James Norton loved taking part in our fashion shoot. Clothes are a particular passion for the 29-year-old actor. His uncle is a tailor and Norton recently made a suit with him, which was a fascinating process, he says. “I had such fun choosing the lapel, the buttonholes. A good suit is timeless. When you put one on it does wonders for your confidence.” He used to run his own vintage stall in Bermondsey, London, before acting became a full-time job, using it as an excuse to buy any clothes that caught his eye. “Now I have masses of men’s vintage clothing in storage, surrounded by mothballs.”
Fashion’s loss is drama’s gain. Though Norton has appeared in films such as Belle and Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner, it’s his mesmerising turn as the psychopathic Tommy Lee Royce in the BBC’s hit serial Happy Valley that will haunt viewers for a long time to come. Norton has a peculiar keepsake from the show: “Tommy was a massive narcissist,” he says. “He’d beat someone up and then check his hair in the mirror. Anything he earned he invested in his wardrobe. I loved his clothes so much that I bought them at the end of shooting. Now I can’t bear to wear any of them, because I look in the mirror and there’s Tommy. I can’t walk down the street like that.”
Norton’s new role shouldn’t offer too much shopping temptation. He plays sleuthing vicar Sidney Chambers in Grantchester, the ITV adaptation of James Runcie’s bestselling murder mystery books, which is set in the 1950s. Superficially, Norton and Chambers have a shared interest in ecclesiastical matters. Norton went to Ampleforth College (“My family aren’t Catholic, but we lived 10 minutes away from the school.”) He became fascinated by theology and studied it at Cambridge, just as Chambers did.
The similarities end there. “Sidney is an alcoholic who has messy relationships with women, all of which is informed by his experience in the Second World War,” says Norton, cheerfully. “He’s depressed and self-loathing, but he does try to search for the best in people.”
Though “crime-solving 50s vicar” sounds like a certain sort of comfort TV, author Runcie (son of Robert Runcie, former Archbishop of Canterbury), has higher ambitions for Chambers and the Grantchester Mysteries series. The books will build to a set of six (two are published so far) which will form a social history from the 1950s to the 1980s. The crimes which unfold are whydunnits not whodunnits, and focus on society’s changing morals.
“Not only is each murder a crime of passion, based on prejudice, love or jealousy,” says Norton, “but a lot of them address issues – euthanasia, homosexuality, the death penalty. It’s about the period, not the murder.”
Norton already has interesting projects lined up post-Grantchester. As well as an upcoming Viking film – Northmen – he’s currently shooting a BBC drama about the Bloomsbury set, A Life in Squares. There’s also Hollywood to think about. “There’s a great wave of British talent out there at the moment. It would be stupid not to take advantage of that.” It’s unlikely those vintage men’s clothes from his market stall are going to come out of mothballs any time soon.
Grantchester starts 6 October at 9pm on ITV1