Graham Norton, live from his lean-to, is jittery without his adoring audience

The Graham Norton Show returns to BBC, demonstrating that ‘banter’ is impossible over Skype

Graham Norton has a   stop-start conversation with Michael Bublé

Graham Norton has a stop-start conversation with Michael Bublé

 

Graham Norton without his big orange couch is like Superman without his cape, Harry Potter without his spectacles or Leo Varadkar without the Terminator 2 quotations.

Still, we all have to make sacrifices in these strange times, and for the west Cork raconteur this involves forsaking his signature settee and live guests as his BBC chat show returns (BBC One, 9pm). He must also make do without a whooping, hooting studio audience, which ultimately proves a bigger issue than the departed divan. 

Honestly, it’s a slightly jittery turn from Norton. He is charming. But not quite as charming as when in front of a room of approving strangers. He’s one of those entertainers who soaks up a crowd’s adoration and gives it back ten-fold. In a vacuum he is moderately yet perceptibly off his stride.

Norton is apparently broadcasting from his home office, from a desk upon which is arranged his computer and what looks like a Funkopop Gandalf toy. It’s a strange moment to be alive. Each day teaches us something new and worrying about the universe. Such as the fact that Graham Norton owns a Funkopop Gandalf and is happy for us all to know it. 

A month into the lockdown, moreover, we’re all feeling déjà vu about déjà vu. And that’s particularly true of television. We’ve had already had Claire Byrne presenting from her shed, Miriam O’Callaghan filling in for Ryan Tubridy before an empty studio, and BBC Question Time going out at the wrong time and without a live audience asking any questions.

So the novelty factor is well and truly over as Norton broadcasts from his lockdown lean-to. His first guest, crooner Michael Bublé, joins from his residence in Vancouver, and a basement draped in white and bigger than your house. The conversation is somewhat stop-start. That is not surprising: for reasons that continue to elude scientists, “banter” is objectively impossible over Skype. 

Happily, they’re both good sports and muddle through. There are uncomfortable silences, but the chat is over and done in five minutes. If Norton isn’t having the happiest time in the world, the stiltedness doesn’t become unbearable.

Bubbly Bublé is followed by Martin Freeman and Daisy Haggard. They’re plugging their sweary family comedy Breeders. Haggard is wearing a crocodile costume, which obviously helps enormously. Next week Norton should insist all guests are done up as soft toys.  

Norton’s evening is ultimately saved by actor Michael Sheen. He is ostensibly here to promote the upcoming based-on-a-true-story drama Quiz, in which he plays slick Who Wants A Millionaire? host Chris Tarrant.

Sheen has in the past brilliantly mimicked Tony Blair and David Frost, locating the glaze of oiliness clinging to both. Now, from his house in Wales, he seems to be in a losing fight against cabin fever. As his newborn baby burbles in the background, Sheen impersonates Tarrant and treats Norton to an impromptu game of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?

How many sonnets did Shakespeare write wonders, Tarrant/Sheen. Norton has no idea and so phones a friend. ’Tis Judi Dench, of course. She picks up eventually, tells Graham he is “bold” – in the Irish sense – and then supplies him with the correct answer.

As a host, Norton thrives on absurdity. And Judi Dench answering trivia questions as Michael Sheen pretends to be Chris Tarrant is obviously as anarchic as you’re going to get mid Covid-19 apocalypse.

Norton has carved out a very successful niche as the chat show impresario who gets a visible kick from outshining his guests. He’s likeable yet with a glimmer of cruel wit. That remains the case as he takes on coronavirus. It’s a mildly stuttering return from the titan of titters but he gets there in the end.

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