Graham Norton: The go-to guy for anything from the Baftas to becoming 'the new Terry Wogan' and hosting the Eurovision Song Contest
He is a sarcastic, breezily insulting and camply subversive gay Irish pixie who has become the most ubiquitous presenter on TV. How has he managed it?
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Friday 17 May 2013
On Saturday, connoisseurs of kitsch performance, fancy dress, risibly bouncy tunes and strategically political voting will tune into the final of the Eurovision Song Contest in Malmo, Sweden.
Patriots and fans of early-1980s power ballads will be rooting for the West Glamorgan diva Bonnie Tyler, whose song “Believe in Me” is Britain’s entry in the contest this year. Many people think Ms Tyler can win it. Unfortunately, the show’s UK commentator isn’t one of them. “Britain could definitely win one year,” Graham Norton told The Daily Telegraph last week. “Probably not this year, though.”
Cheers, Graham. What makes this vote of no-confidence worse is that Bonnie Tyler was a guest on Norton’s show, singing her Euro-song, just two weeks ago. You’d think basic politeness would have made him hold his tongue. But Graham Norton didn’t get where he is today by being polite. He got where he is by being breezily insulting, swishily sarcastic, camply subversive. The first year he presented the Eurovision show, he remarked that the singers representing Armenia were apparently wearing traditional dress, “which might be true if they come from a village where Liberace is the mayor”.
He is the master of the raised eyebrow, the muttered aside, the sharp intake of breath, the I’m-saying-nothing-but-you-know-what-I-mean look to the camera. It has made him the most ubiquitous entertainer on TV.
You want someone to host the Baftas? Someone to inject razzmatazz into the National Lottery? Someone to front one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s TV auditions? Somebody to write an agony-aunt advice column in a newspaper? Someone to raise a million quid for Comic Relief by breaking the Guinness World Record for the Most Questions Asked on a TV Chat Show? Norton’s your man.
His main outlet is The Graham Norton Show, watched by three million British viewers on Friday nights, and viewers worldwide, from Hong Kong to Mexico, a day later. It’s been going in its present format since 2007, and the list of guests is, frankly, astonishing: Hollywood A-listers (Tom Cruise, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem), singers (Madonna, P Diddy, Lady Gaga) and eminent zoologists (David Attenborough) happily share a sofa with stand-up comedians. It’s hard to think of another TV host who could tempt the Spanish film director Pedro Almodovar and the racing driver Lewis Hamilton to appear on the same chat show and be joshingly insulted. But they queue up for the privilege – just as viewers apply every week for a chance to appear in the Red Chair section of the show, and be sent flying backwards if Norton finds their anecdote too boring to listen to.
How has he managed it? How has this rubber-faced, hyper-adrenalinated, gay Irish pixie come to have the world at his feet?
One reason is his judgement. Norton strikes a delicate balance between indulgence and mockery. He draws out his guests with easy-peasy questions about their new show/record/sporting triumph, encourages them to shock the audience with a scandalous story (such as Rihanna’s, about discovering that the lady doing her Brazilian wax was not a fan), then gently sends them up. His humour is as camp as a field of bivouacs, but (unlike, say, Alan Carr) he relies more on sharp ad-libs than gay allusions.
Another reason is his inspired use of props. Early versions of his show relied on hidden cameras and microphones (chaps relieving themselves in the gents would find, say, Dustin Hoffman’s voice coming out of the radiator grille, asking where they got that lovely sweater) or dolls or novelty telephones. On So Graham Norton, Dolly Parton used Norton’s novelty dog phone to call up Kenny Rogers and perform a duet of “Islands in the Stream” with him down the line. And no other chat-show host saw the humour potential of the computer website. Who’d have thought a TV host could turn his back on his guests to scroll through on-screen dating sites or photographs of grotesque pets, and invite the guests to laugh along with him?
Norton understands conviviality. He knows that humour is about inclusiveness and collusion as much as one-to-one banter. That’s why his decision to have his guests sit together through the show, rather than appear one by one, was a masterstroke. You want interaction? How about the American actor Paul Rudd demonstrating how he first met Jack Nicholson by kissing Helen Mirren on the lips? Or Russell Brand patting Lorraine Kelly on the thigh and being startled to realise she was wearing a suspender belt? Norton is a good comic presence, but he’s most in his element presiding over a celebrity rumpus-room, controlling it with a sardonic flicker of his eye.
He was born Graham William Walker in a Dublin suburb called Clondalkin, but grew up in Bandon, Co Cork. His father William was a Guinness salesman from Wexford; his mother Rhoda came from Belfast. Growing up Protestant in solidly Catholic rural Ireland, while the Troubles were raging in Northern Ireland after 1969, was no joke.
On the genealogy TV show Who Do You Think You Are?, Norton revealed that he always felt “out of place” as a child. The programme revealed that his father’s family came from English planters sent to manage Irish land. It’s perhaps unsurprising that Graham felt a little conflicted about his identity. After grammar school, he studied English literature and French at University College, Cork, but dropped out, apparently following a bout of depression. After a period in a Californian commune, he came to England, studied acting at the Central School of Speech and Drama, joined Rada and, finding there was already a Graham Walker treading the boards, took his great-grandmother’s maiden name as his stage name.
His acting career was superseded by stand-up comedy in his late twenties. He scored at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1992 with a bad-taste drag act called Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
He first attracted attention on Loose Ends, the Radio 4 chat show hosted by Ned Sherrin. Norton had a regular comedy slot, and established himself as a reliably bitchy contributor. He popped up as an actor on Father Ted, playing Father Noel Furlong, a noisily hyperactive youth leader. He co-presented a late-night quiz show called Carnal Knowledge, and could be found hosting tacky sex-advice shows on Channel 4. He was noticeable, certainly – but mainly as a man desperate to be heard and seen on any format.
His break came on Channel 5 when he stood in for Jack Docherty, a late-night chat-show host. Not only was he funnier and more personable than Docherty, but he also won the Best Newcomer prize at the British Comedy Awards.
In 1998, he was given his own show, So Graham Norton, on Channel 4, and his reign as chat king began. It wasn’t all plain sailing. He was chastised by the Independent Television Commission for making insensitive comments about the recent death of the Bee Gee brother Maurice Gibb. He left Channel 4 in 2003 and headed for America to make The Graham Norton Effect, in which guests were asked to determine if a man was gay from the way he danced, and audience members were invited to make candles modelled from their genitalia.
The BBC signed him in 2005 and proceeded to use him for everything except what he was best at. It made him the host of Strictly Dance Fever, of the Lloyd Webber shows, of a short-lived talent show, When Will I Be Famous?. It took two years for him to be given The Graham Norton Show on BBC2, and another two to transfer to BBC1 in Jonathan Ross’s old Friday-night slot. The following year, he took over Ross’s Saturday-morning show on Radio 2. And in 2009, he got the Eurovision gig as “the new Terry Wogan”.
Now 50, he leads a quiet and unstarry life, living in an east London flat with his companion of two years, Trevor Patterson, a software designer, and his two dogs, Bailey and Madge. He is a wealthy man, having sold his production company So Television to ITV last year for a reputed £17m. And to his crowded shelf of awards he can now add a sixth Bafta; he won it last weekend for Best Entertainment Programme of the Year. It was a little awkward at the ceremony, because he was, of course, the host. But what can you do when you’re the master of the revels, the TV host with the most?
A Life In Brief
Born: Graham William Walker, 4 April 1963, Clondalkin, Dublin, Ireland.
Family: Son of William, a Guinness salesman, and Rhoda, a member of the local Mothers’ Union.
Education: Bandon Grammar School, West Cork, then studied English and French at University College, Cork. He dropped out following a breakdown. Went on to study acting at Central School of Speech and Drama in London.
Career: Following stand-up and some minor presenting roles, he hosted two long-running Channel 4 chat shows: So Graham Norton and V Graham Norton. He moved to the BBC to host The Graham Norton Show in 2007, and has presented the Eurovision Song Contest since 2009. Other hosting duties include the Bafta Awards and a Saturday-morning slot on BBC Radio 2 that he took over from Jonathan Ross.
He says: “There are many presenters and interviewers who can present informed and intelligent content better than me, so with regret I feel it’s my duty to play the role of clown.”
They say: “He is lovely.” Alan Carr
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