Playing John Thornton by Richard Armitage

North and South : Playing John Thornton

John Thornton was Richard Armitage’s biggest role to date, and it was to have a significant effect on his career.


“I just couldn’t get this part out of my head and I kept reading the book. I tortured myself with thinking I hadn’t got the part.”

Given the power and conviction with which he played the role, it seems, in hindsight, as if Richard Armitage was the obvious choice to play John Thornton. But in fact, the casting process for Thornton was a long one.

Richard Armitage was one of the first people who was seen for the role.

“I read the book before I went in to be cast. I got through it as quickly as I could. I felt that I owed it to the role to know as much about it before I attempted to try and convince someone to cast me as Thornton.”

“Within the first pages, I thought, ‘I’m right for this person and for this role’. My roots are in that part of the country and that kind of industry. My grandmother was a weaver. Others were coal miners. I know the landscape. And I knew the John Thornton type.”

But it was six weeks before he was called back to read for the part again. By this time, Daniela Denby-Ashe had been cast as Margaret Hale, and he was asked to read with her. “Something great happened when I read with Daniela. Something clicked.”

The producer, Kate Bartlett, said, “We did read with a lot of actors and put a lot of combinations of Margarets and Thorntons together until finally we came up with the mix of Richard and Daniela, which I think was perfect.”

Daniela Denby-Ashe said, “As soon as I saw Richard, I knew he was Thornton. Just in the way he holds himself, he has a real presence.”

“When I was cast in the role of Thornton my initial reaction was shock. It had been a long casting process and I realised it was the role of a lifetime. But then, of course, I was incredibly honoured to have been asked to play it – I’d fallen in love with the novel. And then other emotions kick in, like fear. It was a huge mountain to climb and there’s a lot of expectation for that role as well; it’s a big favourite of many people.”


As usual, Richard Armitage’s research for the role was meticulous.

“Obviously I started with the novel and the novel was around all the time and there’s a great deal of rich, historical information in the novel. But I felt it was important to understand the industry millthat Thornton is in, so I researched the cotton industry and I went to the various places in England where there are working museums, one of which turned out to be one of the locations, which was brilliant.

“I also read. I think Engels has written a book which was based around the working classes in the 1850s which is incredibly detailed about the poverty – so I looked at that for a start. And then I read around the etiquette of the 1850s as well. Although the Thorntons don’t necessarily abide by those rules, I felt it was important to know as much about the period as possible.”

Given that the novel deals with the beginnings of unionisation, he also researched the history of the early socialists. “I studied the union movement. It was very important. What we take for granted now was just being born then.”

But above all, there was Gaskell’s novel. “Primarily it’s the novel that is the point of reference.”

The character of John Thornton

“[Elizabeth Gaskell], for me, is probably the most exciting of the Victorian novelists. Unlike others, she manages to get inside the male mind. The male is usually only a fantasy figure. The idea that this male mind was written by a female writer was brilliant.” [13]

richard-armitage-thornton12“He is courageous. He has suffered great tragedy in his life and kept his family together. He has this reputation that precedes him, based on his ruthlessness with his workers, and I think that’s quite an exciting dynamic to start with.

richard-armitage-thornton13“But during the course of the story his layers get peeled back and he reveals somebody else inside who is actually quite sensitive and lonely. He needs a lot and he finds it through Margaret.

“That dichotomy between the powerful, almost monstrous, entrepreneur and this kind of vulnerable boy is really exciting to look at.” [12]

“During the course of the story, he is faced with exactly the same prospect [as his father] — of losing everything again. But it’s a catharsis for him. He realizes the only thing that matters is his family, his relationship with his mother and his love for Margaret, which he believes will never happen.

“He goes from being a somewhat tyrannical entrepreneur who is money-grubbing to someone who is prepared to shed all of that for love. It’s an amazing scene for a man of that time. It’s not about Victorian manners. It’s very now.” [13]

The character of Thornton has been compared with that of Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy. Richard Armitage saw some similarities, but also differences. “With Thornton, he’s fighting for survival. He’s clinging onto his empire, so there’s a bit more desperation. There is a real survival instinct with his aggression.”

margaretThornton’s relationship with Margaret is at the heart of the novel and the drama.

“[Margaret’s] breeding and her mental attitude are at odds with her actual financial means, while John doesn’t have the intellectual means but has the financial means. Each has something the other wants.

“I also think part of the attraction has to do with the antagonism of their relationship. She challenges him. No one has ever done that to him apart from his mother, and he and his mother have a strong working relationship.

“Most of the women presented to him are silent and very conformist, but Margaret is different. There’s a very fine element of his mother he sees in her. It’s not necessarily an attraction but something he thrives on.” [13]

beatingBut writer Sandy Welch saw a problem with the way their relationship was written in the novel. She said, “The only problem dramatically is that all the prejudice comes from Margaret’s side. Mr. Thornton likes her almost from the start. One of the only liberties I’ve taken is to even that up a bit. When she first sees Mr. Thornton, it will be inside his cotton mill, where he appears in quite a brutal and dangerous light.”

She was referring to the scene in which Thornton is seen beating and kicking a worker he has caught smoking in his mill. This scene was not in the novel, and its inclusion in the adaptation was controversial.

“That was an addition to the book as we needed an instant impact. When you understand why he’s done it, you’re torn between hating him and wanting them [Thornton and Margaret] to get together,” said Richard Armitage.

One of the adjectives often used about his portrayal of Thornton is ‘smouldering’. He joked about this when asked what the secret of a good smoulder was. “A pint of petrol and a match. Seriously, you look at the person, think of them in the most desirable way you can and then suppress the desire to do anything about it. There are many ways to smoulder. You can smoulder with your back.”


Filming North and South

Filming took place over a period of twelve weeks from April to July 2004.

“The first day of the read through, walking into the room and seeing Sinead and Tim and Lesley, I did have to talk myself into a state of confidence but it was brilliant to work with all those people.”

But producer Kate Bartlett said, “He certainly very quickly inhabited the character of Thornton. It was quite amazing to see the transformation of Richard from rehearsal stage to getting his costume on and really becoming Thornton.”

dalton-mills-1Director Brian Percival pinpointed a pivotal moment. “I think the moment that it all completely fell together was when he arrived at the mill and it was his mill. He was Thornton.”

Richard Armitage agreed. Speaking about the effect of the locations on him as an actor, he said, “The locations are really important. Every time we arrived on set in the morning, most of us were floored with what we saw because [the design team] had created this amazing world. We shot in Edinburgh to start off with, with this amazing grand architecture. But a really important moment for me was when we arrived in Keighley, which was about three weeks into filming, and I finally saw the mill. This is his empire and it had a profound effect on me which I wasn’t actually aware of at the time, but I grew about two inches, I think. So that was a very important moment for me and proof that the location has an enormous effect on the character.”

But locations are not the only thing that can help the actor.

costume“The costumes are really, really important. Mike [O’Neill, Costume] and his team did an amazing job, as did Alison [David, Makeup and Hair] who worked with the hair and the basic look of the characters. When you get into costume before the day starts, if they feel like costumes then the creation of your character for that day is marred in some way, so the details were really important. My costumes were quite heavy fabrics and there were flaws – there was a big patch on the knee which was darned – and so that gives your costume a biography, as it were. The stiff, starched collars and cravat – it’s a very useful tool which can then be deconstructed. I think there’s a scene where the cravat came off at a necessary moment. And things like the pocket watch which was quite an old, beautiful piece of jewellery – I decided that it belonged to Thornton’s father so that he was wearing something of his father all the time. In that respect, your costume becomes clothing rather than costume, so it’s really, really important.”

margaret2He clearly enjoyed working with Daniela Denby-Ashe. “It wasn’t difficult to smoulder in scenes with Daniela, because she’s so incredibly beautiful. You look at her face and you just want to kiss her.”

“There are only four scenes in the whole drama when Margaret and John are actually alone together, and that heightens the tension between them. It’s a wonderfully antagonistic relationship, and a real meeting of minds as well.”

One of these four scenes was the proposal. “It was exhilarating to film because we got quite a lot of long runs in the scene and I think we were both quite satisfied with stretching our acting legs, as it were.” [12]

But…. “We’re both bad gigglers and when Daniela gets a glint in her eye I instantly pick up on it and we’re both on the floor laughing. We did have a lot of fun doing that!”


higgins“Working with Daniela, Sinead, Tim and Brendan was obviously a phenomenal experience for me. The three characters that I realised contributed to three quarters of Thornton were Margaret, Hannah, and Higgins, and working with those actors really gave me my character. Brian created such an easy working atmosphere and a good democracy with the cast and crew that everyone felt very liberated and free and inspired on a daily basis. So I made a lot of acting breakthroughs for myself because of Daniela, Sinead, Tim and Brendan, and it’s redefined my needs as an actor – my goalposts have moved now, so I guess I’m going to judge everything according to what happened with North and South.” hannah

He thought that North and South was “a different kind of costume drama.”

“I think that the style of shooting and the style of playing is very contemporary. Even though every department was honouring the accuracy and tradition of the 1850s, it wasn’t the aim to make it a documentary or a museum-type piece. So although everyone was attempting to be as accurate as possible, if you look at the way that people look and the way that the camera works, it works almost like another character. So you get very close to the action. There’s a sort of motion with the photography, which we’re very used to when we watch contemporary drama, whereas period drama tends to be more static. And also the style of playing, the acting, was leaning towards making it as contemporary as possible, so that it resonated with a contemporary audience rather than alienating it.”


“I’ve got three favourite moments ….”

snow-in-millyard“Watching the piece, visually, my favourite moment I think is the scene where she leaves in the carriage. They filmed the mill courtyard in snow and there’s the solitary carriage in the middle and Margaret gets into the carriage to leave. To act that was not difficult because I felt the sense of loss of her leaving, so that was a very important moment.

“I think the proposal scene, purely because I think it’s one of the longest scenes to play, but it was the opportunity for both of us to really stretch our acting legs and that was a very satisfying scene to film.

“And then, I think the final scene at the station that’s the climax of the piece. That was a very nice way to spend an afternoon.”

The impact of playing John Thornton

John Thornton was a breakthrough role for Richard Armitage. It was the largest TV role he had undertaken, and it won him legions of new fans. It also changed his perspective on his career and his ambitions.

“The role of Thornton doesn’t really compare to anything else I’ve done before. That’s not to dismiss my other work but I think it was the greatest challenge I’ve ever had.”

“It’s redefined my approach to acting, in terms of the experience of doing it, the quality of the writing, the size of the role and the type of character I was playing. My initial instinct was that it was an honour to take part in something that was always one of the BBC’s great strengths. But it surpassed all my expectations.”

Although North and South didn’t have as large an impact on the national consciousness as the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, the reaction to his performance as John Thornton was similar to that of female viewers to Colin Firth’s portrayal of Darcy. The producer of North and South, Kate Bartlett, described Thornton as an “industrial Darcy”.

industrial-darcyRichard said, “I think it’s a brilliant description of Thornton and it’s fantastic to be complimented in that way. I see the similarities of the characters and the nature of their relationship. But unlike Darcy, Thornton’s obviously from a working class background and he’s built himself up to be an entrepreneur.”

The response from female viewers was swift and strong – within days of North and South’s first episode being broadcast in November 2004, a website had been set up in his honour (later to become his official website), a Yahoo group devoted to him had been created, and most strikingly of all, the BBC website’s drama message boards had been taken over by hundreds of women discussing the programme, the character of Thornton, and the actor who played him. Eventually, a message board had to be set up on the BBC website especially for discussions about North and South. In an article about that board entitled “A Dashing Object of Desire” published in The Times three days before Christmas that year, Anne Ashworth wrote about the “hundreds of women [who] are in the grip of an extraordinary passion for Richard Armitage, who plays northern millowner John Thornton in the BBC serial North & South”.

Richard Armitage was surprised at the reaction to him and his performance in North and South.

“I’ve always thought that it can’t be me they’re responding to, it’s the character. We live in a sexually liberated society and I can understand how people crave the emotional and physical restraint of that period.”

When asked about the fact that so many women were in love with him, he said, “No they’re not, they’re in love with him [Mr. Thornton], aren’t they? No, it’s him, it’s not me. It’s nice, I guess, but it’s funny because I never saw the character in that way. He dresses like an undertaker and there’s a certain amount of suppression in that character, but he’s not obviously a romantic figure.”

But he was pleased at the way viewers had noticed the detail of his performance.

“I’m very appreciative. Up to that point I had never had a review, so it was interesting to see how people received my work. I try to be quite a detailed actor. People were really picking up on that. Even if it was just a flicker of the eye or something, they got it.”

“They picked up on even very subtle reactions or movements. Some of them have been misinterpreted but not in a bad way because that’s kind of what it’s all about really. I think everyone sees something different in it for themselves, and for the actors it’s brilliant that people watching do that.”

As to his thoughts on becoming a sex symbol as a result of playing John Thornton, he said, “I’m okay with that. If your defining moment is something you’re not proud of then you spend the rest of your career fighting it, but I don’t think North and South is something that will be a problem”.


Interview with Richard Armitage on the North and South DVD.
Commentary by Kate Bartlett, Brian Percival and Sandy Welch on the North and South DVD.
Interview, Val Armstrong, Radio Cumbria, 13th April 2005
Time Out, 3rd-10th November 2004
The Independent, 10th November 2004
The Independent, 2nd December 2004
Western Mail, 23rd December 2004
‘vivid’ magazine, Spring 2005
Express and Star, 1st April 2005
The Times, 13th April 2005
[11] The Mail on Sunday, 17th April 2005
[12] The Journal, June 2005
[13] Tulsa World, 2nd July 2005
Sunday Times, 30th April 2006

Courteously offered by RichardArmitageOnline

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