James Norton has passed his Bond audition with flying colours

James Norton as Happy Valley villain Tommy Lee Royce - PA
James Norton as Happy Valley villain Tommy Lee Royce - PA

With one bound the potential next James Bond was free. In the fourth episode of Happy Valley, James Norton’s villainous Tommy Lee Royce did two remarkable things. First, he rid himself of the mangy man-bun with which the character has been saddled during his incarceration for unspeakable crimes (just for the excess hair he deserved six months in solitary).

Secondly, he demonstrated action-movie chops in a daring escape from a high-security courthouse as he was about to go on trial. Followed, admittedly, by a not-so-daring dash into a newsagents where he hid in the backroom, behind a row of Toblerone, before slinking away disguised as a lycra-warrior cyclist.

The scene is over and done in less than five minutes. And, in the context of Happy Valley’s brooding ambience and ceiling-to-floor misery, it feels a bit cartoonish and overcooked. But along with the bound, the segment has triggered another b-word. Did this demonstration of action-hero prowess – followed by his superb performance in the finale – put 37 year-old Norton in the frame as the new James Bond?

More accurately, is he back in the frame? Norton, the hunky scion of a posh family (his grandfather was a colonial administrator in what was then Tangaikya), has been part of the 007 discourse for some time now. He's neck and neck, in the bookies’s estimation, with Bridgerton’s Regé-Jean Page. And trailing just behind favourites Aaron-Taylor Johnson and Henry Cavill.

Norton has always 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.”

James Norton preparing for his big break in Happy Valley
James Norton preparing for his big break in Happy Valley

Could Happy Valley, and his latest biff-pow antics, make him part of that conversation? His performance as rapist, murderer and supreme gas-lighter Tommy Lee Royce certainly demolishes the idea that Norton is just a broad pair of shoulders. Or that he lacks the dark charisma necessary to portray 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 played the bland, hunky son of an oligarch.

His personal history, too, suggested someone gliding through life in a fog of privilege. Norton's well-to-do family includes in its ranks not only MBEs and colonial officers but one Archdeacon, a member of the Royal Engineers and the offspring of a line of Irish landed gentry. Privately educated, he went on to Cambridge, where he was a big cheese in the Marlowe Society, followed by a stint in Rada. Behold our poshest potential Bond yet.

In Happy Valley, he has shown an entirely different skill set, however. Superficially matey, just under the surface Tommy is a relentless antagonist to Sarah Lancashire’s Sgt Catherine 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 monster rather than simply an icky bad-buy. That’s quite an achievement given the character’s penchant for torture and murder (and his manipulation this year of 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, he can stay hidden in the back of that newsagent. He has none of Craig’s chill or turbo-charged grumpiness.

But if the Broccolis are looking to go in 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 grump 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.

In real life, meanwhile, Norton displays a tremendous affability. He’s a jaunty presence on Twitter. Immediately after the prison break episode of Happy Valley, he was on social media thanking the director. And promising that “the next few episodes are insane!” 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. After a decade-plus of a brooding Bond, might his licence to charm be exactly what the franchise requires?

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