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Lead­ing man of the mo­ment James Nor­ton on his new show McMafia and boss­ing big win­ter coats

How to stay warm and look cool at the same time?

Al­low TV’s most dash­ing lead­ing man, James Nor­ton, to demon­strate

be­fore james nor­ton was Sid­ney Cham­bers, the kind vicar with the aunt­melt­ing eyes in ITV de­tec­tive se­ries Grantch­ester. Be­fore he was Tommy Lee Royce, the rap­ing, mur­der­ing, rep­til­ian psy­chopath in BBC crime drama Happy Val­ley. Be­fore he breathed the rar­efied air of Prince An­drei Niko­layevich Bolkon­sky in the same cor­po­ra­tion’s adap­ta­tion of War and Peace, and was made a bookie’s favourite for Bond. Be­fore all that, James Nor­ton was a chil­dren’s party en­ter­tainer.

“It’s true,” says the Lon­don-born North Yorkshire-raised ac­tor, while po­litely de­vour­ing a cheese­burger (poker the night be­fore, whisky was in­volved…) at the back of a low-slung mem­bers’ club one driz­zly Soho af­ter­noon.

“I ran kids’ par­ties, cy­cling around Lon­don on Satur­day morn­ings with hor­ri­ble hang­overs, tak­ing 50 chil­dren for a birth­day party with a ruck­sack full of Haribo. I re­mem­ber think­ing, ‘What the fuck am I do­ing?’”

Since those ex­is­ten­tial morn­ings on the bike, the 32-year-old has gone from hand­some Sun­day night up­start to the heir ap­par­ent to the crown of Bri­tish act­ing’s Next Big Thing, mix­ing im­pec­ca­ble cre­den­tials — Cam­bridge and Rada — with an abil­ity to master roles as

di­verse as cler­gy­man, crim­i­nal and Tol­stoy roy­alty. Next though, an­other big bud­get se­ries: McMafia.

“It’s about a man who’s tempted into the mafia un­der­world against his wishes; a clas­sic Cor­leone-type story,” Nor­ton says of his role as Alex God­man, a Rus­sian-born English-raised fi­nancier grap­pling with the pull of his fa­ther’s murky nine-to-five. “You’re never quite sure how much he’s en­joy­ing it and how much he’s se­duced by it.”

Based on the 2008 non-fic­tion book McMafia: A Jour­ney Through the Global Crim­i­nal Un­der­world by Misha Glenny, the eight-part co-pro­duc­tion by the BBC and Amer­ica’s AMC (Ama­zon has bought the stream­ing rights) is gritty in story and global in scope, with lo­ca­tions in Lon­don, Bel­grade, Cairo and Tel Aviv. It re­quired Nor­ton to learn Rus­sian pho­net­i­cally but, as his other roles have proved, the easy op­tion isn’t re­ally his thing.

“The chal­lenge with roles like [in] Happy Val­ley are the phys­i­cal­ity and the mind­set,” he says. “Tommy’s a clin­i­cal psy­chopath, so how do you em­pathise with that? Alex sounds and looks sim­i­lar to me, so the chal­lenge comes more in un­der­stand­ing his jour­ney and choices, and it’s that moral grey area that I think makes the show so in­ter­est­ing.”

With an­other po­ten­tial hit se­ries soon to be re­leased, is it all start­ing to feel a bit real? Does Nor­ton feel, well, big time?

“This job is so fickle,” he says, apol­o­gis­ing for a mouth­ful of burger. “If this or that role doesn’t come in and you’ve at­tached your en­tire sense of self to your job, which I know some ac­tors do, then — please ex­cuse my lan­guage — you’re fucked. It could all van­ish to­mor­row and then what? You’ve got noth­ing to re­fer back to.”

“I’m lucky, ev­ery time I call home my mum says, ‘Keep your feet on the ground, James.’ I’ll go back to Yorkshire and walk the dog. Don’t get me wrong. I love the glamour and fluff of the job, but I’m not Tom Cruise,” he says. “I like liv­ing in Peck­ham, cy­cling every­where and drink­ing at my lo­cal.”

A po­ten­tial dis­rup­tion to the very un-Cruise life of Nor­ton oc­curred dur­ing the sum­mer of 2016, when, seem­ingly out of nowhere, he was linked to that holy grail role of James Bond, ru­mours he claims are “to­tally un­founded”.

“It’s lovely to be in that con­ver­sa­tion but it’s not true,” he adds. “It’s the only time I’ve had pa­parazzi chase me down the street and camp out­side my flat. Some­one even took a photo of me cy­cling out­side my house. The Daily Mail pub­lished a story that was lit­er­ally ‘James Nor­ton Cy­cles… Some­where.’ They didn’t even know where I was go­ing! Hi­lar­i­ous!”

As we talk about the year ahead, a tele­vi­sion pro­ducer on a neigh­bour­ing ta­ble be­rates a wait­ress for a mud­dled risotto or­der. Nor­ton pauses, em­ploy­ing all his clas­si­cal train­ing in or­der to keep a straight face at the farce erupt­ing around us.

“I’d love to de­velop my own work and carry on do­ing plays,” he says. “Plus, who knows what will hap­pen with McMafia? I do know they want to do a third sea­son of Happy Val­ley, which is some­thing I’d love to be a part of. Hope­fully, the right work will have come and it’ll make sense. Or maybe it won’t, and I’ll be back to do­ing the chil­dren’s par­ties…” Par­ents of Lon­don: keep your fin­gers crossed.

Fin­lay Ren­wick

McMafia starts in Jan­uary on BBC1

Esquire Boss Grey wool dou­ble­breasted coat, £650; light grey chunky ca­ble-knit jumper, £500, both by Boss. Black ac­etate glasses, £80, by Car­rera

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