banner - home page for actor Richard Armitage

North and South : Playing John Thornton (2)

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.” [3]

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.” [2]

Director 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.” [2]

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.” [1]

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

“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.” [1]

He 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.” [11]

“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." [5]

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!" [12]

“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.” [1]

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.” [1]

“I’ve got three favourite moments ….”

“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.” [1]

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.” [1]

"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." [8]

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”.

Richard 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." [9]

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.” [14]

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.” [10]

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.” [14]

"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." [9]

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". [8]


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

<< Back to page 1

Back to top

North and South : Introduction | Playing John Thornton, page 1, page 2 | Video clips
Pictures episode 1, episode 2, episode 3, episode 4 | Locations | Production details and DVDs
Home | TV | Film | Theatre | Voice | Biography | Messages | Articles | Misc | Links | Contact | About
©, 2007-2013