of that set you felt like you’d been transported back in time.
We were one of the first productions to shoot in the UK after the 2019 lockdown, so there were greater challenges than normal. At times it felt a bit like a journey into the unknown but filming under the new protocols resulted in an even greater determination to delivery something bold and different.
Episode 1 also contained the critical event that triggers Leonard’s story for Season 6. From my point of view, this was very exciting. Leonard has always been one of my favorite characters and working so closely with Al Weaver was an absolute joy and privilege. Being given the responsibility of lighting the touch paper on such an important story is what it’s all about for a director.
Rob, you’ve worked on four seasons of Grantchester (3-6). As a director, what felt different or unusual for you and the cast on Season 6?
Rob Evans: Our intention was to produce episodes which were bigger and bolder than before, particularly with Episode 1, and I think we did that. We had to suspend production on one occasion due to positive [COVID] tests, but by and large we just kept going. I have to say the efforts of everyone involved in this production were at times super-human and I have the utmost respect for those involved in keeping this show on the road.
Jermain, as you read the scripts and came into Season 6, what was your vision for it?
Jermain Julien: I wanted to bring a really deep, dark emotional resonance. I, as a director, shine brightest in the darkness. What really chimed with me was Geordie’s storyline. And that was just one of those things I could not wait to get involved with. And then, obviously Leonard’s storyline, and seeing that there was an episode that was almost entirely shot away from Grantchester.
Rob, Season 6 is a real emotional journey, and much of that gets set up in the episodes you directed. How did you balance telling the mysteries of each episode, while digging into the emotional truths?
Rob Evans: Grantchester has always maintained a perfect balance between the mystery of the week and the long-term emotional journeys of its main characters. These threads never run along parallel tracks, with the two components skilfully woven together by the writing and editorial team.
Geordie’s journey through the second half of the season, for example, starts in Episode 4 with the arrest of a group of American servicemen. Geordie’s empathy for these men, as an ex-soldier himself, followed by the shocking revelation that Will had avoided doing National Service is a great example of how an intriguing story of the week, full of twists and turns, contains the seed of a hugely important story for one the show’s pivotal characters. It is critical that the director ensures that all these elements are handled with equal respect and empathy and that the storytelling wholly embraces the multi-layered facets of this world and it’s inhabitants.
Rob, it’s striking in your episodes that several characters come face-to-face with challenges that shake them to their core. What was it like working with the cast and bringing these tensions to screen?
Rob Evans: It’s the most exhilarating aspect of the work. Grantchester is blessed with an incredibly talented and hard-working cast. They are a very collaborative group and the process of directing them is incredibly rewarding. They are utterly committed to finding emotional truth and are always ready to explore new ways of playing these stories.
Tell us about filming away from Grantchester in the prison episode, the prison itself, and what you were hoping to convey.
Jermain Julian: Well, we were filming in a no longer functioning prison that had closed some 10 or 15 years prior to us filming there. When you walked in it was a really brutal building…. we see the architecture and just how strong and bold this prison was. And then we brought [the shot] it right down into Leonard. And seeing his small space in there, seeing him being desperately vulnerable. And straight away, we get into the violence that he’s a witness to, and that is threatening his life while he’s in there. I wanted to convey that in its true sense, to push the jeopardy, push the emotional construct of the script, and let everybody know that this was going to be a different episode.
This is such an emotionally explosive season for Robson’s character, Geordie. Jermain, tell us about working with Robson, and the emotional journey of that final episode.
Jermain Julien: I wanted to get into Geordie’s head, and I wanted to get into Robson’s head. And prior to filming, I had a meeting with Robson and Tom. The story was going to force this wedge between them, and what I was going to do was push them into that realm. And in talking to Robson, it was just about making him present, every single scene, and communicating where he was. It was just all about giving Robson that support, giving Tom that support.
We wanted to see them together, so that we could feel them being torn apart, and feel that journey of seeing Robson, you will see Geordie do the unthinkable, of raising his hand to his dearest wife, and feeling that he wasn’t able to communicate with Will up until that final reveal [scene in the church].
That was one of the most heart-rending scenes to shoot. And we went in the night before, we had the church the night before we filmed that scene. I think there was only like two beats that I blocked….
But then we just, bit by bit, went through the scene, taking all the emotion out of it…giving them an essence of what was going to come. And then I just had to let the boys go really, just had to let them go and clear their heads of that, so that they could come in and just hit that really strong. And they did. I’m so grateful to them, because that scene in the church is so powerful, from both of them. Tom’s reactions to what Robson is throwing at him.
Rob, you’ve directed other shows that will be very familiar to our audience: Vera, The Halcyon, Midsomer Murders, Mr. Selfridge. What will you remember most about working on Grantchester?
Rob Evans: Grantchester is a very happy place of work. We have a brilliant editorial team, working in conjunction with incredibly talented writers, and the stories they provide are rich and complex; stories which dig into the very heart of what it is to be a human being. Grantchester is a show that never shies away from tough, sometimes uncomfortable, subjects and this is the kind of drama that interests me most. It’s the kind of drama I love to watch, so not surprisingly it’s the kind of drama I love to direct.
Jermain, MASTERPIECE fans will know you from a number of shows you’ve worked on, including Casualty, Lark Rise to Candleford, Death in Paradise, and the Inspector Lynley Mysteries. What was it like working with this particular cast of people?
Jermain Julien: You work on any long running show, and you always talk about the family dynamic. This genuinely was a very warm, supportive cast and crew. And I think the joy of it was that it was so deeply collaborative. I specifically watched every single frame of every single Grantchester before taking this job on. I wanted to communicate with the core cast, with a level of knowledge and authority. I knew we were going to take them on a much darker road than they had been on before, with much more personal, in-depth character development.
Is there anything else that eagle-eyed mystery fans might see that would surprise them in the episodes you directed?
Jermain Julien: I’m a fan of old-school directors and if anyone’s very eagle-eyed, they might see me in a scene. They might see me doing my little Alfred Hitchcock moment in the final episode…and I think at some point after that’s gone out, I will put up on social media a little outtake of that…Robson just letting me know that I’m one of the family.