Graham Norton could happily retire from his TV show tomorrow -- just don't take the 'Eurovision' gig away from him, writes Gerard Gilbert
So, Graham Norton. Is he Graham Norton, camp chat-show ringmaster, Radio 2 DJ and Eurovision wit, or is he also still a bit Graham Walker, the failed actor from small-town Ireland who had to change his name under Equity rules?
I suspect there isn't much distance between the two -- with the important exception of success -- for Norton has made a glittering career out of simply being himself.
Certainly the tanned and relaxed-looking man I meet is reassuringly Graham Norton (perhaps Reassuringly Graham Norton can be the title of his next chat show), especially when he laughs his "hyuck, hyuck, hyuck".
And as we sit side by side, it's also easy to see how his guests might relax in his company. He's easy to talk to, he actively listens and he is warm -- a handy trait when your business is other human beings.
Norton recently sold his production company, So TV, to ITV for £17m -- does that mean he will follow Jonathan Ross to ITV?
"I really don't think that's true," he says. "As far as I know they've bought a business. Obviously I'm part of that business in that my show is our main product, but in business terms they're much better leaving me where I am than starting afresh. But you never know."
That Norton is not primarily motivated by money can be evinced by the fact that, long before he finally joined the BBC from Channel 4, he turned down a £5m-over-two-years offer from the Corporation.
Once he did sign for the Beeb in 2005, he hosted a succession of Saturday-night talent shows before finally seeing his late-night BBC2 chat show promoted to Jonathan Ross's old Friday slot in 2009. Which stars remain on his wish list?
"I always had Madonna as the answer to this question, but now we've had her," he says. "[Prince] Harry would be good now. We haven't had Brad or Angelina and we haven't had George Clooney."
He freely admits that his style of chat is a branch of comedy ("I doubt you will come away having learnt very much"), but he also believes that the old-style Michael Parkinson approach wouldn't work with the modern calibre of 'celebrity'.
Norton will be 50 next April. He lives in Wapping, east London, with his two dogs, Bailey and Madge, and his boyfriend for the past year and a half ("That's good for me"), Trevor, even if he's not quite sure what Trevor does for a living. "This is where he'll get upset . . . I know he's changing jobs . . . he was in a sort of software sales thing."
Norton has expressed a desire for a lover of the same age, instead of the younger ones who made him feel like "a gay Michael Winner".
Is Trevor the same age? "No. No, he isn't. So there you go. I was asking him last night, 'What do you want me to say about you?', because it annoys boyfriends if you talk about them, but it equally annoys them if you don't talk about them."
What about the idea of having children -- like Elton John and David Furnish? "It's weird because you can do it now . . . so now you have to decide not to. And I guess I have decided not to. If it was possible for me to adopt, I probably would, but no one's going to let me adopt."
As well as his house in Wapping, Norton owns homes in Manhattan, on the Sussex coast and in Co Cork, where he was born in 1963.
After school in Bandon, he dropped out of university and went travelling -- to San Francisco, sharing a house with a group of hippies, and nearly becoming a rent boy, which in early 1980s California, with AIDS devastating the gay community, could well have been a death sentence.
"It's one of the reasons I'm glad I'm not a parent," he says. "We all did such stupid things." He did, however, continue to experiment, taking one of the hippies as a boyfriend and having a long-ish term girlfriend, before moving to London.
Having learnt in drama school in the late 1980s that he couldn't play a straight role, a brush with death -- he was stabbed in the chest by muggers -- helped him take life and art less seriously. "It just made you care less, made you realise," he says, "it can be over like that."
And then, in desperation ("There was no plan B"), he decided that he needed to write his own material -- popping a tea towel on his head and performing Mother Teresa of Calcutta's Grand Farewell Tour. That led to other one-man shows which in turn led to Edinburgh and a regular guest slot on BBC Radio 4.
His big break came with the advent of Channel 5, as guest host on The Jack Docherty Show after which Channel 5 gave him his own panel show, Bring Me the Head of Light Entertainment, while Norton simultaneously played Fr Noel Furlong in Father Ted. Channel 4 soon came knocking.
Norton likens his chat-show work to the labours of the oxpecker: "That bird that sits on top of a hippopotamus and lives off the grubs that live in the cracks of their skin".
He doesn't hang out with other celebrities (he wrote in his autobiography "Famous friends, those two words make about as much sense to me as Fun Run or Japanese Banquet"), he rarely tweets ("I've got nothing to say") and claims he is perfectly happy out of the limelight. So Me, written in 2003, ends with Norton experiencing a mid-life crisis on his 40th birthday.
"I think 50 will be less shocking than 40," he says. "I feel much more settled. Forty just crept up on me -- I didn't see it coming. Although I had success, my life was all up in the air. Now the show is at a good place, I like where I live, I like how I live, and if it all stops tomorrow I'm okay with that as well."
Although he would be happy to retire, there is one job that Norton would be loath to give up, and that is Eurovision. "Losing that gig will be the one time I can think of in my career where I'll be upset," he says.
So is Norton, as one commentator described him, "the 21st-Century Terry Wogan"?
"That's a compliment as far as I'm concerned, but Terry is quite busy being the 21st-Century Terry Wogan. There is no game plan for what I did.
"What I say about the money I earn now is that I placed a bet on something very remote. My life could have been so grim . . . really, really grim."
The Graham Norton Show is on BBC1 on Friday nights