LOS ANGELES – Tom Brittney got three pieces of advice from James Norton about playing a vicar on PBS’s “Grantchester.”
“He told me to have fun, always keep your mobile phone in the top pocket of your costume so nobody can see it, and pretend like you haven’t heard Robson’s stories a hundred times before,” Brittney recalls. “That last one was the most useful of all.”
Robson is Robson Green, the series star who plays police inspector Geordie Keating. Norton played the priest who teamed with him to solve crimes. Now, Brittney gets the honor as a new vicar sent to replace him. Brittney’s Will Davenport is younger, hipper and celibate.
“I’m very certain that’s going to change,” he says of the third attribute. “But there’s a reason for it. It’s a personal thing that’s happened in his life that he thinks it’s just better to probably stay away from women for a while until he meets the right one. I think he’s probably petrified of being destructive.”
Norton was “the sexy vicar,” Brittney says. This new wrinkle just makes Davenport’s life a bit easier to play.
Meanwhile, the series takes its time saying goodbye to one vicar and introducing another. For Brittney, that was a great way to arrive, particularly since audiences had grown so fond of Norton. To make sure the fit was right, he auditioned several times and got a three-page backstory from one of the writers. “It was all there for me,” the 28-year-old British actor says. “I just had to bring myself to it. I think they picked me because I was what they thought he was.”
The new vicar rides a motorcycle, has a hipper 1950s flair and shows a streak of arrogance.
Brittney, meanwhile, has never ridden a motorcycle. “I never wanted to be on one,” he says. “When you’re going 70 miles per hour down a motorway, that does not feel natural. However, after a few lessons and a couple of failed driving tests, I did start getting the bug for it. I did start going a lot faster than I should have and I really did get that sort of adrenaline thing.”
He also toyed with the idea of getting his own bike but, but resisted: “I’m not going to put my parents through that. I don’t want to worry them every time I get on the thing.”
He had his choice of two cycles for the series – a BSA and a Norton. “We thought it might be a bit rude to ride a Norton after he’s left,” he says with a laugh.
A veteran of other period dramas (including “Outlander” and “Call the Midwife”), Brittney didn’t find the crime-solving aspect of “Grantchester” as daunting as others might.
“I grew up watching ‘CSI,’” he says. “I’d watch that religiously with my family. And it kind of informs you. ‘CSI’ started that obsession with forensic things and seeing a bullet go in slow motion through someone’s head. I took a lot of light-bulb moments of just watching detectives kind of going, ‘Oh, yeah.’ So I think I’m getting good at that now, thanks to American TV.”
Brittney watched the first episode of “Grantchester,” but made a point not to watch the rest after he got the job. “I wanted to see it with fresh eyes. I’m not playing the same character. (Norton) is a bloody good actor. I didn’t want to scare myself any more than I was.”
Green was a much easier fit. A singing star in the 1990s, he was “one of those people,” Brittney says. “I grew up watching him in the ‘90s all the time and he was a massive singer.”
At a meeting to see how well the two meshed, Green gave him a big handshake and said, “I’m Robson.”
“And I’m like, yeah, I know. ‘You’re TV’s Robson Green.’ He was wonderful and became a really, really close friend of mine.”
Davenport, he says, fought in the war and has a dark past. He has an underlying anger “that comes out quite a bit. That’s the difference with us. And it causes me and Geordie’s relationship to be much more different than Sidney and Geordie’s was.”
Because the newest season of “Grantchester” has already aired in Great Britain, audiences there have gotten a chance to warm to the new vicar. Brittney says all’s well, largely because the transition wasn’t abrupt. “You realize that taking James Norton away doesn’t make ‘Grantchester’ not be ‘Grantchester’ anymore. It still retains everything that makes it so wonderful.”
“Grantchester’s” newest season premieres Sunday on PBS.