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Graham Norton: On with the show

Illustration/Weef

Consummate entertainer Graham Norton can now add novelist to his list of talents – but it’s not the book you might expect.

Graham Norton is a very funny man and for that the world is grateful. For the past 20 years, he has been the most outrageous chat-show host to come out of the UK, and at the moment he’s also the most successful. In the UK, that can be judged by the 4.5 million people who watch him on a Friday night. And the whopping £2.5 million in fees and salary he earned last year from the BBC.

Internationally, though, you can see the full scale of his success. His show is screened, days after it’s recorded, in more than 20 countries around the world, including New Zealand, Nepal, Sweden and Sri Lanka – not to mention the US, on BBC America. Millions of people adore his brand of high-camp hilarity and rapid-fire repartee, and he regularly gets the biggest and most difficult-to-access stars on his couch for a convivial catch-up.

But Graham Norton, chat-show host, is not the man I’ve been invited to meet in a bland hotel function room in London’s West End, a few kilometres from Norton’s Thames-side apartment in Wapping, East London. I’m one of a group of journalists from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Belgium and the Netherlands seated around a table to meet Graham Norton, debut novelist.

Norton and I have previous business. Back in the early 90s, when I was the Women’s Page editor at the Guardian, he was a barman in the local pub, The Eagle. What you see now is what the Clerkenwell patrons got then: Graham the gay barman was the star of every rota he worked.

Graham Norton as a child growing up in south Dublin.

Tucking his bar tea towel around his head, one day he’d told me that he was taking his Mother Teresa of Calcutta drag act to the Edinburgh Festival, so I offered to give him a plug on the page I edited. It turned out I’d done more. As he tells the other journalists, I’d commissioned the first piece of writing he’d ever been paid for. “It was three girls doing a club night called ‘Pussy Patrol’. I can remember getting the cheque! Thank you very much, Louise!” Big grin, trademark barking seal laugh.

Norton’s rise from his days behind the bar of London’s first gastro-pub is pretty remarkable. He was just another jobbing stand-up comedian when he scored the part of clean-living priest Father Noel Furlong in three episodes of Father Ted, the wickedly funny sitcom made in the mid-90s.

A couple of years later, Channel 4 gave him his first chat show, So Graham Norton. Outrageously rude, genuinely anarchic, it hauled in the late-night revellers primed for his gay-icon guests; the Millennium Eve show, for example, starred Ivana Trump, Sandra Bernhard and Raquel Welch – and “sexually explicit material” such as testing sex aids. In an entertainment world where homosexuality was still largely under the radar, he was not just “out”, but a one-man Gay Pride march every week.

After seven years, Norton was wooed by the BBC, though it took him some time to find his more mainstream footing – still raucous, less risqué. The Graham Norton Show originally aired on BBC2 on Sunday nights but moved to the more popular BBC1 on a Friday, where he soon wiped out his main rival, Jonathan Ross. He literally stuffs his sofa with big-name stars from Hollywood and the UK, and keeps up the fun with his red chair, on which members of the audience are invited to tell a story. If they fail to amuse him and his guests, he pulls a lever, which tips them out backwards.

It’s noticeable that he can spot a New Zilnd accent a mile away, and loves nothing more than featuring one in this slot. When the other New Zealand journalist asks why there haven’t been any Kiwis recently, he shrugs his shoulders: “But they tell the best stories!”

So mainstream has he moved, he even took over the cheesy but high-rating Eurovision Song Contest from Terry Wogan. He has most definitely made it.

Graham Norton in 2006.

I’m not surprised that Norton has written a novel; enticed by big advances, all the celebrities are at it and publishers are game. His name alone will guarantee publicity and more curiosity than most fiction gets. What is surprising, though, is that instead of focusing on celebrity or gay culture, we get rural Ireland in the 1980s, peopled by ordinary folk, each with their own secret sadness or disappointment.

Holding is a crime-cum-romance with overweight, introverted police sergeant PJ Collins at its centre. In the first few pages we discover an insular, sleepy community peopled by spinster sisters, an alcoholic mother, a nurturing housekeeper. Then builders find the remains of a dead male from 20 years before and the investigation begins …

Norton sits at the head of the table, tanned, grey-bearded, dressed in a tweed jacket, shirt and jeans. “This is not the book that people expected me to write. But I didn’t want ‘Graham Norton off the telly’ to be lurking behind their shoulders. Otherwise I might have written a book that was funnier, more urban. But actually I’m really pleased with the way it’s turned out. But I know I’ve probably surprised people just by setting it in Ireland.”

Born in suburban Dublin, Norton has been spending much more time in Ireland recently, and like any expat, he’s very conscious of how the book has gone down in his homeland. “I was nervous about them reading it. I feared that thing of, ‘Oh, now he wants to spend time here and write about us,’” he says, camping it up. “But actually, Irish people recognise this world. There are lots and lots of villages in Ireland just like this one.”

Norton’s father’s job as a Guinness salesman took the family all over the republic. Norton spent his teens in the Cork village of Bandon, taking the lead in the school production of The Importance of Being Earnest, editing the school paper and being desperate to get out and see the world.

“Like PJ, I had the feeling of being an outsider, just by being a Protestant in southern Ireland,” he says. “I can remember feeling slightly outside of the community, slightly detached as I was growing up. But these characters are different from me – they chose to stay, I left.

“Now I’m older, I see things differently. You’ve met a lot of people, you’ve held people’s hands through situations that you never wanted to, you’ve become more forgiving of people. The younger me would have judged these characters quite harshly; the older me feels kinder towards them,” says Norton, sounding a lot more thoughtful than his hyped-up TV persona.

With guests David Tenant, Matt Smith, Emma Thompson and Robbie Williams.

If he were growing up in Bandon now, would he have felt leaving to be so necessary, so urgent? “It’s different now. When I was young, Ireland still felt very isolated. There’s something about being on an island. You know life is going on somewhere else.”

Age also compelled him to start out on his new project. “I knew I didn’t want to be that guy wanging on about writing a novel one day but never doing it. It’s not like I could say” – he puts on a whiney voice – “‘Oooh, if only I had a literary agent, if only I had a publisher.’ I did have those things. If I was going to do it, it was time to get on with it.” So he struck a deal and got a deadline; he delivered within 12 months.

Norton was no stranger to writing; my commission was the first of many. His outrageous autobiography, So Me, in which he tells the unvarnished story of his ascent to celebrity, taking in an audition as a rent boy in San Francisco and plenty of other filthy tales, was described in the Times as “a frank, funny and sometimes tortured autobiography” when it was published in 2004.

Ten years later came a gentler memoir, The Lives and Loves of a He Devil, which Sir Terry Wogan, a fellow Irishman, described as “full of wicked asides, tart observations and sharp remarks [but] with a winning smile that takes the curse off any offence and a kindly, even gentle heart”. Although I have to caution that it does contain such stories as Norton trying to yank a used condom out of his beloved dog’s bum in a London public park, all the while terrified the tabloids would catch him and have him up for bestiality.

Neither book had been read by Norton’s mother, Rhoda, a major force in his life. He rolls his eyes, shakes his head. “I told her not to read the first one, but I felt she could have read the second,” he mused. “This one, I really wanted her to read. In fact, people like my mum have got to like it if it’s going to succeed. I’m pleased to say that she and my sister – who’s a librarian, so she knows what she’s talking about – have both been very nice about it.”

Photo/James Stenson

It’s interesting that Norton is so clearly aiming for the middle ground. As John Boyne wrote of “this fine novel” in the Irish Times, “there’s an interesting conundrum in his choice of genre and story: those who don’t care for his BBC television chat show will likely avoid it and those who do might be surprised, even disappointed, by the restraint and delicacy on display throughout.” But Boyne, who’s one of Ireland’s most popular novelists, heaps on the praise, quipping, “It’s possible that Norton has been wasted on TV all these years.”

Norton smiles sweetly when I tell him I’ve read Boyne’s review. “Yes, I know.” Eyes wide, head to one side: “The reviews have been good!”

What had he expected? “I’m one for imagining worst-case scenarios. So I was prepared for bad things. I’d decided that though my pride would be hurt and I’d be humiliated, I’d dust myself down. Most of the people watching my chat show would be none the wiser, and even those who did know, they wouldn’t care.

“It’s funny – my whole career is based on being a big show-off, but once I’d finished the book, I would have been quite happy to have put it in a biscuit tin under the bed. I think the pleasure was in the writing. Now the challenge is going out and not sounding too pretentious when you’re talking about a book. If that’s even possible.”

This is classic Norton: he sends himself up before anyone can bring him down. Like many people in the business of mass communication, he’s capable of talking to many different audiences; he’s chosen to go for the big-time, but intellectually he could compete with people in much more rarefied forums. He just doesn’t want to. Success is the fuel on which he runs.

Last year, he told the Daily Mirror that he’d retire from TV before turning 60. So is this book, and any to follow, his exit strategy? “I’ve had a remarkably long run on telly – we’re at the top of the heap at the moment and that just doesn’t last for that long. Coming down can’t be that far away. My job will become a lot less pleasant when you’re the also-ran – it’s fine on the way up, but struggling to get the guests on the way down has got to be a bit grim. So look out for a lot more books then!”

In Hyde Park, London. Photo/Rex Features

He jokes about procrastination, but this is a man who creates and fronts a weekly show of two seasons a year, presents a Radio 2 morning programme every Saturday and writes a weekly Ask Graham Norton agony aunt column in the Daily Telegraph. Behind the seal bark, he’s seriously hard-working and, it’s said, a perfectionist. Holding was clearly not just banged out, and unlike many novels, it’s easily engaging enough to be published, with his name or not.

He believes the vulnerable characters of Holding hark back to his youth in Ireland, where he now has a house in Ahakista on the Sheep’s Head Peninsula in West Cork. But the Telegraph readers (older, conservative, mostly out of London) also come to mind. He clearly takes his role there very seriously; how on earth did he get the gig? “I know!” – seal-bark laugh – “I got a call out of the blue eight years ago, and I just bit their hand off. They didn’t realise that they were describing my dream job.

“I love doing it. Also, I really do think I’m good at it. I just did one before coming here – a couple where the man is into cross-dressing and the wife is trying very hard to understand him, but really, the two of them can’t sort it out for themselves, so I recommended she could do with some counselling.

“But, actually, I think writing the letter is the big thing – writing down your problems suddenly makes them seem manageable. What’s the problem? What’s the thing I should change first? Describe why you’re unhappy. For the vast majority, the work has been done. By the time they write ‘Anon, Oxford’, they’re in a much better place than when they started.”

Has he ever considered therapy for himself? “Erm, noooo! I tried it once in San Francisco when I was about 20 to help out a friend who was training as a family therapist. I just lied! I just made stuff up. You get to a certain age and you know it’s a bad idea.”

Age comes up a lot in the time we’ve been firing questions at Norton. As the only other middle-aged person in the room, I can see it’s weighing on him but liberating him, too. He doesn’t seem to feel he has to throw a dildo into every joke; he’s thinking harder about the way the world works.

With his mother, Rhoda Walker (Norton’s birth name), in 2007.

“I remember talking to Rose, a friend when I was at university, about someone who had suffered something terrible when they were young. And she said, ‘Yeah, but would you not get over it?’ I’m the get-over it person, but I’m aware that there are people who just get trapped in time. What’s blamed is the childhood trauma, the event, but in fact, it’s something before that that made them the person who couldn’t get over it. That’s something I liked about my book – I had some who could shake it off, and some who couldn’t.

“It’s probably true everywhere, but it seems in Ireland every 200 yards you could stop and find a family with a strange quirk, or a tragedy that’s befallen them. Those are the stories that people love to tell. And I respond to that. It’s not something you can do on telly, but in a book you can explore the stories on unremarkable people. It’s clichéd to say, but crap happens to everybody. Sometimes it’s extraordinary what people can get over.”

We can’t leave the interview without the topic of the year being raised: Brexit. Rolling eyes, camp drawl: Well, the pound is at a 31-year low …

“I voted to remain. For me, even if our economy does survive and Britain thrives outside of Europe, it’s a retrograde step. All those people over 60 who voted to leave are making our world smaller. And the wonderful thing about being young is there’s a corridor and all the doors are open – so many choices. And in that one moment all those buggers over 60 shut so many doors on those kids – the freedom to study abroad, work abroad, the freedom to meet others from Europe. It’s so depressing and sad.”

But, snapping back to the seasoned entertainer, “The silver lining is to hear Ian Paisley’s son telling people to apply for an Irish passport. We never thought we’d see that day!”

Two days later, I sit down to watch The Graham Norton Show from a fresh perspective. The guests are Danny de Vito, Ewan McGregor, Miranda Hart, John Bishop and Sam Neill, promoting Hunt for the Wilderpeople. All inside 50 minutes and with a song at the end.

Watching Norton manoeuvre his A-listers to produce so much more than a mere chat show is awe-inspiring. He goes at breakneck speed, but seems utterly relaxed, including everyone, teasing out anecdotes, even re-enacting the first sighting of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park with Neill playing himself and Hart as Laura Dern (Bishop played the brachiosaurus). It’s an incredible feat, conducted by a highly talented entertainer. Now a novelist.

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