Graham Norton on biting his nails, getting older and how telly’s gone tame

"The big drama hits now are so goody goody. You'd never see a nipple on Downton Abbey..."

So Graham Norton, what would you ask yourself if you were a guest on your own show? “Emmmmmm,” he says in that familiar high-pitched tone. “The trouble is, I’m not a good interviewer.” He gives it a thought – and comes up with nothing but a grin.

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“Have you got some questions I might ask myself? Hahahahhaha.”

I’m not going to make it that easy for you, I tell him. You’re too used to being given…

He finishes the sentence for me, “…a piece of paper with questions on.”

Norton is back for another series of his Friday-night chat show on BBC1. The Irishman who got a belated break into TV in his mid-30s, first as an actor then as a presenter on Channel 4, is now the BBC’s premier chat-show host. This is his fifth series in the Friday night slot, having replaced Jonathan Ross, who quit the Beeb after the Sachsgate controversy.

Norton is 50 next year but, despite the famous eye bags, he looks younger. When I last met him 11 years ago, he’d made an uneasy alliance with fame, and said he felt that he was working more than living. Today, he’s more contented with his lot. “I’m enjoying my life more. I definitely wasn’t enjoying my life when I was doing five nights a week. Now I think I’ve got more of a balance between work and life.”

These days, he has four homes in three countries (England, Ireland and America) and a live-in boyfriend, Trevor (20 years younger). He was reputedly on a £2million-a-year contract with the BBC to present his TV show, Saturday Radio 2 show, Eurovision and a few other bits and bobs but, along with other BBC high earners, has recently taken a pay cut.

Norton became famous for high camp and lewd humour – in the Channel 4 days, he always had a picture of a penis or a vibrator on hand to entertain guests. So it was a little surprising that it was Norton whom the Beeb looked to post-Ross. After all, he’s hardly Queen Victoria prim.

As a child in Ireland, Norton watched Gay Byrne on The Late Late Show on TV. He always dreamed of being on a chat show like that – not as the presenter, but as a guest. He grew up to Protestant parents, and he was determined he wouldn’t be bored in his work as his father had been working as a salesman for Guinness.

He left for England, went to drama school in London, spent years working away in a pub, becoming steadily more grumpy and sarcastic, and, just as he was prepared to admit failure, he made a name for himself in stand-up as Mother Teresa in drag. He expected success to be short-lived and is astonished to find himself in such a prominent role 14 years on.

Michael Parkinson has frequently criticised today’s chat-show hosts, bemoaning the fact they’re nearly all comics by trade rather than interviewers. But Norton says that’s irrelevant. “What we’re in the business of doing isn’t really interviewing people. We’re in the business of entertaining an audience, so you’re not really going to get an insight from the questions I ask. You’ll get an insight from watching how that person on the couch interacts with the others. That is often really revealing.”

In Norton’s show the guests are usually there for the whole show. “Because they’re on quite a long time, if they’re putting up a front, they’ll normally drop it at some point and you suddenly go, ‘Ooh, that’s who you are.’”

Who’s the worst guest he’s ever had? “Oh what’s the hell his name? He was in Reservoir Dogs. Harvey Keitel.” Why so bad? “Because he hated being there.” What did he say? “He didn’t really speak at all. He had a fit because I had some action figure of him that had a gun. He got very upset because it was in all his contracts that none of his characters would ever have a gun or something. But once you’ve been in Reservoir Dogs, it’s a bit late to tell kids don’t play with guns.”

As he talks I’m staring at his nails. They’re bitten shockingly short, but he insists they’re more a reflection of his inability to be bored rather than neurosis. “I was in a shop the other day and I saw the guy’s nails and I was like, ‘I do have the hands of a scrabbling lunatic in a basement cell’, but I feel relatively sane.”

When does he bite most? “When I’m drunk late at night, watching telly.” What would he be drunk on? “White wine. It might be champagne, or vodka.”

He’s still trying to think of a question for himself. “Emmmm,” he says, hopefully, before offering his advice to health living. “Tea with manuka honey. I hardly ever have a cold.” I point out that’s more of a statement than question. He shrugs, disappointed.

Norton speaks surprisingly slowly and extremely clearly. He would make a good newscaster if the funny business ever dries up. He is not as camp as on television (the TV version is not a character, he says, but him in turbo-drive) and says he would find it difficult to live with himself if he were.

Why does he think so many Irish people have become successful presenters? (I cite Terry Wogan and Eamonn Andrews.) “First of all, I don’t think they are so popular. You’ve named two, and one is dead.” He pauses. “But Terry Wogan answered this question really successfully. He said when British people hear British people talking they immediately evaluate where they are in relation to them, but to a British audience the Irish are classless.”

Why do camp people make such popular presenters? Again, he says he’s not so sure that they are, but again he has a theory. “It’s non-threatening – a man making a fool of himself; playing the fool. It’s a non-threatening way of making people find you funny, cause you’re saying I am funny.”

He’s changing into a Galliano jacket for the photoshoot, and wondering aloud whether it’s still OK to wear one these days after the shamed designer’s conviction for racism. Ah, got one, he says, as powder is being applied to his face. “People in Ireland get incensed when I’m commentating on Eurovision and I refer to ‘we’. But it would be ridiculous if I was going, ‘They’ve done well. They’ve had no points tonight’. I’m there representing the British Broadcasting Corporation.”

So the question is, “Do you feel you’re betraying your Irish roots by identifying yourself as British while commentating on the Eurovision song contest? And my answer is ‘No.’”

He’s pleased that he’s finally come up with a question and waltzes off to have photos taken of himself interrogating himself.

Does he think his shtick has changed over the years? Of course, he says, it would be inappropriate for somebody his age to act like he’s in the first flush. “I guess playing the fool becomes less credible because you think, ‘Well you have been doing this job for 14 years.’” (It’s not simply his success that makes playing the fool unconvincing, it’s his business acumen – he recently sold his production company for 17 million.)

But, he says, a new humour emerges from being older than many of his guests. “You spend time talking to people like [US rapper] Nicki Minaj and it’s funny because I’m 50. Whereas if she does T4, that joke has gone if they’re all on the same page. So it doesn’t limit you; it just forces you to think of new ways of being funny.”

It’s interesting what he says about camp being non-threatening. One difference between him and Ross is that the latter used to make it lubriciously clear when he found his guests sexually attractive. (He got in hot water in 2008 for telling Gwyneth Paltrow, “I would f*** you”.)

“Well it would be harder for me to do that.” Why? “Because an awful lot of female celebrities are very beautiful whereas a lot of male celebrities are not so hot. Don’t you think? If you’re interviewing Ricky Gervais, you can’t go, ‘Phwooar!’”

Anyway, he says, he’s not that kind of man. “You don’t want those guys to think they have some power over you. You know when you meet a woman who’s really pretty and knows it, you don’t want to give her the satisfaction of going, ‘Aaaah, you’re gorgeous.’ You’d feel grubby; that they’d won somehow.”

But he does feel the climate has changed anyway? “There are things we can’t say and do on TV or radio that ten years ago we absolutely could have said or shown. I think that’s the BBC reading the mood of the audience – the audience don’t particularly like cruel jokes, and I think they did.”

Is that an accurate or paranoid reading? “Probably a bit of both. We’d show a picture that might have had a penis in it, and we can’t show that now. The audience really laughed at it, and that’s sort of stopped.”

He suggests that society, and television, has become more illiberal in his lifetime. “If you think back to some of the shows we watched growing up like I Claudius -that would never be shown now. I wonder would Queer as Folk happen now?” He describes one particularly saucy scene. “’I’m not saying I want to see that, but that was a pivotal moment on TV.” Now Norton is really getting into his stride.

“And the big drama hits now are so goody goody. Like you would never see a nipple on Downton Abbey. When we were growing up, you’d have thought that by now in EastEnders there could be nudity, but that’s not the case.”

Does it feel strange that the BBC now regard him as a safe pair of hands? “I think I’m a safe pair of hands.” But then again, says Norton, you can never feel completely safe at the Beeb.

“Working for the BBC does leave you vulnerable because there are huge swathes of popular press that somehow want to get the BBC. And in the end that’s what went wrong for Jonathan. If what had happened with him had happened at ITV and Absolute Radio, he’d still be doing those jobs. In the end, what did him in was that it was the BBC.”

Norton recently signed a new contract, but says he still plans to retire this side of 60. Is that because he can see himself getting bored? He shakes his head. “I guess it’s because you want to get out before it goes wrong.”

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The Graham Norton Show starts tonight at 10:35pm on BBC1.