Just A Minute blog

A blog on the BBC radio programme Just A Minute

Location: Wellington, New Zealand

November 18, 2007

Article on Graham Norton

nice piece in today's Observer

The name's Norton. Graham Norton.

He's the BBC's sequined agent: a celeb-baiting, Saturday-night superstar with a killer line in put-downs. Barbara Ellen dodges the double entendres and arched eyebrows in search of the real Graham Norton
Sunday November 18, 2007
The Observer

It would almost be nice to show a little originality and not like Graham Norton. The chat-show host and presenter is famously likeable (he has topped polls of people Britons would love to have around for dinner). Moreover, while Norton has proven a great fit on Saturday-night prime time with shows such as How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? and the search for Joseph on Any Dream Will Do (he has a show in the new year featuring tribute acts), his BBC2 chat show is, if anything, getting better.
Even my boyfriend, who, to put things into context, loathes so-called 'trash TV', is always banging on about Norton being a first-rate brain and wit. However, it's Norton's charm that enables him to be waspish and still keep the celebrities on side (he once said of repeat-guest Jordan: 'She's one of the most successful authors in the country - you can't take that away from her'). Coupled with an unabated silliness, this is what makes his chat show - that signature 'camp' ragbag of mercilessly teased celebrity guests, audience participation and inveterate web surfing - still feel so fresh and watchable. 'Well,' says Norton, 'I suppose we should know what we're doing after 10 years.'
The day we meet, at a central London hotel, Norton rushes in an hour late because of the traffic jams caused by the state opening of Parliament. He is dripping with apologies, and sweat. The latter caused by jumping out of his cab and running the last mile. 'I thought: Well, even if you've gone, I've done some cardio,' he says. After being horrified by the sight of himself looking fat on TV, Norton is now into fitness, and certainly looks as 'buff' as anyone could hope for when they're leaning against a sofa arm, panting for breath. 'I think I'm having a heart attack,' he announces between gasps. 'Obviously, gym not very good.'
Once recovered, Norton is as friendly, easy and open as you might expect from someone who 'told all', including near-adventures as a San Francisco rent boy, in his candid 2005 autobiography So Me (more of which anon). Self-deprecating, he almost flinches at the idea of being lured into an outbreak of pomposity - when the 'deep' questions appear, as they must, his eyes twinkle and he often adopts the pose of a chin-stroking shrink ('Hmm, interesting').
'Do I have more depth than I'm given credit for? NO!' he chuckles. 'It's only when I'm interviewed that I get to do any thinking. It's not as if I sit down with the postie, with him asking: "Where do you see yourself in 20 years?"' Does Norton consider himself particularly witty? 'Occasionally I'll say something and think: That was quite clever. But not very often. Mostly I'm thinking: I've said that before. Or it will be: Oh my god, my brain has completely gone to mush, I must stop drinking.'
Norton has always said his Irishness helps, simply because it renders him 'classless'. 'The other thing about our shows is we've never been cool. It's always been a kind of guilty pleasure if it's been a pleasure at all.'
What about the ongoing debate about the squillions he is paid for his 'golden handcuffs' deal with the BBC (rumoured to be £5m over three years)? Along with Jonathan Ross, Norton, though not paid nearly as much, is always in the line of fire when it comes to moans about misspending public funds. Norton says it's long surprised him to realise how 'accountable' the BBC has to be. 'It's a very vulnerable organisation, which I don't understand, because you look at the BBC and you think: You're huge, you're this monolithic thing, just go fuck off.'
In this way, there's a 'world of difference', Norton thinks, between the BBC and other channels: 'Peter Fincham [the BBC controller forced to resign over the Year with the Queen fake-footage scandal] has lost his job; ITV has stolen nearly £8m, and all those legs are still under the table. That makes no sense to me at all.'
Later, Norton says, 'What I'd love [the BBC] to do one day is just say [he looks solemn]: "You're right, we're stopping." The director general, Mark Thompson, just goes: "Let's just stop the BBC. You happy now, Daily Mail? It's gone!"'
How about the cyclical attacks on Norton's own contract? 'Listen,' he says. 'That salary is a miracle. I don't know how I get it. But if the BBC has decided that's my market value, then what kind of moron would go: "No! Please take half of my salary and invest in Saturday-morning children's programmes!"'
Does he think people have a tendency to overreact about him? 'Yes, I do.' Norton flops on to the cushions with a wry grin. 'Jesus Christ, it's only television.'
Norton, 44 (his real surname, Walker, was changed for Equity purposes), was raised in Bandon, Country Cork, in a Protestant family in a Catholic district. His late father, Billy, was a Guinness rep; his mother, Rhoda, worked for the local Mothers' Union. In So Me, he confessed to wetting the bed until he was nine or 10 and 'cross-dressing', wearing his sister's clothes. 'I did wet the bed, and people tried to read something into it,' says Norton. 'I'm like: I did stop - I don't wet the bed now.' As for the cross-dressing, he doesn't think too much should be made of it: 'I was a tiny cross-dresser, under four, and my sister had prettier clothes - I was just trying to cheer up a dull outfit.'
Norton's childhood, though not unhappy, did seem to suffer from 'small-town' malaise. 'Hurrah for telly, movies and magazines,' he says with feeling. Joking apart, he did sound a bit sad and isolated - how much of it does he think was to do with his sexuality? He shrugs: 'I've heard other gay people say when they were growing up they felt "foreign". Growing up, I was able to label these feelings as: I'm a Protestant. It wasn't until I left, I thought: Oh, those weren't Protestant feelings.'
There was an adolescent encounter with a male foreign-exchange student, but Norton found he couldn't tell his parents he was gay and eventually ended up more or less 'coming out' on TV, simply because his behaviour was so obvious. 'Which I don't recommend to anyone.' His mother's reaction was: 'It's such a lonely life,' and his family, whom he describes as 'quite Fifties', were to prove more relaxed than he could have hoped.
In those early years, was it that Norton didn't want to be gay? There was a fling with an older woman, a tutor, and another year-long relationship with an American girl. 'I don't think anyone wants to be gay,' says Norton. 'For a cosmopolitan child living in London, on the right side of town, maybe it wouldn't cost them a second thought. But when I was growing up, it did cost me a second thought. I thought I'd be a social pariah. Back then, if you saw a gay man in a film, he was the baddie, or he was going to be killed, or he'd kill himself.' He smiles wryly. 'You knew it wasn't going to end well for the gay character 100 per cent of the time.'
Another frustration was that Norton wanted to be an actor, but back then drama courses weren't readily available. 'It's not like now, when anyone can be a failed actor.' He ended up having a kind of mini-breakdown at Cork University, feeling very low and collecting dead insects, though he pooh-poohs the notion of genuine depression - after visiting Paris and London, he thinks he simply became disenchanted with Cork. 'Some people think they're depressed and they go to the doctor and want pills. And you just think: You hate where you live, you've lost your job, your boyfriend has dumped you, could all this be why you're depressed?'
In the end, he fled to San Francisco to live in a hippy commune. It was here that, skint and sexually curious, he answered an ad to become a rent boy, backing out at the last moment when he was asked to 'perform' for the pimp.
'It's probably one of those stories that needs to be taken in context,' says Norton with some understatement. 'You had to be Irish, you had to be 20, you had to be in San Francisco, you had to be trying to be gay, but not knowing how to be gay.' Norton reflects that, in terms of Aids, he had a lucky escape. 'This was 1983, when San Francisco was a gay Disneyland. At the time, I was thinking: I should be having lots of sex, what's wrong with me? But looking back, it's like: Thank God!'
Back in England he joined the Central School of Speech and Drama, and realised his talents lay in being funny rather than dramatic. Another lucky escape - surely better to end up as a chat-show supremo than just another actor? Norton isn't so sure. 'You'll always feel a failed actor before a success at anything else.' However, around this time Norton was violently mugged, stabbed in the street, which helped put the 'greenhouse' of drama school into perspective. 'Afterwards, I was like: I'm playing the servant in The Cherry Orchard, fine, who gives a fuck?'
That was 18 years ago - how does Norton feel now about his 'near-death experience'? He laughs at the term, though concedes it was serious - he lost a lot of blood. 'It was interesting because when you're losing blood it really is your life force going out of you. And what's nice about it is that it's only a little bit panicky and then you're just really tired.' He remembers an elderly couple came to help him. 'The old lady was there in her dressing gown, God love her, with someone bleeding on her doorstep, and instinctively I asked to hold her hand - which I think is a kind of human thing, where you don't want to die alone.'
The mugging proved to be the wake-up call Norton needed. Though there were still gruelling years waiting tables, he started doing radio and TV (he was Father Noel in Father Ted), and performing stand-up shows at the Edinburgh Festival (The Mother Teresa of Calcutta Farewell Tour; The Karen Carpenter Bar and Grill). Nominated for a Perrier, he stood in for Jack Doherty on his talk show and was voted best newcomer at the British Comedy Awards, the first of many gongs (he has since won several Baftas and an International Emmy).
Norton joined Channel 4 for So Graham Norton and V Graham Norton, at one point going out five nights a week with a high-octane mix of prank calls, audience interaction and probes into internet fetishism. Norton ushered in the new millennium with a woman shooting ping-pong balls out of her vagina. He also got Cybill Shepherd to talk about 'where' Elvis kissed her, Dustin Hoffman to tell a dirty joke about Brigitte Bardot's 'muff', and Mo Mowlam to marry two dogs.
Things haven't always gone to plan - Norton ended up calling Raquel Welch a 'grumpy old bitch' and pulling the plug on their satellite link; Harvey Keitel hated the experience so much he tried to talk Dennis Hopper out of doing the show. Perhaps more damaging, later, when Norton first joined the BBC, was that peculiar 'lost period' when he disappeared off to do a New York cable show (this may have had something to do with his then-beau, singer Kristian Seeber).
On his return, it was as if Norton was on 'mute'. He didn't want to launch straight into another chat show, and ended up hosting lacklustre series such as Strictly Dance Fever, which is when people first started carping about how expensive he was. However, soon enough, he was back on form, first with Graham Norton's Bigger Picture, then with Maria and Joseph; he and Andrew Lloyd Webber proved to be an inspired pairing - the Two Ronnies of musical theatre - though to Norton's disappointment (and mine), plans remain shelved to find a lead for Jesus Christ Superstar. 'A shame,' muses Norton. 'Finding Jesus would be such a great title.'
So is Norton worth that fat-cat salary? I'd say so - the on-screen combination of warmth, wit and cheek is rare, and that man grafts. There's a telling moment when Norton says one reason he enjoys doing the 'big shiny Saturday-night floor shows' is that it's 'not all about him'. Unlike, he means, the chat show, which he admits is designed to be 'guest proof': 'We've had American guests and they've said: "I really liked doing that. On other shows, there's a real pressure to tell funny stories." And I'm like: Now you tell me - I was only doing all those jokes because you didn't say anything!'
What about the 'camp' thing? 'What about it? I am camp,' says Norton simply. Though he says he has bridled on occasion; especially when the Channel 4 show was five nights a week. 'And there was no time to step back and go: "Wait a minute - didn't we do lots of getting-fucked-up-the-arse jokes yesterday?"
'Camp is a weird thing,' says Norton, suddenly reflective. 'Because I think it's harder to accept being camp than being gay.' He remembers seeing some gay teenagers interviewed about him on TV. 'They said they thought the show was funny but hated how camp I was. Fine. Except these teenagers were the campest teenagers you'd ever seen.
'It broke my heart,' Norton continues. 'Because I would have been them. I used to look at Larry Grayson and think: Oh my God, is that the future? I don't want to be that person. And now they're looking at me, thinking: I don't want to be camp like that.' Is camp a culture? 'Not a culture, just a manner, a way of being,' he says. 'Some gay men you meet, you think: Jesus, how did you develop into this? And that's how I feel about it. I act it up, and I arch it out, but not 24/7.'
For such a colourful TV personality, Norton certainly manages to live life 'off the radar', dividing his time between his homes in Wapping and County Cork, and walking his dogs, Bailey and Madge. He feels he has sidestepped becoming a tabloid creature mainly because he's always been 'out' and uses his foibles as part of his act anyway.
Norton has even made peace with Ireland, the torture chamber of his youth, his affection in part re-ignited by how beautifully he thinks the local community handled his father's death seven years ago. 'You think you won't like that kind of thing, but when you lose your dad it's lovely everyone coming around and bringing cake or a bottle of whiskey and telling you nice things about him. You think: Oh, that's why they do this - it's a really good idea.'
Romantically, things seem more vexed. Early on, there was an Australian called Ashley, who seemed to affect Norton to the point where he didn't fall in love again for seven years. His next relationship, with American Scott Michaels, disintegrated just as Norton found fame. Most recently there was Seeber, who moved to Britain to be with him. Now this, too, has ended.
Norton has admitted he is probably a hard person to live with, needing control over his environment - what is his take on relationships? 'When they're good they're great; when they're not, they're unbearable.' He's not interested in marriage and kids. 'I don't think I could do children. They're hard work, and what if you fuck them up?' What about being part of a gay power couple (I'm thinking Elton and David)? 'Oh no, that would annoy me,' Norton says with a glint. 'I'm far too competitive.'
I ask if he's a romantic. 'I suppose I am. Then you meet other people.' You're referring to 'movie love', where you're bound to be disappointed? 'Yes, because movies end, books stop, songs finish, but you've got to keep going. And no one wants to think about the bickering at the end of When Harry Met Sally, or him fucking somebody else. Why would they?
'But there's a lot to be said for having your other half,' Norton continues. 'It's the difference between going on holiday with someone or going by yourself. It's all about how an experience shared is an experience enhanced. You've got to believe that sharing your life is worth it in some way.'
As for fame, Norton thinks it affects relationships only in the sense that everything does. 'Clearly my job repels some people and attracts others. And some people it attracts I won't like because that's all they see - but whoever I'm with, even if it doesn't attract them, they're going to have to live with it, and it must be quite boring being the other half of that.' Could Norton be the other half? Another glint: 'I could. For a while.'
As the interview winds down, we discuss ageing. Rather ludicrously, Norton refers to himself as 'now in spitting distance of 60 - I always say I will end my days sitting in bed with my Baftas, dribbling soup down myself, which my dogs lick off, watching daytime telly,' he says. 'Which is probably the reality, but if I get it in first, it's funny rather than deeply sad.
'The good thing about me,' says Norton, 'is that, if it came to it, I could live on Dairylea Triangles. Maybe get some dog food in as well. Perhaps I could share that.' You could 'do' poverty? 'Yes, I could exist on quite little. Whereas if someone was with you and it's all, "Isn't this marvellous?", and you said: "I'm stopping and there's no more money," essentially they'd go off and I'd be...' Norton raises his arms imploringly: '"No, stop, this dog food is delicious!"'
Instead of going on something like I'm A Celebrity, Norton says he'd much rather end his career on a late-night talk radio-type show: 'That's my ambition, you know. [He heavy-breathes] "Next caller, please."' Other than that, he'd be happy enough pottering around, doing a bit of acting and writing.
But wouldn't he miss it all - the roar of the chat-show crowd? Ask Norton what he gets out of his job and he smirks self-mockingly: 'Well, it's very hard to beat 500 people laughing. That's a huge validation.' And this is what he believes everyone is in it for: 'It doesn't matter how serious an actor is - they're doing it because there's some sort of vortex of need there.' Celebrity is effectively something wrong with a person? 'Well, there's something missing, isn't there - otherwise why not go into business?'
According to Norton, his anonymity in America taught him he wouldn't miss fame. In the back of his mind, he is always aware that it could all end tomorrow. 'I could walk out of here, get one phone call, and it could all be over,' smiles Norton. 'And once you accept that you're one big flop away from being unemployable, nothing can scare you any more.'


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