With rings on his fingers and bells on his toes

Meet Graham Norton, the new king of chat. With a show of his own going out on Channel Four next Friday, the twinkly-eyed, softly-spoken, self-deprecating, gay Irishman (and it doesn't get much more loveable than that) is set to become the nation's darling
HAVING anticipated being cut to the bone by a shaven poodle's razor-sharp wit, it was disconcerting to be greeted by a gentle Irish lilt as Graham Norton apologised for keeping me waiting. I was prepared for the brash, camp, cheeky chappie of his television persona, but Norton is surprisingly self-conscious, even awkward-looking, in front of the camera. Wearing big, chunky, silver nugget-like rings on his small, chunky fingers, he tentatively shook my hand. This wasn't the limp-wristed, larger- than-life media luvvie I'd expected.

Not that Graham doesn't have a lot to say. He does. But he is not given to spouting from the celebrity pulpit. Despite his unique style - witty, cutting and in the best tradition of British kitsch - he has managed to assemble an eclectic TV and radio resume, which ranges from Channel Four's Father Ted, to Radio Four's Loose Ends and Channel Five's Bring Me the Head of Light Entertainment, which he hosted. After standing in for Jack Docherty on the show of the same name for just a week, he won Best Newcomer in the British Comedy Awards of last year. "It was very odd," he says ruefully, "'cos it was like this is the dream job and someone else has already got it..."

On the back of the award, however, Channel Four has given him his own show, So Graham Norton. "In general I'm looking forward to it, it's what I want to do, but sometimes I think 'Oh sweet Jesus, it's going to be an abortion'. If for whatever reason it bombs really badly, my career will go back a few notches, and it can take a long time to come back from a big disaster. We're aiming for middling."

The show aims to mix guests with pranks and live telephone linkups, a formula pioneered by the incomparable Russell Harty, himself gay, provincial and a master of the common touch, and nobly adhered to by Michael Barrymore and Dale Winton. Unfashionable though it may have been for the past decade, the British public adore it. There's nothing like a gay man, with his court jester's licence to say the unsayable, for reducing little old ladies to helpless giggles, and as everyone knows, if you can make little old ladies laugh at your risque jokes, then the mantle of "greatest living talk show host" is yours.

After years as a stand-up on the Edinburgh fringe, Norton has plenty of experience of working with the public. "The good thing is that I've already done a lot of things that nobody thought could possibly work. I could be proved horribly wrong, but that's where Edinburgh's useful. I can say, look, I did this every night for a month and it only bombed once."

Norton has never been afraid of poking fun, and points out that like everything else, comedy turns full circle, from un-PC through ultra-PC to totally Pastiche Comedy. "Stand up is now mainstream entertainment," he says; and the people demand to be entertained. What until recently would only have come from the lips of Bernard Manning and his ilk is once again acceptable to a young and liberal audience.

Norton was a mainstay of the Edinburgh festival throughout the Nineties, with no taboo apparently safe from his iconoclastic lampooning, as his 1993 incarnation, The Karen Carpenter Bar and Grill, makes plain. Catholicism is another favourite target. In fact, such a rich seam of Catholic baiting runs through his work, from his 1991 performance of Mother Theresa of Calcutta to his excruciating Father Noel Furlong in Father Ted, that I assumed the man himself must be. Norton sets me straight. "No, actually, that's the funny thing, I'm not Catholic. I was brought up a Protestant, I just pretend to be Catholic. I guess all Irish have a bit of Catholic in them." English Catholics, on the other hand, "just don't seem right. The English are too stiff to be Catholic."

Norton was born in County Cork but left Ireland in his twenties and headed for America, where he spent time in a commune with people "it was impossible not to take the piss out of." Since then, he has only returned to Ireland once, to perform at the Kilkenney Festival. He was initially nervous, and worried that "They'd just see right through me and think, 'This is shit, he's just an Irish person'. Fortunately he was an Irish person who made them belly laugh.

At least I'd correctly researched the fact that he was most flamboyantly gay. Channel Four threw a "Staying In Party" to celebrate the coming out of Ellen de Generes in her own sitcom. He must have had a ball, I say. "The actual evening was a nightmare, in fact. There were all these egos floating around the room anticipating becoming Ellen's best friend, when in fact they had been invited as celebrity wallpaper." Although he says he is not entirely comfortable with gay-themed TV, he is very proud of the "Staying In" programme. He believes the projection of a positive gay image is important and hopes that "the evening didn't alienate people or make too many gay teenagers want to commit suicide." He is also often doubtful about the way the media handles the issue of homosexuality. "When I watch gay programmes or documentaries I do cringe sometimes and think, 'God I don't want the neighbours to think I'm one of them.'" George Michael's self-assisted outing yielded some particularly gruesome moments. "They were interviewing some proud gay man about cottaging and you just think, 'Oh please don't put this sort of thing in the news.' He was explaining why cottaging was nothing to be ashamed of but his face was blacked out." Although he is probably ideally positioned to do so, he does not see it as his role to break down prejudicial barriers. His job, as he sees it, is not to pontificate, but to be funny. Take note Mr Elton.

Norton is now totally focused on the job in hand. After years of doing the circuit and travelling (he's infatuated with the States and hates Australia - "I wouldn't go if it was as close as France," he shudders) he sees his show as an essential development. He's got every reason to be arrogant, but seems the model of modest, insisting that "There are some fantastic people on the circuit. I am at best mediocre. They must look at me and think 'What is going on?' - I ask myself that. But it's not like I am silly enough to say 'No, Channel Four, I can't possibly accept this offer, here is a list of names.' So I am just keeping my head down and getting on with it."

'So Graham Norton' goes out on Channel Four on Friday 3rd July