You might not know the name James Norton, but chances are, he terrified you to your core, if you were one of the millions who tuned into Happy Valley earlier this year.
London-born Norton starred as psychopathic killer Tommy Lee Royce ,who tormented Sarah Lancashire’s policewoman and was responsible for one of TV’s most disturbing death by motoring scenes.
“In preparation, he read up on the subject, and watched other performances including The Take with Tom Hardy and See No Evil: The Moors Murders, which starred Maxine Peake as Myra Hindley.
“That was for the Northern accent as well,” admits Norton, sounding like a well-spoken Southerner, despite growing up in Yorkshire, where he attended “the posh [boarding] school” Ampleforth College.
At Ampleforth, his housemasters and teachers were all Benedictine monks, “inspiring, bright human beings, but like we all are, filled with conflicts,” says Norton.
In short, the perfect inspiration for his latest role, as vicar Sidney Chambers in ITV’s new six-part series, Grantchester.
Norton studied theology at Cambridge University, but never had aspirations of entering the priesthood.
He hopes people won’t be alienated by the fact Sidney’s a vicar. “He’s a very normal guy, doing normal things. He loves his booze a bit too much, women, jazz. There are temptations around him, taking him off course slightly, and the backdrop of the war is very significant too. Like many, he fought and killed and has experienced his own fair share of horror.”
Adapted from the novel by James Runcie (and based on his own father, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie), the drama’s set in 1953, in the Cambridgeshire hamlet of Grantchester.
“It was lovely to be back, home from home, to a certain extent,” remarks Norton. But as picturesque as the setting is, “this isn’t like Father Brown or Miss Marple”.
“It’s not sugary or chocolate boxy, it’s grittier than that. It can be quite gruesome, it’s not sanitised,” he adds.
Sidney turns detective when one of his parishioners dies in suspicious circumstances, and an unlikely partnership is forged between him and the gruff, overworked Police Inspector Geordie Keating, played by Robson Green.
“Sidney’s trying to do the right thing, but realises he can get into places and into people’s lives, and open up confidences where a policeman can’t, and Geordie realises he can use that,” explains Norton.
“Sidney’s looking for adrenaline after the war as well. It’s sort of a mutual, quiet understanding between the two of them. They’re stepping out of line slightly, but they’re a dream duo.”
He and Green got along well. Fortunate, considering the “brotherly camaraderie” required between their characters. “Both have been in the war, and both have been incredibly traumatised by their experiences and find it very difficult to talk about it, so there’s that as well.”
Norton speaks highly of his co-star. “Robson’s a lovely man, the best known person in the cast but so down to earth, and that filters through. There were no egos - and it was the same with Happy Valley,” he says.
Green might be the bigger name but Norton’s the leading man, a responsibility he didn’t take lightly.
“This is the first time I’m fronting a show and all the ingredients are in place; a great script, cast and crew. But then you think, if it doesn’t work, what is the common denominator? So I’m aware of that!” he confesses, laughing.
Given that Sidney’s in almost every scene, it’s a good thing Norton thrives under pressure. “The filming on this was so fast, we sometimes had two units and I was running between the two. But I work better in that environment. There’s less time to think, so you just work on instinct.”
Grantchester, Monday, 9pm ITV