Wednesday 28 January 2015

The star who puts Tubs and Co in the halfpenny place

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.

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.

Irish Independent

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