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A blog on the BBC radio programme Just A Minute
Present panellists include Paul Merton, Graham Norton, Clement Freud, Tony Hawks, Sue Perkins, Stephen Fry, Jenny Eclair, Julian Clary, Ross Noble, Lisa Tarbuck, Tim Rice and Wendy Richard.
Present panellists include Paul Merton, Graham Norton, Clement Freud, Tony Hawks, Sue Perkins, Stephen Fry, Jenny Eclair, Julian Clary, Ross Noble, Lisa Tarbuck, Shappi Khorsandi, Helen Lederer, Josie Long and Charles Collingwood.
Profile: Graham Norton
The camp presenter has struggled to find his niche at the BBC but taking over Wogan’s Eurovision slot should be just the ticket
Graham Norton wanted to be a zoo keeper but had to settle for the next best thing, a job as a chat show host. Now he is going one better by slipping into the shoes and brogue of Terry Wogan, a fellow Irishman, to preside as the BBC commentator on that outlandish bestiary known as the Eurovision song contest.
Wogan, 70, bowing out after 35 years, had complained that bloc voting meant the annual event was “no longer a music contest”. This should not unduly bother Norton, who happily compered How Do You Solve a Problem like Maria?, although critics said it was less a singing competition than 13 weeks’ free advertising for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s West End show The Sound of Music.
Aptly, the 45-year-old presenter’s last collaboration with Lloyd Webber was called I’d Do Anything – it was a contest to find stars for the stage show Oliver!. Yes, if you want a cheeky, innuendo-laden joker willing to promote the national lottery, Comic Relief or the plight of the Ethiopian wolf, in addition to hosting his own weekly programme, Norton is your man.
Few suspected that Norton’s mischievous cherub was slowly morphing into Uncle Tel. One of the first to spot the convergence was AA Gill, the Sunday Times television critic, who, noting in 2003 that Wogan was the “monkey wrench” of British broadcasting who could fit his jaws around any nutty format, suggested that the presenter’s self-deprecating act was essentially camp: “Turn up the falsetto a little and you’ve got Graham Norton.”
No one is camper than Norton, to his professed chagrin: “I used to look at Larry Grayson and think: oh my God, is that the future? I don’t want to be that person.” Gay teenagers, interviewed on television, have said the diminutive comic with his silk suits and flamboyant manner is too outré. “It broke my heart,” Norton said. “Because I would have been them.”
Recently there was another clue that the entertainer, who has sailed almost as close to the wind as Russell Brand, secretly hankered after Wogan’s warm mantle. He would like to end his career on a radio show, he told an interviewer, in preference to sitting in bed, “dribbling soup down myself” and watching television.
Not that he has any plans to take it easy, beyond walking his dogs, Bailey and Madge, at his homes in Wapping, east London, and Co Cork. Recently he flounced before the media in a red sequined dress, blonde wig and make-up as a foretaste of his appearance next month as the drag artist Zaza in the West End musical La Cage aux Folles. It would be, he predicted, “a late Christmas present for theatre critics”.
Yet for all his smutty double entendres, Norton mostly pulls off the trick of being likable and not outraging guests. On his previous Channel 4 shows he persuaded Cybill Shepherd to talk about where Elvis Presley kissed her, Dustin Hoffman to tell a dirty joke about Brigitte Bardot’s “muff” and Mo Mowlam to marry two dogs.
“His main strength is that he doesn’t offend people, however rude he gets,” said Helen Hawkins, the Sunday Times Culture editor, who has followed Norton’s career since he was a stand-up comedian in Edinburgh in 1992. “That’s a gift he has managed to parlay into becoming the acceptable face of cheek. It seems he’s now getting elder statesman status.”
Norton’s friend Simon Fanshawe, the writer and broadcaster, believes that he falls into England’s grand tradition of camp entertainers: “But he’s not just ‘a poof off the telly’, as he would say. He has a sharp mind and an eagle eye for thinking through an idea.
“The thing that strikes me about his humour is the certainty of purpose about what he does. He doesn’t hold back. He will always go to the heart of something by exposing its weakness or vulnerability. I put that down to his mother, who was extraordinarily direct.”
In person, Norton comes across as “normal” and not relentlessly funny; at ease with his clamouring fans but not craving attention. However, one female interviewer found him “more insecure about his looks than any woman I’ve come across” – significantly, he chose a mirror as a luxury when he appeared on Desert Island Discs.
Although coy about receiving the Eurovision accolade – “someone has to do it” – Norton has been edging closer to the event since 2007, when he hosted the first annual Eurovision dance contest, followed by an announcement last October that he would present Your Country Needs You, the UK’s competition to find a song for next year’s Eurovision song contest, to be held in Moscow.
He was born Graham Walker (another Graham Walker on Equity’s books prompted the name change) on April 4, 1963, in Clondalkin, just outside Dublin. His late father, Billy, was “a gentle man” whose job as a Guinness sales rep kept the Protestant family on the move. His mother, Rhoda, worked for the local Mothers’ Union.
In his 2004 autobiography, So Me, Norton confessed to wetting the bed until he was nine or 10, although he was not conscious of feeling unhappy. He was also a cross-dresser who liked to wear his elder sister’s clothes. “I would sit around the house like a tiny transvestite,” he said.
At 12 he was sent to a boarding school in the Protestant enclave of Bandon, in west Cork, where he excelled in plays and debates, although contemporaries saw him as distant. He felt effeminate: “I got mistaken for a girl a lot because I had long hair.”
He was 16 when, on an exchange trip to Toulouse, he had his first gay affair, with Jules, his “blond and clean” young host. Norton was traumatised as the implications sank in: “I don’t think anyone wants to be gay. I thought I’d be a social pariah. Back then, if you saw a gay man in a film he was a baddie.”
Desperate to leave school, he took a job in a pottery. He was supposed to make ceramic brooches but proved “so hopeless” that he ended up peeling apples for £1 an hour.
Despite a poor set of A-levels, he won a place at University College, Cork, to study English and French. During a summer vacation in France he was seduced by a female tutor, but his delight at being “back on the heterosexual team” was tempered by her voiced suspicion that he was gay. When she slept with someone else, he fled to London, where he became a waiter and realised “there was a whole variety of lives to be led”.
Back in Cork, filled with self-loathing, he cultivated his loneliness by collecting dead flies. Without telling anyone, he abandoned his degree and went to America, eventually staying for a year at a hippie commune in San Francisco. “I realised I couldn’t take any more of that misery,” he said. “I hated it.”
The 17 hippies in the Stardance commune were friendly but pathetic: “They’d come home with Barbie dolls and all they wanted was junk food like other kids.” He worked as a waiter, began a long affair with booze and slept with Obo, the male commune leader.
He was 20 when he answered an advertisement for a rent boy. “Because I was from Ireland and I was so naive, it seemed that the only way to have sex, to broach the subject, was to turn it into a career,” he once recalled. “I didn’t know how to chat people up or go into bars.” In the event, Norton balked when a pimp required a live audition. He was saved, he believed, by divine intervention: “The night before, a pressure cooker exploded on me, causing a large blistering on my chest, which I took as a sign from God.”
Instead, he found his first real girlfriend, Elizabeth Smith, a Berkeley blonde supporting herself by waitressing. Asked whether she suspected he was gay, he replied: “Well, we were having lots of sex. Also, she didn’t want me to be. I didn’t want to be. And we were kids.”
Norton settled on a gay identity on his return to London, where he worked as a waiter in Covent Garden before taking a place at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama. Although he forged lifelong friendships with his contemporaries, who included Jason Isaacs and Rufus Sewell, he realised his talents lay in comedy and not drama.
His stand-up shows at the Edinburgh festival, dressed as Mother Teresa, earned him a Perrier nomination, and when he stood in for Jack Doherty on his chat show, he was voted best newcomer at the British Comedy Awards. He joined Channel 4 to present So Graham Norton and V Graham Norton, which at one point ran for five nights a week.
When the BBC poached Norton in 2005 for a reported £3.5m contract, he seemed a fish out of water. “At Channel 4 he had complete licence, whereas there was a sense of his wings being clipped at the BBC,” Fanshawe said. Norton hosted the lacklustre Strictly Dance Fever, which was strictly for amateurs, before finding his feet with his current series, The Graham Norton Show.
In one of his most popular video clips on the internet, Norton entertains his guest Roseanne Barr, the actress, by telephoning an Austrian tourist board to inquire about holidays in a town named F******. “Friends have told me that F****** is fabulous,” he enthuses. “Is there a F****** hotel?”
Nul points from Austria, then.
If radio is about a listener relating to a voice and building up some kind of relationship with it, I feel that way about Peter Jones. Jones is best known as the voice of the book in the radio adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but what I really wanted, and what BBC7 gave me, was the voice of Jones, who died in 2000, on Just a Minute.
Despite the many fine comedians who appear on the show, and Kenneth Williams's bravura performances in the 1970s and 80s, Jones remains my all-time favourite panellist. He always gave the impression of an old actor in a tweed jacket who had just wandered into the studio - which was more or less what he was.
His glorious insouciance worked brilliantly as counterpoint to the eager beaver chairman, Nicholas Parsons. Just as I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue worked because its host, Humphrey Lyttelton, was so funny and knowing, what lifts Just a Minute into the pantheon is that it is a comedy panel game chaired by someone with no discernible sense of humour. Brilliant. BBC7 has also brought us repeats of another work of genius featuring Jones - the spoof memoirs of an actor called J Kingston Platt, first broadcast in 1988.