Career advice for show-offs from Graham Norton and Dermot O’Leary

Be lucky, listen to Wogan and don’t front television shows you wouldn’t watch yourself

In this autumn-winter autobiography season, two memoirs should leap out to both aspiring broadcasters and anyone even vaguely interested in how on-air talent got to where they are today: Graham Norton's The Life and Loves of a He Devil and Dermot O'Leary's The Soundtrack to My Life.

Norton and O’Leary have much in common beyond the fact that they are both Irish (second-generation in the latter’s case) and have nice lines in modesty and perspective.

Like his Friday night chat show, Norton's follow-up to 2004's So Me makes the hilariously-funny-touching-vulnerable-human thing seem easy. But that chat show doesn't just generate TV magic by accident. His researchers produce a 20-page document on each guest and two days are then spent weaving the anecdotes and questions together, he explains.

Some reliable shortcuts are available. Alcohol consumption is encouraged because it can "oil the wheels of conversation" between guests, though if those guests happen to be Mickey Rourke or Mark Wahlberg, there is a chance that the "overly relaxed wheels can come off".


One of O'Leary's early jobs was as a researcher for the innovative Channel 4 Mel-and-Sue vehicle Light Lunch in the 1990s. Back then, the key to charming people quickly on the phone was to lie to them and say he worked for the BBC, "as it was the only broadcaster most of the country trusted". No-one sued.

One of Norton’s theories is that “too many people in television make shows for other people” so, on joining the BBC, he instituted a firm “would I watch it?” test. If the answer was no, he found it “very easy to walk away” from the format.

Sticking to this principle can be hard. O'Leary reveals that, when he turned down an offer to host a prime-time BBC magic show on the grounds that he would never watch a magic show himself, the commissioning editor kindly told him he would never work for the BBC again. He admits he was so fearful he had to be held back from calling the editor "with a Paul Daniels magic set in hand and a 'hey presto!' at the ready".

‘You have to be lucky’

His memoir is endearing because he emphasises that, to make it, “you have to be lucky”. You don’t get to do a job as big as hosting

The X Factor

without being an accomplished “ringmaster” of live television, as he describes the gig, but talent and hard work are not enough to succeed, he insists. And sometimes, as Norton writes, your good fortune will coincide with someone else’s “very bad luck” (in his case that of Jonathan Ross).

Fellow broadcasters have praise lavished upon them, though the management class comes in for the occasional dig from Norton. He views with suspicion a wig-wearing American producer assigned to supervise his Comedy Central show. If the executive failed to realise how ridiculous he looked in the mirror, how could he “trust his comedy instincts”?

He also pours scorn on a more recent email exchange with US producers for using the "meaningless executive speak ... 'creative call with Graham Norton' " in the subject line: "I knew instantly I would be saying no to the job. Was someone else getting details for an uncreative call?"

O’Leary is more forgiving, though industry semantics have the power to irritate him too. “I’ve always found the words ‘light entertainment’ odd,” he says. “Why does it have to be considered ‘light’? It always does it a disservice.”

Television, rather than radio, is the first love of both men, though having your own show on BBC Radio 2, as both do, is not without its benefits. O’Leary hails radio as “the medium that allows the most artistic freedom”, though he seems nostalgic for the pre-Simon Cowell, off-peak chaos of his earlier TV career too. For Norton, radio brings the promise of longevity and an enormous audience “that means you maintain a presence long after other outlets have washed their hands of you”.

With success comes the paranoia that it might not last. There's always someone coming up behind you. Enter Terry Wogan, a broadcaster for whom Norton and O'Leary have much respect and affection. Wogan also has a book out. In The Little Book of Common Sense: or Pause for Thought with Wogan he describes the media as "the last refuge for the show-off and the charlatan". His recommendation? "Stay away. There's only room for a few of us."

His advice to his fellow broadcasters is more specific. Wogan taught O’Leary the maxim “never be afraid of the silence”, something that goes against all radio instincts. To Norton he passed along his sensible Eurovision commentary rule: “Don’t have a drink before song seven.”