Graham Norton and Michael Parkinson reveal the secrets of chat

When there are more shows than guests, getting an A-lister onto a TV sofa is tough...

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Back in the 1970s, before the rise of all-powerful Hollywood publicists, getting a star to appear on a chat show sometimes involved more than mere diplomacy.

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Michael Parkinson’s legendary first meeting with Muhammad Ali in 1971 – which came seventh in RT’s recent poll of the best-ever broadcast interviews – only happened when the show’s producer tracked Ali down on a promotional visit to London.

“Ali was doing an Ovaltine advert,” says Parkinson. “We persuaded him to come and do the show. And persuaded him to lie to his sponsors that he was coming to the BBC to do a five-minute broadcast, when in fact he ended up doing an hour and a half – with people hopping up and down outside.”

Entourage

In the early days of his show, says Parkinson, not even the biggest names had publicists. “It was true, very true, that the Cagneys and the Astaires and the Crosbys, huge stars, arrived without entourage,” he says. “Those days are gone, because everybody nowadays has a multitude of Praetorian guard to prevent anybody getting near them.”

With celebrity chat a staple of the schedules – from Loose Women to the sofa of The One Show to the dedicated professionals such as Graham Norton and Jonathan Ross, celebrity bookers on modern chat shows have never had to work so hard for guests. Sometimes it seems there are more chat shows than celebrities to go on them. And at the same time, bookers have to contend with as many as four separate publicists while dealing with a big Hollywood star. 

Graham Stuart, the executive producer of The Graham Norton Show, which returns this week, describes the resulting process as “shuttle diplomacy. Everything is about making sure that everyone feels happy,” he says. “And generally, even the biggest artists will be perfectly reasonable on the night.”

On the day of the show, though, the entourage can still make its presence felt – as when Barry Manilow was due to appear on Parkinson. “When I was doing the rehearsal to get the voice level, I said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Barry Manilow,’ and this large lady walked down the stairs,” says Parkinson. “I said, ‘Madam, I’m sorry to be rude, but who are you?’ And she said, ‘I’m Barry Manilow’s stand-in.’ If you can have a stand-in for a rehearsal, that just shows how far the entourage can go.”

In Parkinson’s view, today’s layers of publicists are “a bad thing. But having said that, if I put myself in their shoes, I might need a bit of help, actually.”

Syeda Irtizaali, the Channel 4 commissioning editor of Alan Carr: Chatty Man, acknowledges that publicists worry about their clients. “You can imagine that to come on a Channel 4 show with a quite camp host – who they feel is a bit risqué – is not the easiest sell in the world to a big, American, slightly puritan publicist,” says Irtizaali. “But our bookers manoeuvre their way through all of that, and persuade them that it’s a good idea.”

The block manoeuvre

Publicists will sometimes demand that certain topics are off-limits – for example, if the star has been through a messy divorce. “We rarely agree,” says Stuart of The Graham Norton Show. “We’re not at the cutting edge of journalism, but if it’s ‘public domain’ and of interest, we would want to reflect what people are interested in. Yes, people occasionally – and I would stress ‘occasionally’ – have restrictions. We listen, and we discuss.”

Parkinson says that his show never agreed to any such restrictions, which is why it took years for some guests to appear. “We waited 20 years for Madonna, and then we got her in the end, and she wondered what all the fuss was about – and we did too,” says Parkinson – though he adds that even then, her appearance still had its comedic moments.

“She’d just done a big number and, as we shifted from the performance area to the interview set, all these girls came on carrying various implements to tart her up. One girl had a rather long stick with a cotton-wool bud on the end, which intrigued me, because all she did was put it up Madonna’s nostril and twirl it around. I thought, ‘I want a job like that. I want to be the man who cleans out Madonna’s nostrils.’”

Another chat-show insider, speaking anonymously, describes a superstar singer’s rehearsal. “In between lines of the song, she would literally – with her lips closed – open one side of her mouth,” says the insider. “Whereupon one of her people would run in with a can of ‘soda’. But the chilling – although quite clever – fact about it was that if she did the right side, she wanted Diet Coke, and if she did the left, that was Sprite.”

Money talks

Some chat-show guests – especially those who don’t have something to plug – will only appear if they are paid a fee. And then there are the (perhaps apocryphal) stories of agents filling chat shows with guests from their own roster of talent. For example, when Jonathan Ross’s chat show returned to BBC1 in 2009 after his sabbatical over “Sachsgate”, some reports focused on the number of his guests who were represented by Ross’s own agent, Addison Cresswell.

Jon Thoday, who heads up the talent agency and TV production company Avalon, says that he never tries to sell that kind of “package deal”.

“Record companies will say, look, you can have the big act if you have the baby act. There are agents that do that, but if they’re half good they wouldn’t,” says Thoday, who represents clients ranging from Al Murray to Adrian Chiles. “I don’t believe somebody needs to be forced on. If they’re not desired by the host, then it might be difficult for them. Comedians, particularly, are a difficult area – you want them to be happy where they are, not unhappy.”

Thoday, who also produced Frank Skinner’s ITV show, says that it gets easier to book good guests after a number of series. “One of the advantages that Jonathan Ross has is that he built up relationships with Hollywood PRs over the years – they get confident in the idea of guests going on a certain artist’s show. Which explains why it’s very, very hard to launch a new chat show. Frank Skinner stopped doing his show years ago, but we still get phone calls.”

Graham Stuart agrees. “Our luck is that we have Graham Norton as the host,” he says, acknowledging that, on rare occasions, Norton himself will make a personal phone call to persuade a guest to come on the show.

But even with all the organisational hurdles cleared, it’s possible that even a well-connected chat-show host can find some areas off-limits – as when Jennifer Lopez appeared on Parkinson.

“She had the most extraordinary-looking dressing room,” says Parkinson. “It was full of white damask, like a sort of Saudi Arabian palace – they could transform a BBC dressing room into that! I did go to have a look, but I was blocked from a thorough inspection by a large and angry bodyguard. He didn’t seem to know that it was my bloody show and not hers.”

The Graham Norton Show is on Friday at 10.35pm on BBC1

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The Jonathan Ross Show is on Saturday at 9.55pm on ITV1