Stephen Jewell learns Graham Norton is fond of putting Kiwis in the hot seat. The Graham Norton Show returns to our screens soon.

"Is there anyone actually left in New Zealand?" The traditional climax to

The Graham Norton Show

, the notorious Red Chair, has recently seen a significantly high number of Kiwis sitting in the proverbial hot seat, telling a tall tale before, more often than not, being unceremoniously flipped by either the host himself or one of his famous guests. Claiming that, "the pure New Zealand is quite the thing!" the Dublin-born comedian and presenter also finds the Kiwi accent highly entertaining.

"It's just very funny," he laughs. "I also think New Zealanders are generally funny, so if you're in the queue, you get handpicked by the researchers, who are, like, 'I don't care if your story is funny or not, you're going in there!' But it does seem like most weeks, there's at least one person from New Zealand."

New Zealanders are always at risk of being tipped back out of the Red Chair, but Norton always strives to create a relaxing, non-threatening atmosphere for his celebrity guests, where they aren't presented with any overly difficult issues.

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"To me, it's more about talking to people than interviewing someone," he says. "But like any conversation, it can go south quite quickly when you realise 'why have we started talking about this? I forgot that her son's in jail!'

"That can happen, where you notice that it's not going well. Maybe I've got better at backpedalling and looking down at my questions and thinking, 'okay, I'm not asking any of these ones now; we're just going on to something else.'"

Norton fronted several programmes for Channel Four before moving to the BBC in 2007. He believes the show's longevity works to their advantage. "It's helped not so much that I've learned how to do it, but because the guests have learned how to do it," he says. "They know they're going to have a good time and understand that nothing bad is going to happen to them if they come on the show. We want them to be funny and we want them to shine. In the early days, someone might come on and be a bit edgy or defensive, whereas now they're much more confident that we're not going to go anywhere bad.

Having persuaded George Clooney to make his debut on the show earlier this year and with Tom Cruise almost a regular, there are few big names that have yet to grace Norton's very comfy sofa. "We've never had Brad or Angelina," he says, revealing that along with return visits from Matt Damon and Meryl Streep, the new series will feature the first appearance "from someone, a woman, we've always wanted".

Bradley Cooper, Chris Pratt and Will Smith have popped up several times but Norton insists that he is seldom star-struck.

"There are a few people, like Tom Cruise, where their movie star bubble never really goes away," he says.

Ben Boyce in the red chair.
Ben Boyce in the red chair.

"But most people when they're sitting in a room and talking are really just another person, and most of that aura goes away. But with Tom Cruise it doesn't go away, and with Madonna it doesn't really go away, either.

"The very beautiful people, like Jennifer Lopez or Charlize Theron, are almost otherworldly, like an alien. Everyone can look pretty in a picture if there's enough makeup and lighting. But to come on a couch and sit there, and they're turning around and everything as they speak, those ones are kind of weird."

Expressing surprise that "it's still seems to be a thing", Norton has recently drawn plenty of attention for his own appearance, after growing a full beard. "I'm now a silver fox," he jokes. "But there's no real story to it. It's just that I'm quite lazy and I don't like shaving. Normally when I'm on a break, there's always something that I have to shave it off for before it becomes a full beard, such as a charity gig or a posh dinner.

"But back in March, I had about three weeks off and I genuinely had no reason to shave, so I didn't. At the end it was like 'I've got a beard now,' so I decided to keep it."

His proposed debut novel is still on the backburner but Norton last year released his second non-fiction title, The Lives and Loves of a He-Devil, a memoir about love that covered everything from his precious dogs to Dolly Parton and his native Ireland.

"I really enjoyed writing it," he says. "I broke it down into pieces, so it was more manageable than my first book, So Me, which was a proper autobiography as it was like 'I was born and then I did this...'

"That was really like rolling a boulder up a hill, as it was very hard work to keep the shape of the book in your head. With this one, breaking it down into little stand-alone bits was much easier. It was much more like a series of essays than a book, really."

Now 52, he has no plans to call it a day. "I'm still really enjoying doing the telly, so I don't want to retire right now," he says. "But it's just a case of getting that timing right, and quitting while you're still ahead rather than when people are turning the TV on a Friday night and going, 'is that programme still on?'

"So you try to get out before you get that reaction, but it's hard to gauge, as you don't want to miss out on a few years where there's still an appetite for it.

"But it's a worry because you want to go before somebody goes, 'taxi for Norton'!"

Imbibing

It's not only the distinctive Kiwi way of speaking that Norton appreciates. He has been known to enjoy a glass or two of New Zealand wine. Noticing his keen interest, he was approached in 2011 by Tim Lightbourne and Rob Cameron from Auckland winery Invivo Wines, who made him an offer he couldn't refuse.

Graham Norton is a winemaker and his latest 2015 Sauvignon Blanc is anything but your standard celebrity tipple.
Graham Norton is a winemaker and his latest 2015 Sauvignon Blanc is anything but your standard celebrity tipple.

"They're clever boys," says Norton. "When the show started doing well in New Zealand, I must have been doing some press and I said, 'oh, I drink New Zealand sauvignon blanc,' which I do. I drink lots of it.

"They got in touch and asked if we would like them to supply wine for our green room. We were like, 'yes, we would' and then they were able to use it as a marketing tool and they could say that their wine was drunk by all these celebrities, because if the guest had white wine, then that's what they were drinking."

Now a shareholder in the company, Norton has since taken an active interest in the wine's production. "Last year, we asked Graham if he would make a wine with us, and he agreed, as long as it could be fun and creative," says Lightbourne.

"So we came up with the idea of carrying 10kg of freshly picked Marlborough grapes to London, which we got Graham to stand on in a bucket, and we then transported the juice back to New Zealand."

Norton is taking it a step further with the 2015 Graham Norton Sauvignon Blanc. "I've done a special blend, which will be sold in the UK and Ireland with all proceeds going to The Dog's Trust," Norton says.