Monday 24 July 2017

Ireland's sacred cows - our top writers have a pop

 

Graham Norton
Graham Norton

Some of our top writers, Declan Lynch, Eilis O’Hanlon, Donal Lynch and Pat Fitzpatrick, round up another herd of sacred cows.They’re all here: from the chat-show king Graham Norton, through the Citizens’ Assembly sham, dog lovers and their mutts, to free speech, CEOs, liberal luvvies and our national sweetheart Amy Huberman, not to mention the hectoring healthy-eating brigade

Graham Norton

This national treasure is a humourless person's idea of a wit, writes Donal Lynch, who has had his fill of the ubiqutous star

Graham Norton has mastered a black art. He can make stars sound like they are witty. Or at least apparently witty. Able to get a joke, even if that means spelling it out with what often sounds like canned laughter. This doesn't seem like much, but it's actually huge. Some of the late-night hosts in the States can't do it. None of our  own can. And Norton does it seemingly effortlessly and without the alienating static of perving on the female guests a la Jonathan Ross, or hogging the focus. By sheer force of personality, our Graham makes deadly dull, super cosseted celebrities seem like quippy raconteurs. It's on Norton's show that people like Jennifer Lawrence get the idea that they are funny. He allows them the freedom to 'banter', with the safety net of a studio audience who  will laugh themselves sick at so much as the raising of an eyebrow. Even when the occasional star, such as Samuel L Jackson, is completely lacking in self-awareness, Norton bathes them in his harmless PG charm and gentle chuckles and their rudeness magically becomes something like deadpan timing. It's doubtless the memory of Graham's couch that makes many of these stars later swear they love 'the British sense of humour'. He makes them look good.

This is also the first problem with Graham Norton. In a world of scripted reality, in which nearly every word we hear is honed by communications experts and PR lackeys, in which every second actor has some wet cause they're aligning with, do we really need some titterer-in-chief giving them cosy bubble baths of a conversation? Not that you'd want them to do away with the light-entertainment factor altogether, but Norton, like so many telly interviewers, just butters them a bit heavily. It's generally a love-in, and when he gets someone like Madonna, he almost kisses their ring. Gay Byrne, in his day, could open with a pointed observation, or even an accusation. Lynn Barber, the doyenne of print interviewers, would provoke people into self-revelation. Our Graham's tone is so relentlessly jolly that when someone like Sarah Silverman comes with a bleak but interesting anecdote from childhood, she can barely get it out before the tittering rises again. She looked annoyed, but most of the stars who come on Norton's show are thrilled that the interviews are all sizzle and no steak. They want thigh-slapping bits about soiled underwear or shagging. They don't want the humanising light and shade of normal conversation. They get to promote whatever product or service they're hawking and get out of there without having to say anything real about themselves.

In the same way that Stephen Fry - another nauseating national treasure - is a stupid person's idea of a clever person, Norton is also a humourless person's idea of arch and hilarious. He was there to take over from Jonathan Ross when the wheels fell of the latter's bandwagon and So Graham Norton (broadcast on Channel 4, which he calls "the natural home of smutty humour"), an earlier incarnation of his current show, hauled in the late-night revellers primed for his gay-icon guests. The fy2k Graham Norton live millenium-eve show established his winning formula, with camp icons like Ivana Trump, Sandra Bernhard and Raquel Welch - and 'sexually explicit material' such as testing sex aids. But it was all a bit Julian Clary meets Carry On, full of cringeworthy innuendo and puns, each punctuated by Norton honking like a seal at his own jokes. And while it was fun roping faded camp icons into his japes, the massive stars who later appeared on his couch did not have the same instinct or inclination for self-mocking.

Possibly because we generally watch it in the midst of a drinking game, his Eurovision commentary is hailed as an embarrassment of quotable ad libs, but in the obligatory rash of '15 times Graham Norton was sassy AF' articles that follow, they are reduced to harvesting lines like: "You mustn't worry about Freddie, ladies and gentlemen. If he doesn't do well tonight, he's always got that hotel management degree. I feel he may be using it." Or: "He's put ¤1,000 on himself to win; I hope he doesn't need that for laser tattoo removal." In the cold light of day, it's more Come Dine With Me voiceover put-down than PG Wodehouse.

Ryan Tubridy has speculated that Norton is part of the same "unthreatening" tradition of broadcasters that Eamonn Andrews and Wogan himself occupied. The Brits are attuned, above all else, to class, and having a brogue makes you advantageously classless in the London media world. Norton, has, however, moulded his brogue into something much more 'awfully awfully', but whereas we would slag the shite out of anyone else for getting notions if they did that, we let him away with it - possibly because he's a gay Protestant from Cork, which must mean he gets to pick his own accent.

Of course, he has a novel out. Famous people aren't ever only good at one thing, silly. He said that the (slightly incredulous) good reviews made him wonder how shit we really thought it was going to be. The answer is 'very shit', but could you blame us? In a publishing industry slowly sinking, the only winners are celebrities like Norton, who are enticed by big advances. His name alone guarantees publicity and more curiosity than most fiction gets.

But in the end it's his sheer ubiquity, and the vast volume of unctuous praise, that grates the most. It has the strange effect of making you less appreciative of his great charm and the many talents he does have. The delight of discovery is gone; the same message is hammered home remorselessly. There are only so many times you can read that someone is a national treasure and not feel like you're over them. And, in Graham's case, so over.

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