James Norton: from demonic TV villain in Happy Valley to crime-fighting cleric in Grantchester

“I was playing a psychopath by day and then preparing to be a vicar by night – and trying not to mix them up! "

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The last time we saw James Norton he was playing Tommy Lee Royce, a vicious sadist, hostage-taker, rapist and murderer in the acclaimed BBC drama Happy Valley. His character was so deeply stained with other people’s blood that the BBC received complaints about the level of violence (still, millions of viewers loved the series and a second one is on the way).

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Norton has since swapped channels and landed a role that couldn’t be more different from Tommy.

“Yeah,” says Norton. “From psycho to vicar.”

If you caught the first episode of ITV’s Grantchester, Norton takes the lead role as Sidney Chambers, a 1950s Cambridgeshire vicar who, to his surprise, finds himself working hand-in-hand with a local police detective (Robson Green) to find the truth behind some unexplained deaths in his parish.

Grantchester – based on the bestselling series of books of the same name by James Runcie – is a series of murder mysteries, a riddle to be solved, rather than anything that’ll frighten the sheep (or, indeed, your local vicar).

The two projects overlapped, which meant that Norton was learning his lines for his country vicar in Grantchester while he was between scenes as the foul killer in Happy Valley.

“I was playing a psychopath by day and then preparing to be a vicar by night – and trying not to mix them up! It was amazing going from someone who sees the world as inherently hostile, so hateful of everything and everyone, to someone who looks for the best in people.”

Grantchester is an affectionate portrayal of an old-fashioned Britain – the church, the country- side, Cambridge University – but it doesn’t sugar-coat the 1950s, insists Norton. 

For a start, Sidney Chambers is no Derek Nimmo-style pardon-me vicar. He chain- smokes, loves jazz and booze (the latter a bit too much). Scarred by his experiences in the war, Sidney is “an alcoholic, dealing with depression, who can’t seem to have any healthy relationship with a woman”. He’s in love with a pretty young thing who’s engaged to someone else, and he’s battling some traumatic memories from the battlefield. At one point he goes to his archdeacon and admits: “I’m having a crisis of faith.”

Meanwhile, any poor soul he helps to identify as a murderer faces the most brutal of punishments: death by hanging. The series is set in 1953, 12 years before capital punishment was abolished in the UK.

The truth is, agrees Norton, any viewers who hanker for the return of the 1950s might not initially realise what they’re wishing for. Everyday life held restrictions around every corner: it was still illegal to buy bacon without a ration coupon and homes had few labour- saving devices, though Sidney’s housekeeper, played by Tessa Peake-Jones (Raquel in Only Fools and Horses), does have a prehistoric-looking vacuum cleaner. 

“The 1950s are recent enough for people to be nostalgic about, but the show also makes you realise how far we’ve come. Although it’s good, escapist telly – it’s warm and inviting. It has a foundation of humour and doesn’t shy away from what the 50s were.”

Abortion was illegal, as was homosexuality, so if you weren’t right in the middle of mainstream society, it wasn’t a comfortable place to be. “There’s a storyline about a young man who is gay and he can’t come out, but in order to solve the crime, Sidney potentially needs to expose him. Yet that [admitting you’re actively homosexual] would mean 18 hours a day in solitary confinement.”

If Grantchester is a big hit, and ITV is putting a lot of effort into ensuring that it is, Sidney Chambers is likely to propel Norton into the mainstream. Ironically, this role couldn’t be more appropriate for the young actor since religion has played a central role in his life.

Norton, 29, went to Ampleforth College, a Roman Catholic boarding school in North Yorkshire, where the boys – and a handful of girls – were taught by Benedictine monks. From there, he went to Cambridge, where he studied theology. He says he only went to Ampleforth because his parents wanted him to go to a boarding school, but one close enough to visit.

“It was pure geography. I grew up 15 minutes away. First and foremost, it was a great school, it still is. I had a fantastic education and, living in that world, I became fascinated about religion because I was able to stand outside of it and appreciate it, having been within the community. So I went on to study theology.”

At Cambridge, he says, the theology students were a mixture of those who were there because religion was their calling, and those drawn to the subject purely as an academic pursuit. He was firmly in the second camp.

“Half were ordinands, but others were staunch atheists, and some were interested to see whether studying the subject would bring some clarity. But actually theology asks many more questions than it answers, so I just left more confused. But I loved it.”

So is he religious? “I don’t practise any religion now,” he says. Did he ever make a conscious decision to reject the religion that he’d studied so closely? “No. I never turned my back on it, it was just a natural kind of thing.”

Does he ever go to church? No, he says. The only time he’s been to a place of Christian worship recently was when the Grantchester script demanded it: “When I get dressed up as a vicar and play-act.”

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Grantchester is on Mondays on ITV