7 Questions with… James Norton: ‘I would love to have seen Stephen Ward now. He would have ripped up every social engagement’

The Happy Valley actor plays society osteopath Stephen Ward in The Trial of Christine Keeler, a brand new drama coming to BBC One exploring the infamous Profumo affair of the 1960s.

By Sophia Moir Published: 29 January 2020 - 4.58pm
Drama

BBC

The Trial of Christine Keeler

It’s set to be the must-watch drama on the BBC this Christmas.

And Happy Valley actor James Norton, 34, is just one of the impressive British cast members set to appear in The Trial of Christine Keeler, alongside Ben Miles, Emilia Fox, Ellie Bamber and Sophie Cookson as Keeler.

Norton plays controversial society osteopath Stephen Ward, who was entangled in the scandalous Profumo Affair in 1963 as part of the inner circle. Ward later died of an overdose of sleeping pills during the trial into his private affairs.

Sex, politics, and the swinging sixties, this highly-anticipated drama series will go behind the headlines to tell the human stories beneath the very public political scandal. 

Speaking to BT.com at the launch of the series, Norton reveals the challenges of the role, how Ward’s behaviour would be construed now in light of the #MeToo movement, and what people will learn about the controversial figure from the show.

7 Questions with... James Norton

James Norton, left, as Stephen Ward in The Trial of Christine Keeler - and Ward, right, in 1963

1. Did you have to do a lot of historical research for your role?

The writers provided us with a lot. We had a huge pack [of notes], and then there were many books that were specific about each character. It’s also recent enough to have video recordings, so that was really interesting to find, without being too mimicking [as an actor], it was good to find the sounds and tempos.

2. Is it scary playing real people? There’s so much already out there about these characters and viewers might have a perception about them before they watch the series...

Yeah, I’ve done it a few times and I actually quite like it. There’s an added responsibility, you always have a responsibility to the writers and the producers and the people who have conceived the piece, but then you have this added responsibility to do it for the person you’re portraying.

You have to honour them to a point and capture them and their soul, but also not mimic them. It’s about finding your version of them, or a way to express that person. But I like the challenge.

3. What did you find most challenging about your role?

For me, it was not falling too heavily in love with Stephen, because he’s such an enigmatic, charismatic and peculiar man, and it was fascinating doing the research and reading various people’s accounts. He was obviously very likeable, and that comes across in all the literature, but the challenge was to counter that with the responsibilities he had to people. 

He has a lot to answer for, so it was constantly about reminding ourselves that he was far from excused. We needed to explore his likeability and charisma, but also the fact he groomed women from a very early age, largely for his own profit, so that was challenging.

Norton with Sophie Cookson, who plays Christine in The Trial of Christine Keeler

4. The Profumo affair was featured in The Crown in relation to Prince Philip's connections with Ward. Is the Duke of Edinburgh mentioned in this series at all?

There’s one scene in the gallery where someone comes from somewhere in the community of that [royal] world and takes some of Stephen’s artwork down, which is totally true, but that’s as far as we go. It could have been anyone [but we assume it was the palace].

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5. Are there any things that people won’t know about the Profumo affair that they’ll find out in this series?

It’s all about seeing it through a different filter. It’s now from Christine [Keeler] and Mandy [Rice-Davies]’s point of view. And from my point of view, Stephen was written off in the trial as this seedy man who was obsessed with orgies and sex, but actually we’ve further progressed now, we’re having conversations about openness and progressiveness and inclusiveness, and now we can look at Stephen’s sexual tastes in a different way. All these different filters shift the story. 

Ellie Bamber, left, plays Mandy Rice-Davies alongside Norton and Cookson in The Trial of Christine Keeler

I would love to have seen Stephen Ward now. He would dress like a Grayson Perry and ripped up every social engagement, and people would have loved him for it. Hopefully he would have stopped the whole grooming thing a long time ago, but as far as the way he expressed himself, he was completely oppressed. 

6. What themes from the show are still relevant today?

[In regards to the theme of abuse of power], Stephen’s is a nuanced journey, and in his world he thought that he was enabling these women and giving them an opportunity. He called them alley cats, and he would go and find these young women, sometimes prostitutes, sometimes not, and he would give them a life. 

Of course, the truth was that he was using them to decorate his parties. In light of #MeToo, and the world we’re living in now, it’s not an excuse at all, but it’s complicated. 

Mandy Rice-Davies, left, and Christine Keeler, right, after attending Stephen Ward's trial in 1963

The other important theme is media, and trial by media. We see these kids [now] on these reality TV shows, and there’s this huge media storm around them as they’re thrust into this life that they didn’t necessarily want, which can cause extreme distress and damage. So the fact that this story was probably the first of its time, and nothing’s really changed.

7. Lastly, Happy Valley season 3 has been confirmed, but it hasn’t been revealed whether you’ll be returning. Have you had any conversations with Sally Wainwright about that?

Not since probably three years ago, but I know that her plan and her intention is to have three [series], so I’m hoping... but I haven’t had the call yet. I think we’re waiting for the kid to get a bit older.

The Trial of Christine Keeler premieres Sunday, December 29 at 9pm on BBC One.