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Interview: Graham Norton: Father Ted's legacy

In his Perrier-nominated Edinburgh stand-up show last summer, Graham Norton extracted great comic mileage from a "Kitty Phone", a kitten-shaped telephone for which you could obtain a certificate of adoption. In his new Channel 4 vehicle, So Graham Norton, he has similar fun at the expense of Sainsbury's range of World Cup products.

"They are putting stickers on everything," he whistles with admiration. "Garden Vegetable Quiche - `ideal half-time snack'. Chicken Korma - `ideal extra-time snack'. While I'm taking the piss out of this, I love the fact that someone's actually doing it. I feel affection for most things I talk about. I hope I don't do the comedy of hate."

Norton is an appealingly cheeky chappie who knows just how far to push things. In his live act and on such shows as Father Ted on C4, Radio 4's Loose Ends, Bring Me the Head of Light Entertainment for C5 and ITV's Carnal Knowledge, his overwhelming charm means he'll always be forgiven, however great the mischief he gets up to.

As camp as Christmas, he revels in teasing. For instance, he reckons: "The main difference between a straight man and a bisexual is about four and a half pints of lager. Straight men just can't imagine the bliss of being in a relationship with someone who finds farting as funny as they do."

It's not just straight men he mocks; he is equally adept at sending up himself on the grounds of being both Irish ("the final round of Irish Gladiators is called The Emigrator; the winner is the first person to end up in a pool of piss in the Kilburn High Road") and gay ("before I went out, I cleaned the kitchen; because I'm gay, it's the law.") Norton has never had as wide a stage as Channel 4 is providing. "I like to describe it as format-lite," he jokes. "It's a mixture of guests and interviews - essentially like 1,000 other shows, except with me presenting it."

Despite the jocularity, he feels the pressure of his first name-in-the- title vehicle. "I've been built up so I can spectacularly fail with this. People might see me as a special-needs pupil - `he was rubbish, but my God he was trying'. It's God's joke - `let him think he's successful, give him his own show, and then watch him die on his arse'. The higher your profile becomes, the more aware you are that people out there might hate you. That's a new experience for me, because up till now I've just pottered along doing late-night shows and Edinburgh and haven't had much attention. Suddenly I've realised it's not all sunshine and light."

Norton is honest enough to admit that his risk-taking style of comedy does not always work. In his last Edinburgh show, he advertised in the gay press for unsuspecting people who were "looking for good times, possibly with others watching" to ring in, little knowing that their calls would be broadcast live to a theatre-full of punters in the Assembly Rooms. Norton now concedes that overall the stunt failed: "The people ringing in turned out to be nice. I did feel I was exploiting them a bit, but the bottom line was it wasn't very funny."

His overtly camp approach is certainly not to everyone's taste. "A couple of years ago I got death threats from Combat 18 people in Leicester, and the show had to be stopped after a bomb scare.

"But generally I'm a shallow little thing who just flits in and out, and no one has bitched to my face. Tolerance is forced on people in London. If you were a bigot here and rolled down the car window to shout `faggot' at every one you saw, it would take you all day to get to your destination. People don't have time to hate us that much."

Many more people, it has to be said, are won over by Norton's undeniable warmth. In all his work, he is a natural, infectious communicator. "It sounds deeply shallow, but for brief spells every member of the public can be fascinating. You wouldn't want to be trapped in a lift with them, but everyone has one extraordinary thing about them - like their husband has been living for years with the next-door neighbour. You so can see where Jerry Springer gets his guests. There is a temptation to talk about `ordinary people' - but we're them."

The British have a great history of taking to camp performers such as Kenneth Williams, Larry Grayson and Frankie Howerd, and Norton fits snugly into this tradition. "People feel unthreatened by it. They like to see a man who's vulnerable and has nothing to prove - everyone can laugh at that."

Norton's popularity was only enhanced by his appearances as the bumptious Father Noel Furlong in Father Ted. "The series is so huge I get people banging on restaurant windows when they see me inside. I was only in four episodes, so what Ardal [O'Hanlon, who plays Ted's dim sidekick, Father Dougal] has to cope with must be extraordinary. There is even a website called `Tedspotting', which people write in when they've seen actors from Father Ted in the street. Sure enough, I was spotted in Bethnal Green Tesco's buying toilet paper. I like to think I was buying other things as well, but it's still freaky- deaky."

With touching modesty, Norton says that "so many times I've thought `I can't believe I'm doing this'. I stood in for Ned Sherrin on Loose Ends, and was gobsmacked as I was doing it. And Rhona Cameron and I hosted a Stonewall equality gig at the Albert Hall in front of 5,000 people. Things like that make me giddy.

"Still, if it all goes wrong, I'm very good at waiting tables. I did it for eight years and was fantastically rude to people. I wasn't happy in my work, and sometimes I feel I took it out on the customers. I fear people watching Channel 4 now will say, `isn't that that bastard waiter who ruined our Valentine's Night?' They'll phone the Channel 4 duty office and say, `where's our coffee? We've been waiting two years for it'."

`So Graham Norton' starts on 3 Jul on C4