'My mother saw I was ripe for bullying and told me never to react. And it worked. I let nasty comments go off into the ether'
He’s the BBC’s biggest entertainment star and the king of television chat shows, but Graham Norton has also faced periods of struggle as Eva Wiseman finds out.
The joy of The Graham Norton Show can be summed up for me by one small interaction that aired in 2013. There’s Dame Judi Dench on the sofa, next to Sir Elton John, of course, against that backdrop like too much sugar, and Graham asks her if she misses her clubbing days.
“Do you know, I’ve never, ever been to a club,” she says, primly.
And Graham’s eyebrows climb a mile as he says: “Judi Dench! You lie like a rug, I bumped into you in Heaven.” As the audience cackles and Elton hoots, Dench is shocked to remember: “Oh yes, they took us in through the back door!” Graham can’t help himself, “Well wouldn’t they?”
There’s nothing else like The Graham Norton Show, a programme that’s been running in various forms since 1997, a show where the remit is so clear — everybody must have a laugh — that they literally edit out moments that standard chat shows pull teeth for. Viewers, for instance, never saw Jon Voight cry. That’s not what they’re for. The Graham Norton Show exists to present, less the fantasy dinner party, more the fantasy brunch: a collection of cheery show-offs giggling about bums.
The day we met, Graham came from having interviewed Hillary Clinton. He and his audience had waited five hours for her arrival, and eventually she turned up with her foot in a cast, having fallen down the stairs.
She’d cancelled This Morning and Woman’s Hour but, of course, she’d limped on for Graham. In some ways it was an atypical interview for him: she was alone on the sofa, for one thing, which meant viewers weren’t given the opportunity to see the potential banter between her and Jack Whitehall, but in other ways it was pleasingly familiar.
With his award-winning curiosity, Graham asked her things like, had she tried to wriggle out of attending Donald Trump’s inauguration? Yes. But once there, she told him, George W Bush turned to her and said: “That was some weird s***.”
He liked Hillary very much, he tells me after he’s wiped his make-up off, “because there seemed something democratic about it. We were just two people chatting. But I wasn’t ‘overawed’. And maybe on some days that’s a strength for her, on others a weakness”.
Graham was disappointed though that she didn’t really thaw, but when he looked at Twitter afterwards, he understood a part of her reticence. His timeline was alight with people calling her a murdering monster. “I thought, ‘Is there a single male politician you hate this much?’ It’s misogyny,” he shrugs. “She’s being held to a higher standard than men.”
He knows a little about the benefits of a thick skin. “My mother saw I was ripe for bullying and, when I was four, told me if people picked on me, never to react. It worked. I sat over there, and I still do that. I let horrid comments online go off into the ether.” He flutters his left hand, like a bird, gone.
In the flesh, though, everyone’s a fan. “I was at Blackpool once,” he says, “and it happened to be the opening weekend of the Pleasure Beach. All rides were £1. And there was a family, where every single one of them was broken — they even had a dog with three legs. So they asked for a picture and I said sure, and they gathered around. And then we just waited,” he chuckles kindly. “And eventually they said: ‘So do you have a camera?’ They thought I was one of the attractions!”
He is that famous. As well as the weekly BBC chat show, and a Radio 2 show on Saturdays, Graham is The Daily Telegraph’s agony uncle, and has written two bestselling memoirs along with a well-received novel (“It’s a yarn,”) about murder in an Irish community. He’s currently writing his second, and while he’s struggling to find time, he feels nothing of that writers’ dread. “When actors talk about vomiting in the wings with terrible stage fright I always think: ‘Don’t do it then’. You never hear about someone with a phobia of buses becoming a bus driver, do you?”
No, he loves it, especially compared to writing memoirs. With those, he already knows the stories, from the university breakdown during which he refused to leave his room and collected dead flies in a saucer, to the years in a San Francisco commune, to his Edinburgh drag act as a tea towel-clad Mother Teresa of Calcutta and his role on Father Ted, or the seven Baftas for his chat show.
“It’s quite an odd task though,” he says, “because I’m nearly 55 now, and there are whole forgotten decades that it turns out played no part in the narrative of my life. Which is, really: struggle, and then success, which is a bit of a plateau. So, I suppose the next bit is hurtling downwards. The third act.”
When Graham presented prize-giving day at his old school, he largely ignored the winners, turning instead to the people who’d lost. “I told them, school’s not that important — even if you fail your exams, life goes on. It’s a different life, sure. But it’s not over.
“And the great thing about being young is you have so much more time than you think.”
His chat show career began on Channel 4, with The Graham Norton Show launching on the BBC in 2007, replacing Jonathan Ross’s Friday night slot two years after “Sachsgate’’, in 2010. Its success lies not in Graham’s easy innuendo or even the star power of his guests, but in the way he uses that red sofa to expose the human beneath the celebrity.
Instead of interrogating them individually, he jams everyone on there together, whether Lady Gaga or June Brown, and lets them get on with it.
The thing is, he says: “Everyone is a version of Hillary Clinton; everyone has the thing they need to say, a question they’re geared up for. But it’s not my job to ask tough questions — it’s to make sure people have a nice time, and to reveal that person to the audience through the process of being on the couch.”
He groans lightly, explaining the problem with chat shows. “When Richard and Judy went prime time they spent a fortune bringing over OJ Simpson after the trial to be their first guest. Why? They think he’s going to admit to murder? Because that’s all we’re interested in hearing him say.”
So what does that tell us? “In the end people are revealed not in their answers but in their responses. Ryan Gosling, for instance, really laughing at Greg Davies telling a story — you actually see him. A man on a couch laughing like a drain. I prefer that to trying to poke someone with a stick. There’s a place for those kind of interviews, but not on my show. Piers Morgan’s Life Stories we’re not.”
His favourite thing is when one guest asks another a question. “When they have some curiosity left. Sometimes you see it’s all gone. They just sit there waiting for close-ups of themselves on the monitor, and you feel sorry for them. I always tell young actors: ‘You’d better find a way to enjoy this bit of the job, because otherwise your life will be hell’.
“The clever ones relax into it, and one way is to stay curious. On our show the audience helps: the ‘wanting to be liked’ gene is strong in performers.”
A couple of years ago, after splitting up with his boyfriend (on the radio he said he’d rather be alone for the rest of his life “than live with towels that were folded incorrectly”), The Sun discovered his Tinder profile. Always there to help, the paper drafted a Dear Deidre letter for him. He’s laughing noisily as I read it out. It’s clear that when we bestow a man with national treasure status, in return we expect some ownership of their life.
“I always feel people in relationships want me to be in one to validate their life choice. It’s taken me time to get to grips with that. But life goes on,” he says. “I’ve failed all my relationship exams, and yes it’s a different life, but I’m still living.
“You’re far better off finding ways to enjoy the life you’re living than mourning the life you’re not, which is a double whammy of unhappiness.
“And if you want someone to share your life, well, no one wants to share a miserable life. Look like you’re having fun, and someone might want to join the parade. A funeral cortege? Not so much.”
The “real” Graham though, that’s something he does consider.
“The Graham Nortons — real and on TV — are getting closer the older I get. That’s a good thing. In Channel 4 days I’d just come off the stand-up circuit, where you need your armour.
“That was a more cartoonish version of myself. It’s pointless to wonder who I would have been had I not been on TV for 20-odd years. Isn’t it?” None of his questions are rhetorical.
The show got its highest ratings on New Year’s Eve (4.47m for 2016’s special with Jennifer Lawrence and Eddie Redmayne).
“And that’s because of the relationship the nation has with the BBC. We trust it to get midnight right; ITV will show the same fireworks, but everyone comes to the BBC to see them.”
He’s proud to work for the BBC (he’s its biggest entertainment star, with earnings of £2.5m), but often finds it frustrating.
“They don’t defend themselves robustly enough. They’re so intent on being above criticism by offering ‘balance’, but sometimes there isn’t a balance to be had! Like in the Brexit referendum — every argument needs equal time? Actually no: one opinion from a lad in Bristol compared to 16 Nobel Prize winners — that’s not right.
“And everybody, both left and right, thinks the BBC is biased. Which to me is a sign it’s succeeding. If you mess up, the BBC will point it out. I worry that’s being undermined, because they’re so cautious and defensive, trying to avoid criticism. It should be more confident.”
I’m not surprised to hear that this is what he feels, but I am surprised to hear him say it.
“Yes, I do tend to keep my opinions to myself,” he admits. “And often I feel like a coward. I don’t do the Gary Lineker thing, sharing my opinions on Twitter. And maybe that makes me spineless. As the world hurtles towards the alt-right, yes, I worry about that. But, who’d listen to me? Would re-tweeting Guardian articles really help?”
He thinks. “What I see when I do that, rather than change, is a real wheelbarrow of s*** being pushed on top of me. And it turns out I care about that more than I do about ending fascism. Yeah, I’ve weighed it up. I’m good, thanks.”
When bad things happen, Graham says, he soothes himself with the idea that he can always “go back to Ireland and grow some tomato plants on the windowsill. “I’ve achieved more than I ever thought I would. After I became a standup, able to pay the rent, that was all my dreams met.
“Everything else is just icing on what turned out to be a very small cake. So why hang around? Why take part in this struggle, why not just wave my white flag and go back to Ireland and watch the tide?
“It’s enough, I suppose, just to know I could. A strategy like that means you can do anything — I like to imagine the worst case scenario.
“That’s what I did when I published a novel. If it was terrible, then what? It would be a bit humiliating, none of my friends would mention it, and then life would go on. It’s an interesting time to be alive, isn’t it? You literally cannot imagine the future. London in a post-Brexit world might be a ghost town.”
He searches for a silver lining, as is his way. “I suppose… traffic might improve? Did you see the orange skies a few weeks ago?”
When the dust from fires in southern Europe swept north, turning Britain the colour of peaches?
“Yes. I thought: ‘This feels like the end of the world’. And then I thought: ‘But doesn’t the end of the world look beautiful’?”