First Night: The Graham Norton Show, BBC1

Relief at the BBC as Norton plays it safe in Ross's shoes

Reviewed,Tom Sutcliffe
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:33

It was never likely to lead to banner headlines. Barring a disaster, "Chat show goes out on different night" was about as strong as you could pitch it – and since The Graham Norton Show is recorded in advance, a disaster was about as probable as Jonathan Ross being invited to do the commentary for the next Royal wedding.

The long half-life of a broadcasting scandal can do odd things though – and occupying the faintly radioactive gap left behind by Friday Night With Jonathan Ross meant that Graham Norton's return, utterly routine in any other circumstances, was going to get just a little bit more attention than usual. So was he the new Jonathan Ross? Well, no – but then nobody expected him to be. Was he even a new Graham Norton – perhaps a little Wossier around the edges than before? No, not that either. He was pretty much what he's always been – the best and most obvious fit for this vacant seat.

You might have thought that the leverage of the Friday evening slot would have hooked some slightly bigger names. But things must be a bit quiet in the booking trade right now, because there weren't any big trophies on show: Charlotte Church, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Russell Howard were sat on the red sofa – all arriving simultaneously to play down the aspect of interrogation and twist up the sense of amicable VIP-enclosure chat. Do you get bothered when you walk the streets, Norton asked Gyllenhaal, as if he was hoping to amplify her celebrity standing. "Nobody's that interested in me here," she replied with a shrug. "If anybody's got some time over the next few days," Norton said turning to his audience, "stalk her a little. She'd appreciate it."

He's good at that kind of ad lib – and it wasn't his only smart line. But you couldn't help but wonder whether he wasn't reining things in a little. Gyllenhaal, after all, is in London to make a film about the invention of the vibrator, a comic opportunity that – in his loucher Channel 4 days – Norton would have pushed to the brink and probably over. Here he moved briskly past, with only a jokey reference to the hazards of the subject. The inventors of the device, Gyllenhaal explained, had used it to "cure" their patients' hysteria by "getting them off".

"What do you call it here?" she added, suddenly aware that the idiom might not be universal. "That'll do," said Norton quickly, with an oo-er missus face. Russell Howard ventured a bit closer to the edge – with an anecdote about Shakira tellingly generated by an appearance on James Corden's chat show (think of a mirror facing a mirror and you have an image for the endless recessional of the chat-show circuit) and an off-the-cuff response to a picture of the young Charlotte Church meeting a beaming President Clinton: "You're lucky you're only 14 there, let's be honest." But there was never any real sense of danger – and never any danger either that the conversation might deepen beyond the "witter" that Norton told the Radio Times was his stock-in-trade. It's likeable, funny, and – BBC senior executives will be relieved to know – dependably inoffensive.

As in previous series Norton ends by letting members of the public have a crack at anecdotage – dispatching those that don't please him with a giant lever that tips them out of the red chair. On the evidence of last night's show his own isn't going to eject him any time soon.

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