Graham Norton: 'I had ambition at 40. That seems to have gone'

He’s a huge star – but Graham Norton seems perpetually surprised by his success. As he approaches 50, he talks to Gerard Gilbert about nearly becoming a rent boy, why he thinks Raquel Welch is a ‘grumpy old bitch’, and how he’s happier out of the limelight.

So, Graham Norton. Is he V Graham Norton – camp chat-show ringmaster, Radio 2 DJ and Eurovision wit – or is he also still a bit Graham Walker, the failed actor from small-town Ireland who had to change his name under Equity rules?

It would take his older friends to confirm this, but I suspect there isn't much distance between the two – with the important exception of success – for Norton has made a glittering career out of simply being himself. Certainly the tanned and relaxed-looking man I meet in a London hotel, dressed in casually expensive Karl Lagerfeld cardigan and Comme des Garçons T-shirt, is reassuringly Graham Norton (perhaps Reassuringly Graham Norton can be the title of his next chat show), especially when he laughs his "hyuck, hyuck, hyuck".

And as we sit side by side in matching leather armchairs, it's also easy to see how his guests might relax in his company. He's easy to talk to, he actively listens and he is warm – a handy trait when your business is other human beings. Not that he's above lying to journalists, as he admits in his entertainingly honest and well-written (all his own work) 2004 autobiography So Me. "That is true," he says now. "It's a lovely thing to realise that actually you're not under oath. But then I meet a nicer class of journalists now – I meet features journalists."

Bless him for that, but, first, with my rarely-worn news journalist hat on, it's down to business. Norton recently sold his production company, So TV, to ITV for £17 million – does that mean he will follow Jonathan Ross to ITV? "I really don't think that's true," he says. "As far as I know they've bought a business. Obviously I'm part of that business in that my show is our main product, but in business terms they're much better leaving me where I am than starting afresh. But you never know."

You never know, indeed, and moving to ITV would at least put a stop to the constant carping about BBC top-talent salaries – Norton being one of the six stars identified as earning more than £1 million a year from the licence fee. "I would like to know what everyone gets paid too, but it's just gossip," summarises his position on the matter. "Something crazy like 8 per cent of the licence fee is spent on [on-screen talent]. Eight per cent… surely it's more in the public interest to find out what the fuck the other 92 per cent is spent on."

That Norton is not primarily motivated by money can be evinced by the fact that, long before he finally joined the BBC from Channel 4, he turned down a £5 million-over-two-years offer from the Corporation. Once he did sign for the Beeb in 2005, he hosted a succession of Saturday-night talent shows – glorified casting sessions for West End musicals in which Norton discovered his perfect comic foil, Andrew Lloyd Webber – before finally seeing his late-night BBC2 chat show promoted to Jonathan Ross's old Friday slot following the latter's controversial departure in 2009. Which stars remain on his wish list?

"I always had Madonna as the answer to this question, but now we've had her," he says. How about the Queen? "Harry would be good now. We haven't had Brad or Angelina and we haven't had George Clooney." Have any A-listers been scared off his show, given that, in the past, he has had a woman shooting ping-pong balls out of her vagina, Dustin Hoffman telling dirty jokes about Brigitte Bardot's "muff" and the late Mo Mowlam marrying two dogs.

"In the past people would have been scared off," he says. "But the interesting thing about that was it always looked scarier for the guest than it really was." The only star famously not to see the funny side of Norton's antics was Raquel Welch, Norton pulling the plug on their satellite link with the words "grumpy old bitch". Has he spoken to her since? "No, I have not. But it's interesting that no one has ever said to me, 'Oh, you got her really wrong'…"

And anyway, the BBC1 show is a tamer affair than his often riotous Channel 4 series. "We were never told to tone it down," he says. "After the Channel 4 show… we were just tired of doing it that way." He freely admits that his style of chat is a branch of comedy ("I doubt you will come away having learnt very much"), but he also believes that the old-style Michael Parkinson approach wouldn't work with the modern calibre of 'celebrity'. "If you've got Orson Welles sitting there next to you," he says, "that's a very different ball-game to having someone on from Emmerdale."

Norton will be 50 next April. He lives in Wapping, east London, with his two dogs, f Bailey and Madge, and his boyfriend for the past year and a half ("That's good for me"), Trevor, even if he's not quite sure what Trevor does for a living. "This is where he'll get upset… I know he's changing jobs… he was in a sort of software sales thing."

Norton has expressed a desire for a lover of the same age, instead of the younger ones he'd meet who made him feel like "a gay Michael Winner". Is Trevor the same age? "No. No, he isn't. So there you go. I was asking him last night, 'What do you want me to say about you?', because it annoys boyfriends if you talk about them, but it equally annoys them if you don't talk about them." What about the idea of having children – like Elton John and David Furnish? "It's weird because you can do it now… so now you have to decide not to. And I guess I have decided not to. If it was possible for me to adopt, I probably would, but no one's going to let me adopt."

As well as his house in Wapping, whither he moved from Bow to avoid the attentions of local children shouting through his letter box, Norton owns homes in Manhattan, on the Sussex coast and in County Cork, where he was born in 1963, in a Protestant household. The section of his autobiography dealing with his childhood in Ireland is remarkably brief, a spot of cross-dressing, a lot of watching TV and an attempted seduction by a male French exchange student. "I have nothing to say about my childhood," he says. "It was a perfectly pleasant upbringing – it's not like it was unhappy or anything."

After grammar school in Bandon, Co Cork, where he was a popular pupil, he dropped out of university and went travelling – to San Francisco, sharing a house with a group of hippies, and nearly becoming a rent boy, which in early 1980s California, with Aids devastating the gay community, could well have been a death sentence. "It's one of the reasons I'm glad I'm not a parent," he says. "We all did such stupid things." He did, however, continue to experiment with his sexuality, taking one of the hippies as a boyfriend and having a long-ish term girlfriend, a woman called Elizabeth ("I'd love to track her down – her name was Elizabeth Smith, so, I could be going through Facebook for some considerable time"), before returning to live in London, waiting tables and applying to drama schools. When did he finally decide that he was gay?

"I never really decided. It just kind of became a thing. I was working in this restaurant and everyone who started work there assumed I was gay and in the end there was nobody to come out to. So, it was very easy." Easier, in fact, than admitting to being camp? "I do think that's true. You see documentaries about young gay guys – they're fine about being gay but they hate the idea that people will think they're camp." Norton himself recalls watching Larry Grayson on television at home in Ireland with a sense of self-loathing. "I'd recognise myself in him, but didn't like it. And I'm sure there are kids watching me now on TV thinking, 'Oh, shit… here we go'."

And Norton would feel uncomfortable when producers used to push him to camp it up. "I think that reached its zenith when we doing five nights a week (on C4 with V Graham Norton) and I just had to show up and do what's written. So the writers were steering this gay creature far away from who I was and who I was comfortable with being."

Having learnt in drama school in the late 1980s that he couldn't play a straight role, a brush with death – he was stabbed in the chest by muggers – helped him take life and art even less seriously. "It just made you care less, made you realise," he says, clicking his fingers, "it can be over like that." And then, in desperation ("There was no plan B"), he decided that he needed to write his own material – popping a tea towel on his head and performing Mother Teresa of Calcutta's Grand Farewell Tour in a room above a pub. That led to other one-man shows (The Karen Carpenter Bar and Grill; Charlie's Angels Go to Hell) which in turn led to Edinburgh and a regular guest slot on Radio 4's Loose Ends.

His big break came with the advent of Channel 5, as guest host on The Jack Docherty Show – winning a comedy award against a field that included Docherty himself (mortifyingly, they were sharing a table at the ceremony), after which Channel 5 gave him his own panel show, Bring Me the Head of Light Entertainment, while Norton simultaneously played Father Noel Furlong in Father Ted. Channel 4 soon came knocking.

Norton likens his chat-show work to the labours of the oxpecker: "that bird that sits on top of a hippopotamus and lives off the grubs that live in the cracks of their skin". He doesn't hang out with other celebrities (he wrote in his autobiography "Famous friends, those two words make about as much sense to me as Fun Run or Japanese Banquet"), he rarely tweets ("I've got nothing to say") and claims he is perfectly happy out of the limelight. So Me, written in 2003, ends with Norton experiencing a mid-life crisis on his 40th birthday.

"I think 50 will be less shocking than 40," he says. "I feel much more settled. Forty just crept up on me – I didn't see it coming. Although I had success, my life was all up in the air. Now the show is at a good place, I like where I live, I like how I live, and if it all stops tomorrow I'm OK with that as well. I think I still had some ambition left when I was 40. That seems to have gone."

Although, unlike some TV personalities, he would be happy to retire ("and I speak for the nation"), there is one job that Norton would be loath to give up, and that is Eurovision. "Losing that gig will be the one time I can think of in my career where I'll be upset," he says. "If I lost the chat show that wouldn't upset me, but I do love doing Eurovision." And he in turn gets to upset whole countries – such as Albania – with his remarks. "Albania gets upset because the Daily Mail rings Albania and says, 'If you heard someone say this, would you be upset?' and they go 'Yes'. My comments are geared to viewers in the United Kingdom."

So is Norton, as one commentator described him, "the 21st-century Terry Wogan"? "That's a compliment as far as I'm concerned, but Terry is quite busy being the 21st-century Terry Wogan. There is no game plan for what I did. What I say about the money I earn now is that I placed a bet on something very remote. My life could have been so grim… really, really grim."

'The Graham Norton Show' is on BBC1 on Friday nights

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