James Norton's transformation from hero vicar to TV's biggest villain

Happy Valley: James Norton’s transformation from Grantchester’s hero vicar and War & Peace heartthrob to TV’s biggest villain

When he made his debut as troubled Tommy Lee Royce in Happy Valley back in 2014, James Norton joked ‘eight million people are currently wishing me dead’. 

The actor, 37, is unrecognisable as the chilling serial rapist and murderer – a far cry from his lead roles as the loveable crime solving vicar Sidney Chambers in Grantchester and handsome Prince Andrei Bolkonsky in War & Peace. 

Having returned again for series three, Tommy is as menacing as ever, locked up in a Category A prison in Sheffield and set to appear in court over a gangland murder.

Here, we take a look into James’ transformation into TV’s biggest villain – and how the role is worlds away from his previous acting credentials and Cambridge education.



James Norton is unrecognisable as Tommy Lee Royce in Happy Valley – a far cry from his lead roles as the loveable vicar in Grantchester and handsome Prince in War & Peace 

Private schoolboy and Cambridge education 

James previously spoke about how producers and writer Sally Wainwright took a massive gamble casting him as Tommy – a character completely at odds with his privileged upbringing. 

His parents, both lecturers, sent him to £32,000-a-year Ampleforth College where he boarded from the age of 11. 

He got the acting bug playing singer Gwen Stefani in a school miming competition. ‘I was terrified and just stood there tapping my foot, but then everyone began cheering and I started enjoying it,’ he previously told the Mail. 


Risk: James previously spoke about how producers and writer Sally Wainwright took a massive gamble casting him as Tommy Lee Royce – a character completely at odds with his upbringing

James studied theology at Cambridge, but continued acting and after his degree he won a place at RADA, graduating in 2010. The previous year he’d landed his first film role in the Carey Mulligan movie An Education.

Tommy, meanwhile, grew up with his mother, a heroine addict, in poverty in Yorkshire. His father hasn’t been identified. During his stint in prison, he was told his mother had been murdered in brutal circumstances. 

Do-no-wrong vicar in Grantchester 


World’s apart: James gave an acclaimed performance as the crime-fighting 1950s vicar Sidney in ITV’s Grantchester in 2014, building on the success of the first series of Happy Valley (R) 

James gave an acclaimed performance as the crime-fighting 1950s vicar Sidney Chambers in ITV’s Grantchester in 2014, building on the success of the first series of Happy Valley which had ended a couple of months earlier.

Talking about playing two characters worlds apart, the TV star previously told The Mail: ‘It was lovely that it happened at the same time as Grantchester – they were like two sides of a coin. 

‘Producers don’t often cast against type, but it was wonderful that they did with me and Happy Valley. I think it’s ridiculous actually, actors are meant to be able to transform. 

Hit: Late last year, the actor spoke about being replaced by Tom Brittney on Grantchester, admitting his dismay at having to leave the show

‘We want to take on an accent or a hairstyle or a dog collar. The most exciting thing about playing Tommy is the opportunity to show people I can play against type. I want to do more diverse roles.’ 

Late last year, the actor spoke about being replaced by Tom Brittney on Grantchester, admitting his dismay at having to leave the show.

He had appeared on the show since it began in 2014 but made his final appearance in 2019, when he was replaced by Tom, 32, who took over as the new lead, Reverend Will Davenport.

Speaking about his exit from the show, James admitted his heart ‘slightly ached’ over the decision to replace him as he gushed over his time working on Grantchester. 

War & Peace heartthrob 

Charmer: When viewers tuned into the adaptation of War & Peace, they only had eyes for James’ character – the brooding Prince Andrei (pictured with Lily James) 

When viewers tuned into the adaptation of War & Peace, they only had eyes for James’ character – the brooding Prince Andrei.

The royal was dubbed the Russian Mr Darcy by Andrew Davies, the writer of the series based on Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel and also of the Colin Firth starring Pride and Prejudice.

Davies said that while there is no moment equivalent to Firth’s wet shirt scene, Norton ‘is just as lovely with everything on’. 

Convict Tommy Lee Royce: Happy Valley 


Locked up: James (L)  had to completely transform his clean cut look to portray a rugged Tommy (R), having spent years whittling away his time behind bars

James had to completely transform his clean cut look to portray a rugged Tommy, having spent years whittling away his time behind bars. 

When series three returned, the character had a huge gash across his head – which Catherine Cawood’s boss revealed had been the result of an attempted murder from inside the Category A prison. 

Tommy, who in previous seasons had a shaved head, had grown out his hair and had a long unruly beard. 

Drama: The series follows Tommy’s son Ryan, now 16, visit him in prison as the murderer faces an upcoming court appearance for a gangland murder

The series follows Tommy’s son Ryan, now 16, visit him in prison as the murderer faces an upcoming court appearance for a gangland murder. 

And the actor recently revealed the toll it took on his mental health to play a character so ‘beyond the pale’ as Catherine Cawood would put it. 

 James said he had ‘weird dreams about violence’ but admits he didn’t let himself sink too deeply into the sadistic character.

Speaking to The Times, the actor revealed while playing the antagonist of BBC’s Happy Valley, storylines would get ‘inevitably uncomfortable’.

‘But not everybody goes off set to their trailer to cry,’ he continued. ‘I love my job, but, ultimately, acting is pretending.’

Bond rumours 

The next Bond? James fuelled long-standing rumours that he will be the next James Bond when he donned a tuxedo for the first scene in the BBC drama McMafia

James fuelled long-standing rumours that he will be the next James Bond when he donned a tuxedo for the first scene in the BBC drama McMafia, with bookies even suspending odds on him at one point. 

He said previously on This Morning: ‘In the first scene (of McMafia), I’m in a tux getting out of a black cab, so everyone assumes this is my… they call it the ‘Bond audition’.

‘Obviously that is not the case, this is just a show.’

He added: ‘It’s very flattering, it’s bizarre and a massive compliment, but it is pure speculation.’

Happy Valley continues on Sunday on BBC1 at 9pm.  

One to watch: Happy Valley continues on Sunday on BBC1 at 9pm

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