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From dogs and divas to dates, the life and loves of a he devil

He'd planned to retire at 50, but Graham Norton is having too much fun. As his latest memoir is published, Hannah Stephenson finds out about his TV good fortune, the 'shambles' of his personal life... and why he feels qualified to be an agony uncle.

Graham Norton arrives a few minutes late to our interview, a stone's throw from his house in London's Docklands,  apologising profusely and keen to get things off to a happy start.

I instantly like him, his chirpiness and risque humour ever present, that 'Eek, awkward moment' expression so often directed to camera on his eponymous chat show now pointed at me when relaying any one of his string of hilarious anecdotes.

Looking healthy and trim, thanks to good grooming and the gym, he's a busy bee with his current BBC One show, his Radio 2 Saturday morning slot and his agony uncle column for a national newspaper.

But we're here to discuss his new memoir, The Life And Loves Of A He Devil, a funny and revealing read based on the different aspects of his life that he loves, and which have helped shaped the person he is today.

Subjects range from his dogs to divas (his encounters with Madonna and Liza Minnelli are particularly entertaining) and there are chapters on his love of booze, men and work, as well as his misadventures in his beloved Ireland and New York, and the stars he's welcomed on to his chat show.

While some Hollywood A-listers simply don't "get" the humour, others relish it. Matt Damon said that Norton's was the most fun he'd ever had on a chat show, while Russell Crowe claims the only reason he comes on is to pull the lever to up-end some poor member of the audience from the red chair. Tom Cruise, on the other hand, refuses to touch the lever.

"The unexpectedly brilliant guest was Miriam Margolyes, who knows we must use her sparingly, because otherwise I'd have her on every week. And if it's spectacularly bad (he cites the show in which Mark Wahlberg appeared the worse for wear, climbing on Norton's lap and stroking him), it sticks in your mind."

Norton, who has homes in London, Ireland and New York, is among the highest-paid BBC presenters and is well aware of the criticisms made in recent years about the exorbitant fees commanded by top BBC stars.

But he is quick to note: "If you look at what proportion of the licence fee goes on paying on-screen talent, it's something tiny, not even 10%. That's for everybody who appears."

For me, the big question is trying to figure out what that remaining 90% is spent on. That would be interesting.

"Most of the big earners pay their way. My show is shown in a bunch of countries and pays for itself. Shows like Top Gear, Doctor Who and mine pay into the BBC coffers."

He's not embarrassed to be paid millions, if that's what executives think he's worth.

"No one's worth these amounts of money, but if that's been decreed your market value, then who am I to argue? If I didn't have an agent, I'd still be doing the show for 150 quid.

"It's a gig. You just show up and do it.

"I totally understand people's frustration when they see the amounts of money people are paid at the BBC and I can't explain it. But I can spend it."

It's 10 years since Norton (51) brought out his first autobiography, So Me, an account of his life growing up in Bandon, west Cork, a Protestant in a Catholic area, gay, but confused, his sexual awakenings revealed along with his adventures as an actor and comedian, before entering the realms of TV.

The humour belies a sometimes tortured tale of an individual who had a peripatetic childhood, moving from place to place thanks to his father's job as a Guinness sales rep, coupled with early confusion about his sexuality.

His parents long suspected he was gay, but it wasn't confirmed until it came out on TV years later.

"The subject had been raised before, but it was such an awful thing to talk about. Initially, they were upset, but I think that most parents would be upset to find out their child is gay. It's not to do with the sexuality, it's the worry that their child is not going to be happy. But my mother's not worried any more."

A decade on and Norton is the first to admit that Jonathan Ross's loss was his gain. He hasn't looked back since Ross left the Beeb following the "Sachsgate" scandal in 2008, when Ross and Russell Brand left smutty messages on veteran actor Andrew Sachs' answerphone during a pre-recorded Radio 2 show.

"His bad luck was my good luck," Norton reflects. "I felt bad for Jonathan and Russell.

"The comedy they splash around in is edgy - that's their job. It's somebody else's job to protect them and the audience.

"I can't believe a producer would have allowed that to be broadcast. It made everyone think, 'There, but for the grace of God'."

He's surprised that unacceptable material doesn't get out more often."The amazing thing about the BBC is that, with all its channels and radio stations, this sort of thing doesn't happen all the time. So when the BBC did all its blood-letting, to me, it indicated what extraordinary safeguards it has in place and what brilliant levels of production it has in general.

"Freak things like this will always happen, when something slips the net."

Norton also hosts Eurovision and, for the last eight years, has been a national newspaper agony uncle, giving advice to troubled readers. "Although my own personal life is a perverse shambles, I love to dish out advice to anyone who will listen. I see a friend in tears and my face lights up."

Part of his interest must come from being an outsider - the Protestant in southern Ireland, the gay boy, the loner. The key to giving advice is that feeling of being detached and empathetic at the same time.

"In the beginning, it was jokier and sillier and then, every now and again, a more serious letter would pop in. Now, two-thirds are serious."

Some of the letters, though, reduce him to tears.

While he tries to sort out other people's problems, his own personal relationships have not stood the test of time. Norton is currently single and reflects that perhaps he will never settle down. "I clearly am difficult to live with," he says, chuckling. "But the good news is, I don't find me difficult to live with, so I'm very content."

He lives with his two dogs, a Labradoodle called Bailey and Madge, a terrier.

"I am very settled," he insists. "That's the hard thing about meeting someone and going on a journey together. I've already sort of arrived. I'm not lonely. It doesn't gnaw at me. I still go on dates and, if something happens, great, but at the moment, well, it's been quite a long moment."

He says he's friends with many of his ex-partners and doesn't feel anger towards any of them. His career success has affected some of his relationships, he agrees.

His commitment to work has lasted longer. He's signed up with the BBC for another three years.

"I always have thoughts of retiring. I thought I'd be done by now. I thought I'd stop at 50, but I'm still enjoying it."

  • The Life And Loves Of A He Devil by Graham Norton (Hodder & Stoughton, £20)

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