James Norton on Lady Chatterley’s Lover: “We’re no longer shocked that people have sex”

The Happy Valley actor stars in the BBC1 adaptation of DH Lawrence's 1928 tale of love and lust — and believes the story is a crucial lesson in human experience

People have sex.” says James Norton. “In 2015 we are no longer shocked by this, and we are no longer shocked that people in books also have sex.” You can’t fault his observation, but as Norton has discovered, you don’t get to star in Lady Chatterley’s Lover without fielding a media storm over the intensity, duration and specific detail of the on-screen sex.

Speculation is rife over whether there is too much, or not enough sex in the latest screen adaptation of D H Lawrence’s 1928 novel about an aristocratic woman’s affair with a game- keeper. The landmark obscenity trial in 1960, where the prosecution counsel famously questioned the book’s moral effect on British wives and servants, earned Constance Chatterley and her inventive lover a particular place in the hearts of the public.

Which makes Lawrence the ideal author to kick off BBC1’s all-star season of classic 20th-century literature. Adaptations of Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie, LP Hartley’s The Go-Between and JB Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls are also set to air this autumn, to focus on the ideas and events that shaped the last century.

In the case of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the world-shattering event is not the goings-on in the gamekeeper’s shed, but the Great War. Lawrence sets this out in the novel’s opening paragraph: “The cataclysm has happened, there is now no smooth road into the future.” 

For Norton (Happy Valley, Life in Squares, Grantchester) who plays Lady Chatterley’s less-celebrated husband Clifford, it was important to make the character more than a cipher for an officer-class made impotent. While Mellors the gamekeeper (Game of Thrones actor Richard Madden) has been tipped for this season’s “Poldark Prize” for pectoral excellence, Norton’s Clifford sets up a credible love triangle, with Constance (Holliday Grainger) torn between the husband she loves and the man she desires.

Jed Mercurio’s script insists as much on the sex Lady Chatterley isn’t having with her husband, as on the sex she is having with her lover. “Clifford goes off to war and receives this terrible injury that prevents him having sex. In the book, he’s quite stuffy and set up to be despised, but in our version his snobbery is qualified by his being a young man who is a victim. We establish him as a virile young soldier, but we also establish their relationship, which is tender and loving – he and Constance are very much in love. All of which makes his subsequent tragedy much more acute.

“Clifford suffers horribly from the fact that he’s unable to satisfy his wife. It’s alluded to in the book, but our story slightly pulls the curtains back on that. You see him in bed with Constance and he’s feeling totally emasculated, but there’s another sequence where Mellors tries just as hard to articulate his love for Constance – he’s stumbling through, talking about his ‘John Thomas’, and that’s also incredibly moving. All three characters are sympathetic. They’re just three young, relatively naive people, each of them trying to do the right thing.”

There is, suggests Norton, an added resonance for 21st-century viewers in the portrayal of a young soldier struggling with life-changing injuries. “You hear about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in a generalised way, but you don’t hear about the strain put on couples when a young man comes home from Afghanistan or Iraq either with PTSD or a serious injury. It was glossed over in Lawrence’s day and it’s pretty much glossed over now.”

Norton, who took a degree in theology from Cambridge University, is Messianic about the BBC literary season, and of literary adaptations in general. “I was very lucky to have parents and teachers who made reading exciting and accessible. When I was very young, it was Roald Dahl and Swallows and Amazons, and as a teenager I discovered the classics. Kids now are used to so much immediacy when it comes to entertainment, they’re used to short cuts… TV adaptations have a real role to play here. I’m not suggesting Lady Chatterley’s Lover as ideal children’s viewing, but if we make classic stories relevant, maybe that will encourage everyone to go back to the original text.

“We need stories like these to teach us how to live, and love, and all the rest. They’re part of the fabric of who we are.” 

Lady Chatterley’s Lover is on Sunday 6th September on BBC1 at 9pm