So, Graham Norton?

By Matthew Stadlen

From growing up a Protestant in the Republic of Ireland, wildly popular chat show host Graham Norton has always seen himself as an outsider, he tells Matthew Stadlen

Chat show host Graham Norton says he enjoys being "the dull one in the chair".
Chat show host Graham Norton says he enjoys being "the dull one in the chair".

Graham Norton is warm, kind and he makes me laugh out loud. His trademark giggle is infectious, just as it is on television. We meet in Soho House in London, the oh-so-cool media hang-out of which he is, as British showbiz royalty, of course a member.

It comes as a shock therefore to learn that he regards himself as an outsider and believes this perfectly equips him for his job as a chat show host.

"I grew up as a Protestant in southern Ireland and often lived in rural areas," he tells me. "It made you the outsider. It made you be the guy in the chair, not the guy on the sofa or not the guy in the audience. I'm quite happy to ask the questions, quite happy to observe, rather than actually join in or be part of it. [Mine] is the isolated role and maybe some of that comes from always feeling like the outsider."

Norton's wearing a smart, stripy cardigan and jeans and is looking very good for 50. Does he think of himself as camp? "Yeah."

Has he always been?

"Yes. But I didn't always see myself as that. It's a much harder thing to accept than being gay. Gay is easy. Being camp is difficult in that it comes with judgment all round. That moment when you realise that you are quite fey and quite camp, it's a difficult one because these are not qualities that are admired by anybody. As you move forward you can own it and camp it up to the hilt or you can try and tone it down."

When he started doing stand-up he played up to it. Norton remembers seeing a programme where young gay men in Brighton criticised him for not being a very good role model. "Bless these boys, they were so camp and it broke my heart because I kind of thought, 'I was you'. And in a way it's about self-loathing, the dislike of campness. Because actually the people who dislike it are normally quite camp. And it's sad that every gay personal ad is all 'straight-acting'. That's a weird thing for a sexuality to be based on. Something else."

Britain's Parliament has taken a step towards further demarginalising gay couples with a law on same-sex marriage. Equalities Minister Maria Miller called the passing of the Bill "clear affirmation" that "respect for each and every person is paramount, regardless of age, religion, gender, ethnicity or sexuality".

Norton says he's pleased people are pleased but that it didn't bother him particularly. "When civil partnerships came in I thought that was great. Gay marriage seemed to me [to be] used as a distraction. It's like throwing meat to the guard dogs so you can sneak in somewhere else.

"Because really, at a time when people should be outraged by the economy and outraged by the cuts and all sorts of stuff, it gave people something to be very exercised about and debate and write hundreds of column inches about when in fact ...", his voice changes to a whisper, "it's not a big deal."

Norton left Ireland after dropping out of university in Cork where he studied English and French. He narrowly avoided becoming a rent boy in San Francisco and lived there in a hippy commune. Re-crossing the Atlantic he signed up to drama school and changed his name from Walker to Norton when he joined Equity. Before his television breakthrough, he had a successful stand-up show at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1992 and appeared in three episodes of the hit comedy Father Ted - a role he describes now as "the only cool job I've ever had".

When he was a child, Norton says he "worshipped the altar of television because there wasn't much else to do. It was a release and also a window on a world outside these places I was living". In all he lived in about 13 different houses. Asked to fill in for Jack Docherty on his Channel 5 show in 1997 he thought to himself, "s*** , I have found my perfect job and it's somebody else's". He proved so good at it that, to his huge embarrassment, his one-off appearance won him the best newcomer prize at the British Comedy Awards - ahead of Docherty.

Chat shows on Channel 4 followed before he joined the BBC in 2005. After a slow start he found his feet in partnership with Andrew Lloyd Webber in the reality talent programmes How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? Any Dream Will Do, I'd Do Anything and Over The Rainbow, and The Graham Norton Show was born on BBC Two. When Jonathan Ross left for ITV in 2010, Norton switched to Friday nights on BBC One and swiftly made the show a reason to stay in for millions. He also has a Saturday morning radio show, writes a hugely popular Agony Uncle column for the Telegraph Weekend section, and hosts the annual Eurovision show.

Is the chat show still his ideal job? "Em, it's that or no job! No job might be my ideal job. But if I have to go to work I do love the chat show because it's the perfect amount of time. It's not like filming where it takes all day [and] you don't know when it's going to end. The guests have to leave."

He says it's much better being the host than a guest. "The host can keep going, whereas the guests come and go. The hot booking two years ago is now like ... ooh do we have to have them? [As] the dull one in the chair you get to sit there for a LONG time so it is a much better job." The show's unique feature is that - usually - all guests appear together on his sofa, rather than in individual interviews. They mostly seem to be enjoying themselves. But are they?

"I think so. But it's all relative. They're enjoying themselves relative to other chat shows they've been on; relative to a hotel press junket. Are they enjoying themselves as much as they appear to be? Probably not. I'm not enjoying myself as much as I appear to be. But we're enjoying it."

He recalls a show when actor Mark Wahlberg and comedian Sarah Silverman appeared.

"She was trying to tell this story and he kept interrupting her. He KEPT interrupting her and she finally went, 'Do you think I want to tell this story, do you think I'm enjoying this? Just, like, shut up and let me finish it.' And that's so true, that was a very exposing chat show moment where everyone's just doing a job."

Norton wants his guests to have a nice time and he's happy to agree not to ask uncomfortable questions. But does it make him feel uncomfortable when the humour in his opening routine is at the expense of others?

"It does. You've got to have punchlines to these jokes and often they are people ... and we try not to pick soft targets. Sometimes we are on the cusp and then it's a debate between me and the writers."

So what makes Graham Norton happy? "My dogs and wine." Does he drink too much? "Yes I do. But it's not too much for me. It's too much for other people or it's too much to be a long distance lorry driver."

He says he's a borderline alcoholic. "I think Britain's nice because we have words like 'lush'. I would describe myself as a lush, whereas in America I would probably be an alcoholic."

He doesn't seem fussed about fame, although it can be useful when he's trying to book a table at a restaurant. "You can't choose when to be famous. You can't turn it off."

That said, he wants be liked. "Less now than before, but I don't think you follow my career path unless your wanting-to-be-liked gene is hugely overdeveloped." He laughs. "Doctors should look for it! And it's something I honed in university and working in restaurants, that thing of making someone like you. So you're not really yourself at all but you've made them like you. And it's not that hard!"

Some sort of outsider he may be, but he's certainly not lonely. "It's almost [got] to the point where I'd like to have the opportunity to feel lonely. I'm never alone for long enough."

• A new series of The Graham Norton Show starts on TV3 next Friday at 8.30pm

- Daily Telegraph UK

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