The cut-glass cheekbones, the sharp dinner jackets, the exotic locations: it's no surprise that James Norton's role in McMafia, BBC One's silky new crime drama, has seen him installed this week as the hot favourite to replace Daniel Craig as James Bond.
But while critics call it Norton's big audition and Twitter hyperventilates, fawning over his bare-chested beach scene, remember we've been in this exact spot before, in 2016, when a preening Tom Hiddleston caught the eye as a debonair spy in the not-too-dissimilar-to-McMafia thriller The Night Manager.
After Craig had seemed to announce his retirement from Bond duty with his comment that he would rather slash his own wrists than play the secret agent again, Hiddleston was considered a shoo-in: at one point, betting was even suspended on him taking the role. But then he began a publicity-ravenous relationship with Taylor Swift, which stripped him of any veneer of cool and unobtainability – essential 007 traits – while Bond supremo Barbara Broccoli allegedly deemed him too "smug and not tough enough" to play the world's most famous spy.
A bland choice
Which brings us to Norton. According to Diane Keaton, his co-star in last year's comedy Hampstead, the 32-year-old "ticks every box". "He's beautiful, he's a man, he's sexy, he is smart and he went to Cambridge," she gushed. Far be it from me to disagree entirely with Hollywood royalty, but I can't help thinking Norton would be a poor choice to succeed Craig after the latter's 2019 swansong.
His performance in McMafia offers evidence as to why. As Alex Godman, the England-educated scion of a Russian mafia family, he is a charisma vacuum, a suit-wearing cipher imprisoned in a plot that thinks it's far smarter than it is. In fact, writing in yesterday's Telegraph, TV critic Ben Lawrence wondered if Norton's blandness was intentional – "that a man who is deracinated and taught to be a gentleman at one of England's top public schools must learn to disguise any personality that might give away his cultural heritage".
Let's say, for argument's sake, it was deliberate. After all, Norton is not without talent – just witness his complex performance as a psychotic thug in hit drama Happy Valley. Yet that still doesn't hide the fact that he has a thing for characters that lack any discernible depth (War & Peace, Grantchester). Can you really imagine him exuding raw, down-and-dirty masculinity or deftly delivering an arch quip or some playful innuendo?
Tonally, you'd expect his Bond to be closer to Roger Moore's than Sean Connery's: a clubbable dandy who throws the odd well-timed punch rather than a violent brawler with pectorals that radiate power and aggression.
Unfashionable though it is to say this, I'd prefer the next 007 to have a bit more machismo than Norton: to be able to switch from urbane to ruthless faster than you can say, "shaken not stirred". Norton is too predictable, too generically pretty and – like Hiddleston – too soft. Besides, he doesn't have the star wattage just yet to carry a massive global franchise.
If not, then who?
Someone like Tom Hardy, however, does – and would provide a fresh, much-needed fillip to a series that is fast-becoming stale, with Craig now looking weary.
A mercurial character actor with a leading man's jawline, Hardy not only has thuggish animal magnetism in his arsenal – as seen in Bronson – but also emotional repression (The Drop) and suave, roguish charm (Inception). He's a modern-day Brando. What's more, the 40-year-old doesn't seem to be against the idea of playing 007, having previously refused to comment on speculation for fear of jinxing it all. If, as rumoured, his frequent director Christopher Nolan is handed the task of rebooting Bond, nothing, surely, will dissuade Hardy from wresting the suits and Walther PPK from Craig.
But if something does, there's always Luke Evans, assuming Michael Fassbender still isn't keen. Physically, Evans could scarcely be more in keeping with Ian Fleming's vision of Bond. Slim, muscular build? Check. Six foot tall? Check. Dark hair? Check. Seventy-six kilograms? Give or take (he's 79kg, according to online sources).
Boosting his credentials further still is the fact that he was a revelation in last year's Beauty and the Beast as the odious Gaston: a paragon of vanity and virility, vacillating neatly between macho and camp. At 38, Evans also has age on his side. But are the producers brave enough to cast an openly gay actor?
A break in tradition
Another equally compelling candidate is David Oyelowo. A thespian of serious clout, the 41-year-old was the first black actor to play an English king in a major Shakespeare production when he starred as Henry VI for the RSC, and it's mystifying to this day why he wasn't nominated for an Oscar for his electrifying performance as Martin Luther King in Selma.
Plus, he's also brought gravitas to the role of Bond before – albeit on an audiobook of Trigger Mortis, the 2015 "official Bond" novel by Anthony Horowitz continuing the franchise.
As with Hardy, Hiddleston and Norton, though, Oyelowo went to boarding school, which doesn't bode well.
Despite 007 himself having attended Eton (followed by Fettes), all previous Bond actors, bar Timothy Dalton, have come from working-class backgrounds. "I wanted a ballsy guy... put a bit of veneer over that tough Scottish hide and you've got Fleming's Bond," Cubby Broccoli once said of Connery's portrayal. That toughness is as essential to the part now as it was then.
Check out the gallery above to see some of top contenders for the role of Bond.
The Telegraph, London