The name’s Royce. Tommy Lee Royce. The finale of Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley had viewers biting their knuckles with tension. But it also served as the ultimate audition tape for James Norton, whose devastating performance as psychopathic Tommy Lee Royce has put him in the frame as the potential next James Bond.
Norton can act – and has buckets of charm. This was obvious from Grantchester and McMafia, where he worked wonders with often below-par material. In Happy Valley, though, he has backed up that charisma with a searing intensity that surely marks him as a star in waiting.
That was never truer than in the final episode. Tommy’s nerve-shredding kitchen showdown with Sarah Lancashire’s Sgt Catherine Cawood transcended its Sunday night BBC One slot with an intensity that felt like it might burn a hole in the screen. Yet it was earlier in the episode where Norton confirmed that he has what it takes to take up the Bond baton from the exiting Daniel Craig.
Tommy was in a car, surrounded by heavies working for gangster Darius Knezevic. Darius was supposedly on Tommy’s side. But Norton’s character smelt a rat – and spotted a canister of petrol (perfect for burning a body). Having slipped a kitchen knife up his sleeve, he proceeded to take out the mobsters one sliced jugular at a time.
This was a Hollywood action scene on a BBC budget. And Norton sold it – even the potentially silly bit where he and Darius’s brother Zeljko tussled on the grass next to the crashed car. It was a display of stone-cold brutality (he finished Zeljko off with a rock). These are qualities that could prove crucial as Bond moves on from Daniel Craig’s brooding take on Ian Fleming’s super-spy.
Norton, the hunky scion of a posh family (his grandfather was a colonial administrator in what was then Tanganyika), has been part of the 007 discourse for some time. Leading up to the Happy Valley finale, he’d been neck and neck, in the bookies’s estimation, with Bridgerton’s Regé-Jean Page.
But much like Tommy legging it from the cratered remains of Zeljko, he has now outpaced his rivals. In the wake of the Happy Valley finale, his odds have been slashed. He’s now second favourite behind Henry Cavill – who is, admittedly, looking for a new gig having departed The Witcher and Superman franchises in the space of a few months.
He has long batted aside the question of whether he might one day slip into the most iconic slim-fit tuxedo in cinema. Asked whether he would be “up for” Bond, he recently replied with stonking tact. “It’s difficult to answer that question,” he told the Radio Times. “They are thinking about what direction they want to take and they haven’t called me to be part of that conversation.” (He reiterated this line in an interview published before the finale.)
He had little to add in a new interview with GQ published after the Happy Valley finale. Bond didn’t come up. However, Norton did speak about the challenge of fleshing out a character such as Royce, who could potentially have been just a two-dimensional monster.
“I recognise that there are absolutely despicable acts which he has committed along the way,” he said. “But along that journey, I have been with him for 10 years, I feel deeply sorry for him. I feel immense pity and empathy and I sort of really love him.”
It takes a particular talent to see the humanity in a villain such as Royce. And it’s easy to imagine Norton slipping under the skin of Britain’s favourite secret agent and bringing out something new. Just imagine – a conflicted womaniser, a steely killer with a soft side. How invaluable that could be as the Bond franchise tries to update its starchy action hero for the 21st century.
Happy Valley also demolishes the idea that Norton lacks the dark magnetism essential for an actor portraying Bond. That was the charge against him when he was the star of Grantchester, in which he played a bland, hunky vicar. And in McMafia, in which he was the bland, hunky son of an oligarch who also happened to look good in a tuxedo.
He was born in 1985 in Lambeth, to teachers Lavinia Norman and Hugh Norton in Lambeth. Norton boarded at Ampleforth, a Catholic school run by monks. “I had a complicated time at school,” he recently told Virgin Atlantic’s Vera magazine. “It wasn’t helped by the fact I was bullied. But I owe that school a lot. I loved theatre, I made some good friends”.
He went from there to Cambridge, where he gained a first-class honours degree in Theology. He also joined the Marlowe Society theatre group. In 2007, he portrayed Posthumus in a production of Cymbeline directed by Trevor Nunn in celebration of the society’s 100th birthday. Norton gained admission to Rada, leaving six months before graduation as he began to pick up theatre work, starting with Posh at the Royal Court Theatre. Small TV parts, including one in Doctor Who, led to Happy Valley in 2014.
Norton has credited the Sally Wainwright thriller with taking his career to the next level (“I owe Happy Valley everything,” he recently said.. It has certainly been the perfect showcase. Superficially matey, just under the surface Tommy is a relentless antagonist to Sarah Lancashire’s Sgt Cawood.
He's a predator and a deviant but one fuelled by a combination of psychosis and twinkling charm. Season by season Norton has built up Tommy into a fascinating contradiction rather than simply an icky bad boy. That’s quite an achievement given the character’s penchant for torture and murder (and his manipulation this year of his naive son, Ryan).
Norton’s chances of becoming Bond hinge on what its custodians, the Broccoli dynasty, are looking for. If it’s another Daniel Craig, Norton can go back to working on that man bun he cultivated when Tommy was in prison. He has none of Craig’s chill or grumpiness.
But if the Broccolis are eager to go another direction, then Norton might be just what they need. On-screen and off, he’s the anti-Daniel Craig. The most recent 007 was a curmudgeon with a cuddly centre. He grouched his way through his career as Bond only to then demonstrate hidden comic talents as Benoit Blanc in Knives Out. Norton’s Tommy is the opposite: outwardly likeable but underneath as cold as a knife in the back. In that way, he perhaps harks back to Sean Connery’s original Bond – a brutal charmer who killed without conscience.
The real question is whether Norton is actually too famous for Bond. All the way back to Connery, the franchise has chosen actors on their way to the big time. Norton is already all over the front pages, and is just about to star in a West End production of Hanya Yanagihara’s gruelling novel A Little Life ("one of the most terrifying things I've taken on") and as Island records founder Chris Blackwell in a biopic of Bob Marley.
The Broccolis would have to forgo the brownie points that come with plucking an actor from obscurity and remaking them in the image of Bond – as they did with Craig. The case could even be made that they need Norton more than he needs Bond.
Still, if they had any sense they would at least sound him out. One unique quality he brings is affability. He’s a jaunty presence on Twitter. A few weeks ago, he promised his followers that “the next few [Happy Valley] episodes are insane”. Then, immediately after the finale of the show, he was on social media tweeting a snap of himself and Sarah Lancashire.
Never in a million years would Daniel Craig go on Twitter to share his enthusiasm with fans or chuck exclamation marks about like confetti. Norton thinks nothing of it – and that would surely make him a good fit as 007 tries to win over generation TikTok. After a decade-plus of a brooding Bond, might his licence to charm be exactly what the franchise requires?