The star who puts Tubs and Co in the halfpenny place
Published 07/04/2013 | 05:00
It was – by any stretch of the imagination – a far cry from James Bond. Just six weeks before Graham Norton had Daniel Craig and Judi Dench on his BBC sofa to talk about their new 007 movie, Skyfall, he had been in the Westlodge Hotel in Bantry, west Cork, hosting a fashion show in aid of the local Protestant church.
There were no TV cameras and no globally famous stars, but Norton was in his element as he introduced the home-grown models – Jessie Scully of Jessie's Hair and Beauty, Mary Hegarty of Cork County Council and Gillian Harte of The Boutique clothes store.
"Graham was incredibly generous with his time," says Canon Paul Willoughby, rector of the Kilmocomogue Union of Parishes. "He was just as funny at the Westlodge as he is on television and he charmed everyone."
Canon Willoughby had taken part in a locally publicised "slimming contest" – shedding two stone – and found himself the subject of Norton's good-natured banter. "He was in a teasing mood," he recalls, "and he had us doubled up with laughter."
Norton – who turned 50 on Thursday – spends two months of each summer at his home in Ahakista, not far from Bantry, on the Sheep's Head Peninsula. He goes to St James the Apostle church services in Durrus and it was this connection that inspired Canon Willoughby to broach the idea of compering the fashion show.
"He does an awful lot for the community in West Cork," he says. "He feels a strong connection with this part of Ireland, having grown up in Bandon."
Although something of a late developer in television terms – he was 34 when he landed a guest presenter's slot on Channel 5 – the man born Graham William Walker has become the undisputed king of the UK talk show.
The 13th season of the award-winning Graham Norton Show kicked off last night and his team hopes this series will see him extend his lead over rival Jonathan Ross in the ratings game. Norton took over from Ross when the latter moved to ITV and has managed to consistently attract more celebrated guests as well as a more sizeable audience.
Galled that Norton has attracted such Hollywood heavy-hitters as Denzil Washington and Helen Mirren, while he has had to make do with fellow ITV stars Ant and Dec and Keith Lemon, Ross has argued that Norton's easygoing interview style makes it a more appealing option for those celebrities keen to avoid awkward one-on-one questions.
"I think Graham gets first bite of film guests," he said last month. "Some stars prefer his show over mine because they're less protected on my programme. If they go on Graham's, three guests all sit together on the sofa. He recently had Jude Law on his show, who could hide behind fellow guest Dame Judi Dench. On my programme, they can't do that."
Perhaps wisely, Norton has refused to be drawn into a slagging match with Ross. He is content, instead, to work away from the public eye in an effort to land the really big fish. His coup in getting Madonna on his show early last year was the product of more than 10 years of effort.
The Guardian's television critic Sam Wollaston believes the Irishman has become a firm favourite on British TV – a Terry Wogan for a new generation.
"Graham Norton is very good at what he does," he says. "He was quite outrageous and a little bit out there when he was on Channel 4 some years back, but in the intervening years his appeal has reached a mainstream audience.
"He has softened his presentation style a little, but his popularity is also indicative of the changes in society over here where gay culture has become the norm. (UK broadcaster) Julian Clary's camp presentation never quite reached the sort of audience Norton has enjoyed, partly because his heyday was 20 years ago but also because Graham's style is warmer, less catty.
"He stepped into Wogan's shoes in a seamless fashion when it came to Eurovision and I can see him being the go-to choice for the big gigs – royal weddings, that sort of thing."
While there has been much discussion about the money paid to RTÉ stars in the past fortnight, Norton's earnings make those of Ryan Tubridy and Pat Kenny look paltry. He has taken what is thought to be a substantial pay cut from the BBC, as the corporation seeks to bring budgets under control, but he is still paid in the region of £2m (€2.4m) per annum.
Last August, he enjoyed a windfall when he and his business partner, Graham Stuart, sold their production company, So TV, to ITV for £10m (€11.8m), with an extra £7m to be made in the coming years, pending the success of the shows it makes.
The pair had established the company in 1998 and besides producing Graham Norton series, also gave the world hit-and-miss programmes from the comedian Sarah Millican and the comic Justin Lee Collins. (The latter faces an uncertain broadcasting future after being found guilty of harassing an ex-girlfriend late last year.)
Stuart, whom Norton first met while cutting his teeth on Channel 5, prefers to stay behind the scenes but is said to be a shrewd operator with an intuitive sense of what makes top-quality entertainment. Norton, for his part, takes a hands-on approach to his programmes and works closely with writer and series producer Jon Magnusson, son of the late Mastermind presenter Magnus.
Norton enjoys a lavish lifestyle and is said to be generous with friends. He lives for most of the year in a townhouse in London's docklands with his boyfriend of 18 months, Canadian IT executive Trevor Patterson, as well as his beloved dogs, Bailey and Madge (named in deference to Madonna). He also owns homes in New York, Sussex and, as mentioned, west Cork.
In a searching BBC interview with Mark Lawson last year, Norton spoke about the challenges he felt about growing up gay and Protestant in conservative, Catholic Ireland, and has talked about having to get out of the country to truly find himself. He had stints living in one of the world's most gay-friendly cities, San Francisco, before settling in London.
Keen to make his name as an actor he changed his name from Walker to Norton when he discovered there was another Graham Norton on the roll call of acting union Equity.
But it was stand-up comedy where his true calling lay and he generated considerable publicity at the Edinburgh Festival in 1992, thanks to a routine in which he "played" Mother Teresa with a tea-towel on his head.
He also played the memorable part of Fr Noel Furlong, the hyper-active dancing priest, in three episodes of Father Ted, and displayed an early gift for broadcasting due to his witty asides as a panellist on the BBC Radio 4 show, Loose Ends.
He got his big break when he impressed while deputising for the comic Jack Docherty on his Channel 5 talk show, and it wasn't long before bigwigs from the more mainstream Channel 4 came calling with offers for him to host his own programme. Over the course of two series, So Graham Norton and V Graham Norton, he developed his singular style of presentation and moved to the BBC in 2005 in a big-money deal.
Norton has admitted to suffering a "crisis" on turning 40, but has talked about being relaxed at the prospect of being 50. "I genuinely feel OK about turning 50," he said recently. "Forty freaked me out. I didn't see it coming. My life was in a state of chaos – I was moving jobs and house – and it just hit me like a tonne of bricks.
"Whereas right now, I feel very settled. I've got a few jobs that I love, I really like where I live, I've got the dogs. It all feels very good. Fifty just feels like a bit more than 40."