'If nobody buys my novel, I have other jobs' - Graham Norton
He's king of the chat show circuit, and not short of a few bob, but even Graham Norton can't get complacent in his job. He tells Julia Llewellyn Smith why he went back to his Cork roots for his latest project - his first novel - which was very much a labour of love
Published 13/10/2016 | 02:30
Graham Norton knows that certain hostile factions are keen to see him ousted from the BBC.
"You assume they pick their targets," he says crisply. "There was Jonathan Ross, they saw him off; Jeremy Clarkson, Chris Evans… So now they will pick on whoever's left, which is me and Gary Lineker.
"I hope Gary's ready; he's not stupid, he must realise it will be one of us next."
Norton's talking about the new BBC charter to be granted in January, when the salaries of its "top talent" will be revealed. He is predicted to come second to Lineker, earning a rumoured £1.5 million a year.
"It seems to be really the only thing the government is interested in," he says, sitting in a private members' club near his home in east London.
"When it's published, I will be looking to see how much everyone else gets, but it's none of my business. Only something like 8pc of the BBC's budget goes on on-screen talent.
"I always think, surely the story is, 'What the f*** is the other 92pc spent on?' That's much more interesting, but no one seems to care. No one's gunning for Ant and Dec or Simon Cowell."
No, because they work for ITV.
"Of course, there's a huge difference, it's public money," Norton agrees, eyes bulging and nostrils flaring.
"But within that, there's responsibility. I try not to feel that responsibility, but they will catch me out."
How? "Who knows? I can't live in fear of that. I try not to be too stupid," he laughs. "But the worst that can happen is that they succeed, and if they do I'll have a lot of time to write."
I sincerely hope Norton's never "caught". Even if he was, rival channels would snap him up. But he's quite right that if everything goes wrong, he has a new and promising career as a novelist to fall back on.
His first novel, 'Holding', out this week, fulfils his long-cherished dream to write fiction - something he managed to pull off thanks to a canny negotiation with his publishers.
"I wanted to write a novel, they wanted a memoir, so we did a two-book deal and they got the memoir first, then I gave them the novel they didn't want," he chortles.
You can imagine raised eyebrows at Hodder & Stoughton when Norton delivered his manuscript. It's not that 'Holding''s not a good read - it's very enjoyable - but it's nothing like the novel you'd expect from one of television's campest figures.
On screen and radio, Norton is smutty and brash, but this tale of three spinster sisters, an overweight policeman and an alcoholic mother living lives of quiet desperation in small-town Ireland is sober and restrained in its tone.
"The publishers probably wanted some drug-fuelled, gay-sex-ridden thing set in bars, but I have given them a cosy, bittersweet romance," he says blithely.
It is set in a world he knows well, after a peripatetic childhood following his father, a Guinness salesman, around the countryside.
"Anyway," he says, "if nobody buys it, or they say it's s***, it's not the end of the world, I have my jobs. And if it does well, how lovely.
"I have to read a lot of celebrity novels for work, and so long as it's better than most of them, I'll be okay."
Norton, 53, enjoyed crafting the novel, whereas writing the memoir was "like the longest, hardest homework", because he dislikes talking about himself - "I'm much more interested in other people's lives".
He has huge fun with the celebrities on his BBC chat show, which started again two weeks ago, but he's at his empathetic best interacting with "real people", like the callers to his Radio 2 show or in his "agony aunt" column for the London Telegraph.
"That column reminds you of just what people will endure," he says. "That's what comes across: people survive in terrible circumstances."
Fame came to him in his 30s, with his Channel 4 chat show. He took a salary cut to move to the BBC in 2005, and stayed put after selling his production company to ITV for £17 million six years ago. (It produces Norton's chat show and other entertainment programmes.) So what does he think of 'The Great British Bake Off ''s defection?
"It's very sad for everybody; Love Productions is looking bad, Channel 4 looks a bit stupid, for everyone else it's collateral damage.
"'Bake Off' was about the four presenters and there's an alchemy which will be very hard to replicate. No matter how good it is on Channel 4, it will never be as good as it was on the BBC: even if all four had gone, somehow it would have been sullied. But in the end it's a show about cakes and we'll all get on with our lives."
Norton's just been filming with ex-'Bake Off' presenter Mel Giedroyc ("So nice, you forget you are on television working with her") for 'Let It Shine', the BBC's new talent show, conceived by Take That's Gary Barlow. It launches in January, filling the hole left by 'The Voice', which jumped ship to ITV.
"There was no outcry about that, because there was never any real affection for 'The Voice'. 'Shine''s different; we're not promising stardom, we're promising a job, managing expectations."
Norton has the slightly impatient air of someone used to doing things his own way. Several longish-term relationships have failed ("The older you get, the less right you have to be fussy, and yet the older you get, the fussier you become," he once said). Now he lives alone with his dogs, Bailey ("very old - sad times ahead") and Madge.
"I have been on [the dating app] Tinder, I go through phases when I dip in and out," he says. "It's fun looking at people on it, it's like being on a platform watching a train going by very slowly and you get to see everyone."
Doesn't he worry strangers will want to meet him for the wrong reasons? "What's a wrong reason?" Well, because he's Graham Norton. "Maybe, but you know, people meet somebody for a reason," he shrugs. "And anyway, I am Graham Norton."
'Holding', published by Hodder & Stoughton, €20, is out now