Graham Norton: Carry on Graham

He minced on to our screens as the chat-show queen. Then he went for overkill (every night, Graham? Saucy devil!) before defecting to the Beeb to do, well, not much so far. Now Norton's back, big time. And, he tells Nick Duerden, he's grown up - a bit
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"It's a very personal, private thing, writing a book, isn't it?" Graham Norton muses now. "And very curious to then imagine people not just reading it, but commenting on it as well, sometimes quite oddly."

It is early evening when we meet, the middle of the week, and we are sitting in a private members bar in London's Soho. He is tanned and gym-fit, and his face is far less puffy than it seems on TV. For a 42-year-old, he looks not a day over 41, but good with it. Age clearly suits him, and even lends him a certain gravitas, which isn't what you would necessarily expect from someone with his propensity for professional tomfoolery. He has just come from the hairdresser where he has had his thatch teased and waxed into a series of mini Tintin quiffs, and while he admits it cost him a small fortune, "it was definitely worth it ... or so I like to tell myself."

Has his book, I ask, changed the public's perception of him? In addition to multiple tales of sexual "encounters", he tells of at least one breakdown, a brief, if ultimately unsuccessful, stint as a San Francisco rent boy, and even a fleeting desperation to become - no, wait - a serious actor.

"Not really, no," he says, "but then when you've done a chat show like mine [Channel 4's So Graham Norton, and its five-night-a-week successor, V Graham Norton], you don't exactly leave much left to the imagination, do you? It was hardly the most subtle of programmes, f and I was hardly the most subtle of hosts. Most of my dirty washing has been very publicly washed already, I think you'll find."

He says that he thoroughly enjoyed writing it, and that the only note of caution he experienced over its publication was that its contents could distress his mother. When it first came out in hardback last year, he had banned her from reading it, and in the book's introduction, he implored any reader who may come into contact with her not to divulge its, as he puts it, "non-teatime" themes.

"And, so far, nobody has told her anything, which is a big relief. But last Christmas, which we spent together, I thought that if she really wanted to take a look at it, it may be best to do so while I was around to guide her through the tough parts. But do you know what? She wasn't interested! And neither was my sister!"

Perhaps, I suggest, this was to allow him some privacy, if not from the wider world then at least his immediate family. Who, after all, wants to read of their own flesh and blood's experiences with drink, drugs and men of a masculine disposition?

"I wish that was the case," he responds witheringly, "but I think it's simply because they weren't interested. Charming, eh?"

His subsequent laughter is quintessentially Nortonesque, scattershot and rapid as machinegun fire. Suddenly, he pulls himself up short. "Oh, sorry," he says, leaning towards me, a hand outstretched. "I seem to have spat on you."

After the gentle, but curiously sustained, media furore that surrounded Graham Norton's first job for the BBC, Strictly Come Dancing - the suggestion, effectively, that his talents, for which the channel had paid £3.5m, was being wasted on such televisual cheese - he's back to what he does best, fronting a chat show with a comedic edge. It's called The Bigger Picture, a topical programme in which he, and a succession of guests, will chew over the week's events with, if terrorism allows, a heavy emphasis on humour.

"But it's not another Not The Nine O'Clock News," he insists, perhaps a little too stringently. "Really, it isn't. Basically, it's a comedy monologue with guests, and you'll see a slightly more grown-up me than the one you saw on Channel 4. That's my hope, anyway, and it had better come off, because I don't have any dildos in drawers to fall back on anymore."

Two years ago, Norton left Channel 4 after huge success because, he says, he had had his fill of those dildos. And, for that matter, of ping-pong-playing vaginas and bored housewives at the end of phone-sex lines simulating masturbation. But the dildos, it must be said, served him very well indeed, bringing an appealing dose of smut to a chat- show format that had already been done to death elsewhere. Quite how he persuaded such Hollywood royalty as Dustin Hoffman and Sophia Loren to discuss, on television, such matters as cunnilingus and, well, "poo" remains a mystery, and while he does admit to having burned at least some celebrity bridges - he called Raquel Welsh a "grumpy old bitch" on air - many others, among them Macaulay Culkin, Carrie Fisher and Rikki Lake, he still considers friends.

"It was a rude show, of course it was," he concedes, "but you have to remember that I still pampered these people. In fact, I was really very kind to them indeed, and mostly, they had a lot of fun."

Not all of them did. Former Wonder Woman Lindsay Wagner, for one, most definitely didn't want to play ball (or, for that matter, ping pong), and neither did Harvey Keitel. The first thing he said as he was ushered on was that he wanted to send out love to the troops in Afghanistan and, Norton remembers, "it went steadily downhill from there. The man absolutely loathed me."

Mickey Rourke was booked to be on a subsequent show, but after Keitel had enlightened him as to who, exactly, this Graham Norton character was - " 'That motherfucker' were his precise words, I believe" - he quickly changed his mind and pulled out.

But, occasional superstar blips aside, So Graham Norton was a roaring success, so much so that he was then commissioned to go nightly. But what made for unmissable Friday night television quickly reached saturation point when the man was double entendre-ing every bloody night. Norton himself, however, disagrees.

"Oh, I could easily have done another two years. I really enjoyed it, and the audience seemed to as well, but I stopped because I'd basically lost any semblance of a social life whatsoever. I wanted to go out and have fun while I still could, I wanted to see my friends, and I didn't want work to dominate my life exclusively. I know, I know," he cringes, hands raised in defence, "work dominates the lives of most people, so who am I to complain, et cetera et cetera, but it had got to the stage where I was turning up to work hungover, and you can't expect to get away with that for very long, can you?"

And so, his arms laden with four Baftas, six British Comedy Awards, a National TV Award and an International Emmy, he quit the show, the channel, and signed on with the BBC. The last thing on his mind, however, at least initially, was more work.

"Ooh, no," he says. "First, it was time for me to go just a little bit mental."

And so he promptly disappeared to New York, ostensibly to give the US a crack with his cheeky chat show, but mostly to get himself that much desired social life, to meet new men, and to drink a great deal of alcohol.

"In Manhattan," he says, "the bars stay open until four o'clock in the morning, and I'm only just now starting to realise that that doesn't mean I actually have to stay in them until then. But I did, for a long time. A long time! I spent months running myself ragged, basically, sleeping very little but having an awful lot of fun."

When he finally did make it back to the UK, he filmed a couple of pilots for his new employers, only to decide that they weren't quite right, and so went back to what was becoming a very blank drawing board. Perhaps antsy that the shooting star they'd signed for so much money was already beginning to fade, the BBC offered him Strictly Dance Fever, Saturday night TV at its most Bruce Forsyth, and he took it.

"I loved it!" he insists. "Every last minute of it!" And what of the suggestion that his talents were being wasted? "Nonsense!" he says. "I'm a TV presenter, and this was a TV show, a great TV show. Where's the problem, exactly?"

He was born Graham Walker in Bandon, County Cork, in 1963. His father was a Guinness representative, and his mother worked in the local Mothers' Union. His formative years only got properly interesting, he has said, when, at the age of 18, he had a "psychotic episode", a side-effect of which was a sudden interest in the collection of dead flies. He quit Cork University, where he was studying French and English, and flew to San Francisco where he joined a hippy commune, dipped a toe into those aforementioned rent boy waters, and then, rather conversely, became engaged to an American girl.

A year later, he discovered that he was in fact gay, returned to university, completed his course, and then transferred to London and drama school. Changing his name to Norton because there was already a Graham Walker on Equity's books, he auditioned for endless acting jobs while waiting tables in a Covent Garden restaurant. It was around this time that he was mugged one night, stabbed in the chest and left for dead, a grim episode in which he lost not just half his body's blood but, the morning after, his boyfriend as well. "The bastard left me!" he wails.

Meanwhile, his ambitions to become a serious actor were getting him nowhere, and so when he landed a minor role in Father Ted, comedy suddenly became a viable alternative. He developed a series of bitterly self-deprecating shows - among them, Mother Teresa of Calcutta's Farewell Tour and The Karen Carpenter Bar and Grill - which he took to successive Edinburgh Festivals. And then, in 1997, came his big break when he stood in for Jack Doherty on his Channel 5 chat show. A month later, he was awarded Best Newcomer at the British Comedy Awards.

The man has rarely been off our screens ever since, suggestive, surely, of a rapaciously ambitious streak.

"Me? Ambitious?" he says, attempting innocence and failing miserably. "Well, if I am, I'm not aware of it, but then all this can't have just fallen in my lap, now, can it?"

He seems, I tell him, to be remarkably well adjusted for such a successful TV personality. Isn't he due a Michael Barrymore fall from grace soon, or, at the very least, a Chris Evans sudden slip into obscurity?

"I don't know," he says, "but I hope not. I don't particularly subscribe to all that tears of a clown stuff anyway. If I've cried myself to sleep on occasion, that doesn't mean I'm particularly depressive, just that - oh, I don't know - that a boyfriend has been beastly to me, or something. Being in the public eye, as far as I'm concerned, doesn't exactly make life any harder than it already is. When it's shit, it's shit, and when it's good, it's good. But being famous shouldn't unduly influence which way it goes."

Does he consider himself particularly well adjusted?

"Well, I won't tell you whether I really am or not, if only to maintain a certain enigma, but if I do seem to be, then it's probably because I wasn't successful in anything in life until I reached 33. By the time you get to that age, you are pretty much formed, aren't you?"

His last serious relationship, he says, was with an American called Scott Michaels, but that ended five years ago. And when it did, rather amusingly, he, Michaels and Norton's agent scammed the tabloids by selling supposed love rat stories to them, for which Michaels pocketed somewhere in the region of £7,000. Why did Norton do that?

"For fun," he says. "Not enough people have sold stories on me. They should, because there are some awfully good ones out there."

And is he in a relationship now?

"Hmm. Am I ... ?" he says, stroking his chin and making a mockery of attempted introspection. "I'm not sure, is the truthful answer to that one. But I may be. I hope I am. Let me get back to you on that."

So. Successful TV personality, moderately sane, appropriately vain. Fame has come to suit him, he reckons. The sense of job fulfilment is considerable, the riches are pleasing (he has homes in London, New York and Ireland), and the lifestyle profoundly compulsive. But it's not just about material gain, he insists. It's physical, as well. How, exactly? The sex. The sex is much better.

"Being on television does make getting my end away an awful lot easier," he beams. "I don't have to look for it anymore; it looks for me. And, let's face it's, that can only be a good thing, right?"

He bursts into his Nortonesque laughter once again and, once again, his saliva takes flight. I duck.

Graham Norton's new series, 'The Bigger Picture', begins on BBC1 on Monday at 10.35pm