TV & Radio
What a thing, to be Graham Norton. To be so loved by so many, despite - or perhaps, because of - being rather spectacularly rude whenever he's given half a chance. This, after all, is a man whose idea of appropriate prime-time entertainment is to present Joan Collins with a novelty vibrator in the shape of a tongue.
He is an Irishman, yet he's been passionately embraced by the English. He is as camp as Christmas, but even homophobic old grandads enjoy him because he's "cheeky". From suburban nanas to inner-city hipsters, a hugely diverse audience tunes in to his weekly chat show and this self-described "sex-obsessed poof on the telly" regularly tops popularity polls of people Brits would love to have around for dinner. How does it feel, I wonder, to have been clasped so firmly to the bosom of the masses?
"Well, I have to tell you, that's rather an alarming image," he says by phone from his London home. "I'm as surprised as you are, in a way. I imagine it's largely down to familiarity. Back home in Ireland, if you ask them what they thought of gay people, they'd tell you they should all be burnt at the stake, but if you asked them what they thought of Roger and Trevor who lived next door, they'd say, ah, sure, they're great neighbours, those boys! Because I have been in people's living rooms for 15 years now, I'm accepted. People think they know me and, in a way, they do. If I was in their house, I'd be a lot like I am on screen. Television's very different from the movies, because it's so small and intimate and it's sat in your house. It's as if you opened your fridge and there I am!" Now that really is a terrifying image. "Yes. I suppose so. You reach in for the milk and there's Graham Norton, dead, hanging by his feet."
A new series of The Graham Norton Show kicks off this Friday at 8.30 pm on TV3. It's about time, too. Reruns of old shows have been screening in this time slot since the Jurassic period, so it will be great to finally see him welcoming a new crop of guests to his famous red couch.
He's pleased to hear the show is a hit down here. "It's nice that I get to work in New Zealand without having to get a plane over there. And it's great the show's such a success, given my obvious shortcomings as an interviewer. Of course, we're not investigative journalists, ambushing people with difficult questions. We're more interested in entertaining the audience that's sitting at home with a glass of wine on a Friday night and having a laugh. Where my guests really reveal themselves, I think, is in their interaction with the other guests. Of course, some people just sit there in a bubble as if there's no-one else with them on the couch, but on a good night they're interested in each other's stories, and they interrupt one other, and by the end you've seen them come out of their shell."
The secret of a good show, he says, is getting the right mix of guests. "In an ideal world, you book your big ‘A List guest' - your Hollywood star or big UK star or whatever - then you carefully build the couch around them. But sometimes the style of our show really confuses American guests. They get here and they're, like, ‘Why are there other people on the couch with me? And why am I on screen for so long?' In America, you get six minutes to talk about your movie or whatever, then off you go, whereas we've got you for at least an hour. Our studio audience is quite unforgiving, too, which can unnerve Hollywood stars who're used to getting a very easy ride from American audiences. Sometimes you can see the blood draining from a poor little actress's face as she tells her funny story and no-one responds. It's good for them, in a way, because they have to reach a little deeper into themselves and pull out an unrehearsed story that really is funny. That's when you get the gold."
You will also get a heaped helping of sexual innuendo, either supplied by Norton himself or a guest comedian, though Norton's current show is much tamer than it used to be. Before his move to the BBC in 2007, earlier Channel 4 shows So Graham Norton and V Graham Norton established his reputation as an "anything goes" sort of a host. Back then there were forays into the perviest
reaches of the internet, prank calls to citizens unfortunate enough to be named Mrs Djerkoff and Mr Bollacks, and a worrying segment called "Graham's Drawer".
Norton gleefully dragged the guests and audience alike into places they never thought they'd be required to go. When Sir Elton John appeared on the show, he was handed a fluffy-dog phone and filmed having a groan-heavy chat with a self-pleasuring sexual fetishist dressed in a silver lame astronaut suit. Most famously of all, a German stripper named Helga was filmed from a "discreet and tasteful angle" shooting ping-pong balls out of her vagina on the stroke of midnight to usher in the new millenium. The show has since toned down considerably. We haven't seen any ping-pong marksmanship in a while, have we?
"No, you're right, we haven't, and it really is a lost art," he says, laughing. "But to be honest, those changes came from us, rather than the BBC. We were all getting older and we'd gone about as far as we could with that kind of humour. It felt like the time had come for our style to change slightly in order to attract a different audience."
Off-screen, Norton has a reputation as a fairly private soul. He likes his own company and doesn't maintain the kind of busy and visible social life of many of his celebrity peers. "No, I'm pretty dull, really. The most interesting bit of my life is the bit you see. Everything else is pretty boring. Me, sitting on the sofa, with wine. Me, taking the dogs for a walk. Me, picking up dog poo. That's it. But I'm not complaining. If I wanted to go out and trip the light fantastic, I could, but I much prefer being a homebody. I get my little fix of sequins and showbiz once a week in the studio and that be that."
In reality, Norton's personal life has been anything but dull. His 2005 autobiography So Me is packed with drama and pathos, all recounted with that peculiar mix of ironic detachment, sarcasm and charm familiar from Norton's television shows.
Now 49, he writes of a fairly lonely childhood, growing up in a Protestant family in the overwhelmingly Catholic town of Bandon, near Cork. There was a "psychotic episode" while studying at university, in which he locked himself away for several weeks and collected dead flies.
In 1983, while living on a hippy commune in San Francisco, he answered an ad to become a male prostitute, but backed out at the last minute when asked to demonstrate his skills for his prospective pimp. In 1988, while attending drama school, he was beaten and stabbed by a gang of muggers and left to die on a London street. He writes: "To add insult to injury, not only did I lose half my blood but I lost my boyfriend too: he dumped me the next day, which wasn't the most tactful piece of timing."
Somewhere along the way, Norton realised he was a better comedian than he was an actor, and began making a name for himself on the stand-up circuit, eventually landing a breakthrough cameo role in hit television comedy Father Ted. His star has risen unabated ever since, to the extent his current BBC contract is rumoured to guarantee a gigantic £5 million fee for a three-year term.
Such a level of wealth and fame makes relationships difficult, he says. "I've been dating someone for a year and a half, but it's not easy. I'm a hard person to go out with, I think, in that I've spent so long being single and I'm quite fixed in my ways. Also, it's tough being ‘the other person', because when we go out, it's never just me and him; it's also a whole crowd of waiters and taxi drivers and people on the street going ‘Hello, Graham', which must get reaaaalllly boring for the other person. I mean, it gets boring for me, and I'm Graham!"
Even when he's in a relationship, he prefers to live alone, with his beloved dogs, Bailey and Madge. "They say you get the dog you deserve, so I've obviously been quite bad in a former life, ‘cause I've got a big labradoodle and a little scrappy terrier. And I adore them! I love the companionship, and it's so sweet that anything could be that pleased to see you every day."
A few years ago, I read an interview where Norton spoke of growing old. He painted a poignant picture of a little grey-haired ex-chat show host rattling around his mansion alone, and imagined he would "end my days sitting in bed with my Baftas, dribbling soup down myself, which my dogs lick off, watching daytime telly". He laughs when I read him back the quote.
"You know, I'd be quite content with that. After having so many people around me all the time at work, I'd be fine living out my twilight years on my own. But at the moment, I'm still enjoying this job. If someone told me 15 years ago I'd become a chat show host, I'd have thought they were crazy. When you're growing up, you want to be the famous guest, not the man opposite them in the chair with the cards. You imagine yourself coming down the steps and waving at the crowd. But really, the guy reading the questions lasts longer. Fame is fickle, and the turnover on the couch is way higher than in the host's chair; someone who was a hot ticket two years ago, now you wouldn't touch them with a barge pole. I know where I'd rather be."
The Graham Norton Show, TV3, Friday, 8.30pm.
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