Over the summer, James Norton found himself filming scenes for a forthcoming movie by a lake in a remote part of northern Canada. Out of the corner of his eye, he spied a boat being rowed across the water. The boat stopped abruptly as it got close to him. The woman at the helm pointed at him and said, semi-accusingly, “You’re the vicar!”
It was, Norton admits, slightly surreal to be recognised on the other side of the world for his part in Grantchester, the hit ITV 1950s detective series in which he plays crime-solving Anglican vicar Sidney Chambers. It’s a mark of just how popular Norton has become, with Grantchester regularly attracting six million viewers in the UK and also airing on PBS in the States. Now it’s returning for a one-off Christmas special that, Norton promises, will feature “bad jumpers and church services, snow and an impending birth… it’s perfect for Christmas.”
Today, we are meeting on set in the distinctly unglamorous location of Whipsnade Zoo car park. Norton, 31, has just come into the canteen bus from filming a scene in which Sidney engages in “this really great big epic theological discussion” with his archdeacon. He’s still wearing his full vicar’s regalia: starched shirt and a dog collar that looks slightly too small for his neck. “Yeah, it’s actually really uncomfortable,” Norton says, struggling to unbutton it. I stare. “You’re fascinated by the clothes, aren’t you?”
I am. I can’t help it. It’s not often you see such a handsome man in clerical robes. Norton has an easy, engaging manner and a foppish charm. When he smiles, his eyes crinkle in an altogether pleasing fashion. He has long dimples on either side of his mouth. His jaw is so square it could fit through a letterbox. The last time a clergyman was this good-looking, it was Richard Chamberlain in The Thorn Birds.
Unsurprisingly, rumours have been swirling that he might be the new James Bond. So… is he? “I have as much clue as you,” he says. “I hope Daniel [Craig] has at least two more films left. It’s very bizarre and flattering to be involved in that conversation.” One of the other rumoured frontrunners for the role was Tom Hiddleston, who recently had a much-publicised three-month fling with American pop star Taylor Swift. I try a different tack: does Norton have any imminent plans to date Taylor Swift? “No,” he laughs. “I’ve never met Taylor Swift. Why – has she asked me for a date?”
Like 007, Norton has good looks, a posh accent and a top-notch education behind him (Ampleforth, Cambridge and then a stint at Rada). Yet he is an extraordinarily versatile actor who has made a successful career out of conspicuously not being typecast. This year alone, he has gone from playing the dashing Prince Andrei in the BBC’s glossy adaptation of War and Peace to the murderer Tommy Lee Royce in Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley. He adopted an American accent to film Flatliners in Canada over the summer, a modern-day sequel to the 1990 classic.
He’s been so busy, he hadn’t been to the dentist in five years. He went recently and came back with a new filling, which he isn’t happy about. “Suddenly I’m getting all these aches and pains,” he grumbles. “I’ve had to have physio on my shoulder… I haven’t had a holiday for ages.” And he’s not slowing down next year — he’ll hit the big screen in Hampstead and Flatliners, will be filming BBC crime drama McMafia, and there’ll be another series of Grantchester. Is he worried he’ll burn out? “No, I still love acting. I still get the buzz. You do get the odd moment at the end of a long week and you feel, ‘What am I doing?’ but those are eclipsed by the 99 moments of what it is to be doing what I love. I think also that one of the reasons people work and work is they’re afraid [jobs are] suddenly going to disappear. It can be very fickle.”
Norton has always been a worrier – even as a child, growing up in a loving family in north Yorkshire, he remembers inexplicable bouts of anxiety and guilt. Acting was his release: “I did it from an early age – putting on plays and inventing stories. I was the annoying, precocious boy who made all his friends be in his productions.” Although he was educated by Benedictine monks at Ampleforth and read theology at Cambridge, Norton is not himself a believer. But because he plays a vicar in Grantchester, he gets people coming up to him and saying things like, “‘Of course, as you know it says in Paul IV’ – and I don’t have a clue!”
Norton’s family find his fame surreal. His parents, Lavinia and Hugh, are both teachers. His younger sister, Jessica, is a doctor. “They find it very weird because they’ve known me since I was a spotty little kid,” he says. “Family is really important to me. It’s a great leveller.” They follow his career avidly. His 93-year-old grandmother, Jean, a former Second World War Wren, sometimes visits him on set, and his mother was so involved in Happy Valley that she used to get up and shout at the screen at Norton’s character, Tommy Lee Royce. “She’d ring up and say, ‘I didn’t like it when he did this. No, no, no! Just tell the producers we don’t want that.’”
Norton will be with his parents and sister at Christmas. He lives on his own in a flat in south-east London, and is looking forward to returning to the Yorkshire countryside. “We do have quite a set timetable,” he says. “We still do stockings… Then we have a big breakfast, a long walk, then a big meal that stretches into the evening.” What would he like for Christmas? He gives this question some serious contemplation. “I do love a nice salad bowl.” This might be the most middle-class answer I’ve ever heard. “Because I don’t have time to buy it myself!” he protests.
These days, Norton says he’s grown out of his childhood anxiety. But he still has a Sidney-like angst about the state of the world. In the aftermath of the vote to leave the EU in June, Norton tweeted a link to the petition for a second referendum and was astonished by the level of resulting vitriol. “It was a real eye-opener for me,” he admits. “Actually, I regretted it because I was ignoring the idea that the majority of the country wanted this change.”
It’ll be a welcome relief to get away from it all this Christmas. Especially if someone gives him that much longed-for salad bowl.