Graham Norton’s biggest fear is pain. When I suggest this may be linked to the time when, still at drama school, he was brutally mugged, he offers a surprising answer. “Well no, you don’t feel pain in the moment because your adrenaline’s all pumping. That Shakespearean thing of, ‘Oh, I’ve been run through’ I always thought they said because they didn’t have any special effects. But they say it because that’s what people say when they’re run through. They look down and they see blood and they go, ‘Oh, I’ve been run through.’” And that was exactly his reaction: “I looked down and went, ‘Oh, I’ve been stabbed.’ Eventually you bleed out and it’s not an unpleasant feeling. It’s like being tired.”
Norton doesn’t seem at all tired when we meet at Soho House, the London media club of which he’s a member. In fact, he looks enviably healthy and has just returned from a summer spent in Ireland at his large beach home. Life as one of the BBC’s top earners (he earned £2.6 million in 2012) has clearly brought its rewards – although he has been well paid for a decade and a half now. He also has homes in London, New York and on the south coast. Not bad, I venture. “No, very good,” he replies.
Now in its 14th series, a hallmark of The Graham Norton Show, which brings in around 3.5 million viewers per episode, is that Norton always seems to be having such a good time. Is he? “I love doing the show,” he says. But not the process. “The two days before, sat in an office going through stuff and reading… I enjoy that a lot, lot less.”
But the “going through stuff” bit is crucial to the success of the format that trades on the funny anecdotes told by the stellar guests it attracts – recently including Katy Perry, James Corden and Sir Paul McCartney, all on the same sofa for the same show. The dress rehearsal is particularly useful. “We’ve got researchers standing in for the guests telling their stories and that’s where I’ll often think of something funny to say, or a good supplementary question.”
A lot of thought – and teamwork – goes into what Norton calls “chat choreography”. There are usually three guests on the sofa at the same time and planning involves finding ways to knit the different people and their stories together. Still, he says, “What you want to happen is that the choreography goes out the window. My favourite thing is when I’m sat there, the couch has taken off and has a life of its own and I can just watch it unfold. Those are the best nights.”
Most of his guests are from the world of showbiz. Is celebrity culture a good thing? “Erm, I think it’s a thing, really. So long as there’s still a way for excellence to be noticed and acknowledged. A very famous actor isn’t the same as a very good actor and I think we can tell the difference. So long as we can still differentiate between a celebrity and a successful person then I think we’re OK.”
Norton is, of course, not the only big-time interviewer in Britain. “People love to think there’s rivalry and actually with Piers [Morgan] there probably is because I think that’s where his mindset is at. I don’t feel any rivalry with Jonathan [Ross] and Alan [Carr], in that we meet, we talk and…” Does he feel rivalry with Piers? “No. Oh, God, no.” He sees himself as doing something “very different” to what Morgan does on his ITV Life Stories show.
But is he a competitive person? “I’m that really horrible competitive person: if I think I can win then I’ll be competitive, but if I think I can’t I’ll be like, ‘Stupid game. Didn’t want to win it anyway. Who wants to play that?’”
Does he see himself primarily as an interviewer, an entertainer or a comedian? “I see myself as a chat show host,” he says and laughs. “I host chat. Seriously, that is what I do. I don’t think I’ve ever had a scoop and that’s not what I’m about.
What we’re selling is an entertainment; any revelations that come out of it are in reactions rather than in actual verbal revelations. People rarely tell their secrets but you do see who they really are in what makes them laugh, what they find shocking, what they think’s fine.” Norton was brought up as a Protestant in the Republic of Ireland, often in rural areas, and moved house several times. He found this isolating and it made him feel like an outsider growing up. On his show, he says, he’s quite happy asking the questions and observing, “rather than actually joining in, or being part of it”. After dropping out of university he lived in a hippy commune in San Francisco before returning home and then going to drama school. Stand-up and a brief role in Father Ted followed before his lucky break.
He won best newcomer prize at the British Comedy Awards thanks to his stint standing in for Jack Docherty on his Channel 5 show in 1997. After the best part of ten years at Channel 4 he joined the BBC in 2005 and in 2010 The Graham Norton Show transferred to Friday nights on BBC1 after Jonathan Ross left for ITV.
Last year So Television, the company he co-owned – “I wasn’t even a sleeping partner, I was a comatose partner” – was sold to ITV Studios for £17 million. This means that his BBC1 show is produced by an ITV subsidiary.
I wonder whether he would switch channels himself. “I can’t imagine what would make me go. Who’s to say? Because I don’t think I would work on ITV. So the only reason I would go is if I was ready to retire and they had a lorry-load of cash outside my door. Then I might.” So cash motivates him? “It would at the end. If it’s your last hurrah.”
He describes the BBC as a fabulous resource for any country to have. But what about the pay-offs that were awarded to some senior management? “They are scoring way too many own goals. There’s a new triumvirate, Charlotte [Moore] is in there [as controller of BBC1], Danny [Cohen] is now head of television and you’ve got [director- general] Tony Hall, and you hope we can start again and that those sort of mistakes won’t continue to be made. Because it did seem extraordinary in a time of cuts where you were asking everyone who works for the BBC who’s loyal and doing a good job to tighten their belts and take a reduction in pay, while those people who’d dragged the BBC into disrepute were being handed sacks of cash. It defies belief.”
Fame can be useful, although there are times when he wishes he were anonymous. If it weren’t for his two dogs, he says, he would rarely leave the house. But he seems to have plenty of friends and he enjoys host- ing dinner parties. His greatest indulgence is “buying bloody interior magazines” and he did the interiors of his own houses. Are there, I ask, two different Graham Nortons: one on stage, one off? “If someone’s telling you a story about their best friend dying of cancer, you’re not thinking, ‘How can I turn this around so it ends with a round of applause and some laughter?’
You just want to be sympathetic. In life you’re hopefully less self-conscious and most of your life is motivated by other people and outside influences. On the show I’m very aware that I’ve got to drive it, I can’t ever relax. Whereas in life I can.”
Turning 50 came as a slight surprise to Norton. But he’s a man who seems entirely at ease with himself. He may fear pain but he doesn’t appear to fear the future. “Recently on the radio I chatted to Sheila Hancock and Nicholas Parsons. Sheila’s 80, Nicholas is 90 and you suddenly realise, ‘Wow! There’s more time than you thought.’ So there’s a lot of living to be done yet. And that’s an exciting feeling.”
The Graham Norton Show tonight 10:35pm, BBC1