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James Norton criticises PM’s maths plan: We need to keep nurturing the arts

Actor James Norton has criticised the Prime Minister’s plan for all pupils in England to study some form of maths until the age of 18, saying “we need to keep nurturing the arts”.

In January, Rishi Sunak announced his mission to combat high rates of innumeracy as he pledged to make it a central objective of the UK education system.

Norton, who starred as notorious villain Tommy Lee Royce in the hit BBC One drama Happy Valley, has criticised the policy, arguing that children should be allowed to pursue subjects which are not vocational.

Asked how the arts could be made more accessible for children across the country, Norton told The News Agents podcast: “Well, first thing you do is you don’t follow Rishi Sunak’s advice and make everyone take maths through to A-level.

“You nurture arts and humanities all the way through school and allow kids to take on courses which aren’t necessarily as practical and vocational.

“And so the most important thing is school, I guess, making sure that they are supported and there’s outreach programmes from centres of excellence in London and then in other big cities, and they get out to those schools, and they introduce kids to theatre at an early age and so there’s an awareness.”

The actor, 37, then spoke about growing up in North Yorkshire and participating in youth theatre performances.

“Every summer holidays I did a youth theatre, it was called Live Wire and it was great,” he added.

“I went to Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough for work experience one summer. So there was stuff there, it was just about finding it and making sure kids know it’s there.”

Reflecting on the UK’s arts legacy, he added: “Also this country’s got such a cultural heritage and to waste that… Talk about us standing on the world stage right now.

“I mean, the way shows like Happy Valley travel over to America, it’s amazing. I feel so proud when I go over there and random people come up to me on the street and talk to me about Hebden Bridge…

“They watch it with subtitles on, but they love it. And it’s an amazing advert for this country. So, I think we need to keep nurturing the arts.”

The actor also revealed that no Happy Valley cast or crew members other than himself and Sarah Lancashire were aware of the dramatic ending which saw Tommy come face-to-face with his nemesis Sergeant Catherine Cawood before dousing himself in petrol and setting himself alight at her kitchen table.

“You have good directors and good sets, well-run sets, which create the kind of theatre atmosphere, and the centre of this crazy hive of activity is the space in which you act,” Norton said.

“All the lights and the cameras and costumes and make-up, all of it’s exhibited, all the people’s work exhibited from that little space.

“And sometimes it’s completely chaotic or there’s noise and chaos around you.

“And occasionally, it’s this sacred space where you go and it’s quiet like a library or it’s this sort of church.

“And this day, it was mad because most people, I think everyone, had watched the show, the first two series, everyone knew this day was very special.

“No-one knew what was going to happen because they only gave the scripts to Sarah and myself and the producers who needed to know, so everyone was really excited to see what happened.”

Since 2014, the series has followed Catherine as she grieves for her daughter, Becky, while raising her grandson Ryan, played by Rhys Connah, and is pursued by Ryan’s father, murderer and sex offender Tommy.

The final episode saw the eventual death of Tommy as Catherine set off to live out her retirement dream of touring the Himalayas in a Land Rover.

The show’s creator Sally Wainwright previously told Newsnight that the final episode was “all thanks to Sarah (Lancashire)” after she expressed she was unhappy with Wainwright’s initial ending.

She said: “I wrote the first draft (for the last episode) and everybody seemed quite happy with it and then she made it clear that she wasn’t happy with it and (during Christmas 2021)… she came up to my house and she spent all day talking about it and she gave me some really good notes.

“So everything got pushed a bit further in that episode and it was all thanks to Sarah.”

She added that she knew it would be “satisfying” and “it was a no brainer to end on an optimistic note” for Catherine as she is a force for “good”.

Both series one and two of Happy Valley won Baftas for best drama series and writing.

According to the BBC’s overnight figures, the last 70-minute episode drew in an average audience of 7.5 million viewers.