Graham Norton talks up dogs, booze, divas, Ireland

The TV chat show host shares his witty take on, among other subjects, why people get the dogs they deserve

Graham Norton talks to Patrick Freyne about running away, his drinking habits and his chat show.

 

As a child in west Cork, Graham Norton would prepare stories for future chat show appearances. “I had fascinating anecdotes to tell,” he says. “I had an anecdote about running away, which I told to myself when I was running away.” He laughs. We’re sitting upstairs in Residence Club on Stephen’s Green, where 51-year-old Norton is being warmly entertaining over an uneaten sandwich. He’s publicising his new book, The Life and Loves of a He-Devil, a funny, touching collection of essays themed around the things he loves (“Dogs. Booze. Divas. Ireland”) but he seems happy to talk about anything, punctuating the conversation with mischievous asides and spontaneous laughter (that familiar “hyuk, hyuk, hyuk” sound). A few hours later, he’s due to make a real, not imagined, appearance on the Late Late Show. Is there a parallel universe where he could have hosted it?

“I don’t think so. I think maybe if I was born now.” He pauses. “Dear God, will the Late Late really be going in 50 years?”

“Probably,” I say

“It won’t stop!” he says in a faux-horrified voice. If he had been born now then “maybe I could be the host of it, but not I think being born in the early 1960s and growing up in that time and who I was.”

Norton did run away in the end, off to London to make a career as an actor. (He says he had “a very vague plan A and no plan B”.) What’s weird to him is that every other Irish person didn’t join him. “That’s the bit that always mystifies me. “Why did you stay? ...I felt my tribe wasn’t here, whatever that tribe was. Yes, sexuality had something to do with that but it also had something to do with the things I was interested in, my ambitions.”

Where did you find your tribe? Catering, he says. “Catering is the lost tribe. No one is in catering. Everyone is doing something else. Everyone is an actor or a hat designer or a photographer or a writer... We really clung to each other, and those are friendships I still have now.”

Norton eventually found himself being side-tracked into stand-up and radio and then television. His early programmes were late night productions for Channel 4. “When we got the gig to do So Graham Norton we were very aware that we were taking over the slot from Eurotrash,” he says. “If we wanted to keep that audience, we had to appeal to people coming in from the pub, people who liked nudity. It was weird to think we were doing a chat show that contained nudity. How did that happen?... We did all these wild websites and sex things, but unless we get some people in here to actually shag on the carpet on front of June Whitfield, where was it going to end?”

Is it strange to him that his programmes slowly gravitated towards and were accepted by the mainstream? “I think television is often playing catch-up with its audience,” he says. He believes programme-makers think too much about an imagined idea of what an audience is like. “[They] often make programmes for “them. They’ll enjoy this.” But if you’re not making a show you want to watch then what are you doing? It’s weird. It’s like being a vegetarian working in a sausage factory. What’s the point? [The shows] changed because over the years we’ve changed…. We were our own audience.”

He pauses. “This isn’t the royal ‘we’,” he explains. “There’s a bunch of us who’ve been working on the show.”

Celebrity bubble

He still has things like that? “I still have all that crap. And it’s the same with friends. ‘What happened to your old friends? How come you only hang out with celebrities now?’”

Have you celebrity friends? “Very few.” Then he remembers something and laughs. “On Sunday night I am having dinner with Dame Shirley Bassey.”

The Graham Norton Show is quite good at puncturing celebrity pomposity. “It’s not an interview show,” he says. “It really is a chat show. I know it’s gone well if the guests have all shone... They’ve all gelled and got on. If that couch takes on a life of its own and I can be another audience member and watch – that’s when I know it has gone well. Those people on the couch have been revealed to an audience in a way that any question I ask [wouldn’t] reveal them… they’ve been interviewed a thousand times. They’ve got the answer to these things. But to see them laughing like a drain at some story or see them shocked at some story. Or… if someone is telling a story about something really banal and they’re like, ‘Sorry, I don’t know what that is’ – so removed from reality they don’t know what a self-service checkout is, that sort of thing – that’s where our guests get revealed.”

One thing that keeps him grounded is dog ownership. “Last week at 8.45 at night I’m air-kissing Oscar-winning actress Anne Hathaway,” he says. “Two hours later I’m trying to dig dog diarrhoea out from between two floor boards with a knife. Julian Clary has a thing about you get the dogs you need. I think you get the dogs you deserve.”

Bantry

Not that he’s completely grounded. In a very honest chapter on drinking, the funny drunken anecdotes accumulate a little disturbingly. “I did sort of think, ‘God, there’s a lot of these stories aren’t there?’... In the end, it’s quite a dark chapter and it wasn’t meant to be.”

He doesn’t think he’s an alcoholic but he knows he drinks too much. “The terrible thing is, since the excerpts appeared in the papers, I now get so many alcoholics coming up to me.”

What do they say? “Oh, ‘I know exactly how you feel, I feel exactly the same’ and I’m looking at them thinking, ‘Yeah, but you’re a total alcoholic.’… I had one lady who was like, ‘Oh yeah, I went to AA but it wasn’t for me’.” I said ‘Do you still drink?’ [She said] “Oh, I do still have the odd drink. I mean, I can’t touch heroin anymore.’

He laughs. “Okay. I’m part of your gang now. Great. I’ve found my tribe.”

Dark old days

Dolly PartonLiza Minnelli

He loves Ireland these days (it gets a chapter in the book) and spends a lot of time here. “What I think is lovely talking to young [Irish] people, is they take such pleasure in living in this island. They have pride in the fact they live in a modern country that is part of the world because I think they’re uniquely able to see that dark past that’s connected to it. There’s just one generation in between. I think once another generation goes it will be like it was always like this.”

He’s happier than he was a decade ago when he wrote his first memoir. He’s single, but contentedly so. “I’m quite good at being single. In the book I come up with a neat explanation to justify my singleness where I talk about how difficult it would be for anyone to be in a relationship with me, because of my career.” He chuckles. “What I neatly avoid dwelling on is that I wasn’t exactly God’s gifts to relationships before I was working on television. I imagine there’s something else going on.”

He’s not sure what guests he’d like to have on future episodes of the Graham Norton Show (Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Aniston are to appear soon). “Someone new,” he says. The only person he’s been really star-struck with lately is Tom Cruise (“It’s Tom F***ing Cruise”). He’s reluctant to say who his worst guests were. Cab drivers always ask him this, he says, because they want to tell him their worst celebrity passenger. “I always think, ‘I’m somebody’s worst. There’s probably a cab driver driving around out there saying, ‘That Graham Norton, what a rude pig.’”

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