'Being famous is like living in Bantry - everyone knows exactly who you are'
Chat-show king Graham Norton's average night is spent with Madonna or Tom Cruise, but he's most at home in his native West Cork
Published 23/09/2015 | 02:30
Looking fit, tanned and relaxed, Graham Norton is back in London after his annual West Cork leave, but is "still on an Ireland high".
He hasn't lost the famous beard - "it just started because I'm lazy and don't like shaving" - and the TV star is about to begin prepping for the 18th season of his all-conquering chat show.
But even as he sits in a boardroom on the 14th floor of the ITV London Studios, looking out at the spectacular views across the Thames and central London, Norton's thoughts are still back on the Sheep's Head in West Cork and the holiday home he calls "paradise".
"I'm still on a bit of my Irish high," he says.
"I just got back from spending the summer there and it was fantastic".
The TV star may have dodged the worst of the weather. He was also away from his native Ireland when the same-sex marriage referendum vote happened, an event that he remembers as "joyous".
"It was a very weird moment. I was actually in Vienna for the Eurovision and I watched it all unfold on CNN," he says.
"And there was something so, I dunno, just so huge about it. So much had happened in a relatively short period of time. And it was about my life, the life I lived when I was there. And to see CNN reporting from Dublin Castle, on that, of all things…. it was a weird, wonderful day".
Norton says he was nervous in the run up to the vote and tries to understand those who were "not ready" to say Yes to marriage equality.
"Well, we talk about it now like it was 100pc who voted Yes!" he says, laughing.
"But some didn't. And I think those people just weren't ready yet. There was a lot of misinformation being fed, and people were nervous leading up to the day, afraid there would there be, what they call here, the Shy Tory vote.
"Would there be all these people who would suddenly come out of the woodwork and vote against it? But there wasn't. And it was just joyous on the day".
It's clear, from his easy talk about his career and his upcoming 18th season with The Graham Norton Show that he is in a very happy place at the moment.
So now that he can get married in Ireland, and think about having kids, would he?
"Well, you never say never. But, essentially, no, never."
For the moment, Graham is happy to share his life with his two dogs, "a scrappy terrier called Bailey and a freakishly huge labradoodle called Madge." Being the chat-show king of the UK, Norton is able to confirm that yes, Madge is named after Madonna and yes, the Queen of Pop knows all about it.
As for the 18th season of his BBC1 show - which returns on Friday night - Graham lets slip that there will be one big guest coming up shortly, his all-time favourite, Meryl Streep.
But does he still get star-struck by some of the huge Hollywood names that sit on his famous long sofa? He must be a bit blasé by now?
"Well, we never thought we would get George Clooney. Even the person who looks after booking our guests said: 'Clooney? Forget about it, never going to happen'.
"So when it did happen, I was a little awestruck. I mean, it's George Clooney. You have got to be a little star-struck. When George Clooney walks into a room, that's still a pretty big deal".
Norton's big thing is to get his guests, no matter how huge, to play along with the show, to drop their guard, forget about plugging their movies, books or TV shows and just muck in with the fun and games.
And while some (he lists Chris Pratt and Matt Damon as being particularly good sports) do let themselves relax, others can't help staying "on-brand" and preserving that bit of mystique.
"The really huge stars, the old-fashioned Hollywood ones, they don't really stop being stars," he says.
"Tom Cruise is not going to be anything else other than Tom Cruise. That movie-star bubble is not going to go away. And that's fine because that's who he is and he's very good at it.
"Then you have guests that are so beautiful that they are kind of from a different planet. Charlize Theron, Jennifer Lopez, great fun but very other-worldly.
"I think with our show, we are lucky, because the guests have gotten to know us, and what we do. They know we are going to be nice to them, we are not going to try and make them look foolish. They know I don't want to p**s them off".
Expanding on why, for instance, he wouldn't ask Tom Cruise about Scientology, or bring up equally contentious subjects for other guests, Norton explains: "It's a chat show. If you make people really uncomfortable, what are they going to do? They won't answer your question, they'll shut up, and they won't come back".
Fans of the show may think a lot goes into getting the "mix" on the sofa right. But Norton admits that some weeks, it's not so scientific.
"Oh yeah, you try to get the big Hollywood stars on every week, but sometimes it's like; "Oh crap. Who the f**k can we get on the sofa this week?
"But we are lucky. We've been doing this for so long, we can afford to have a rubbish episode every now and again and people will kind of forget that one rubbish episode and just remember that they like the show".
There have been some guests that Norton is not exactly dying to have back. He won't name them, but he does reveal that at least one member of his family has not exactly been awestruck in the starry back-stage environment.
"I remember, ages ago, I had my parents over to watch the show for the first time and afterwards, I said to my Dad 'Hey, do you want to be introduced to Grace Jones?' and he just looked at me and said 'Er…no. You're fine'".
His own pre-show routine, first established when he was a struggling stand-up, remains the same. A glass of white wine before air time.
"Sometimes I'll just sip it. Or just hold it like a prop. It's just something I have gotten used to doing," he says.
Norton is particularly interesting and thoughtful on the subject of fame; something that really only came to him when he was 35 and he got his first big break with his own show on Channel 4.
"I do feel that it came at the right time for me, in terms of being able to handle it," he says.
"In your mid-30s, you are already formed, that's the person you are, the friends you have, the way you deal with the world.
"But I can only imagine what it is like having lots of fame and money when you are 18 or 19. How are you supposed to cope with that?"
He seems to wear his own fame lightly. For instance, he still travels on the Tube around London. "I do get a few unpleasant experiences but I think that's pretty standard for the Tube".
And in West Cork, it seems that he doesn't hide away from the press or the locals, posting pictures of himself in his garden on social media and popping up for community events like the annual charity pub-quiz in Arundel's pub in beautiful, tiny Ahakista.
"I give that impression that I'm visible, because what I do is say 'yes' to two or three things every summer," he says.
"And it's no big deal. People are very nice to me in West Cork, and I love being there and I love being part of that community.
"So if being 'Man Off The Telly' can help a local cause, then it would be ridiculous not to."
He admits there is also an element of finding a comfortable way to be famous in such a small place.
"I think if you try to hide away and become a hermit, that's when you go crazy, and that's when you've got people jumping over the wall trying to get a look at you," he says.
"But if I'm out and about a bit, if I go to the pub occasionally, then people see you around, you're not like a panda, it's not like 'Oh my God I SAW him!'
"So that's why I do it, or one of the reasons why. People kind of bother you less, they just get used to seeing you around. And people bother you less anyway in West Cork".
Now 52, Norton has put some thought into what it means to be Man Off The Telly.
"Years ago, I was doing a little talk with a youth group in Bantry, and a young girl asked me what it's like to be famous - and I couldn't really answer her.
"But then it came to me in a flash, and I told her, being famous is like living in Bantry. Because it's a small town, everybody knows you, everybody knows your business and there are people you try to avoid in the supermarket," he says.
"And maybe that's why I really like it there. Yes, everybody knows I'm Graham off the telly, but then I know that she's Angela from the post office, and that's Tom who works on the butcher's counter in Supervalu, so everybody has a certain kind of notoriety, so it makes more sense to be known.
"If people are pointing at me on Oxford Street, I have no idea who they are. But in Bantry, I probably do know two-thirds of them."
He says he had, up until recently, thought about retiring at 55. But for a number of reasons, including contractual obligations to the BBC, he'll be going on a bit longer now.
"What I actually realised was, I'm still pretty healthy, I could live to 80. And that's a lot of doing shag-all."
There's also his first novel to finish (plans to do so over the summer got stymied when he badly cut his hand in a "freak washing-up incident"). All he will say is that it is a "bit of a love-story, whodunnit set in Ireland".
In the meantime, there are months of shows stretching out in front of him, the return to being Britain's chat-show king (a title that clearly miffs his great rival, Jonathan Ross, left trailing badly in the Corkman's wake).
And he has his dogs to keep him grounded.
"I was only thinking of this the other day. One night recently I was air-kissing Anne Hathaway at half nine. By 10, I was on my knees in my front room, trying to get doggy diarrhoea out from between the floorboards with a knife."
"With dogs, it's very hard to maintain your dignity".