Monday 26 August 2019

He Devil's in the detail for Graham Norton. . .

The BBC chat show host reveals how he reconnected with small-town Ireland after his father's funeral in 2006

Spotlight: Graham Norton’s star has expanded since he wrote his first memoir 10 years ago.
Spotlight: Graham Norton’s star has expanded since he wrote his first memoir 10 years ago.
Chat-show king Graham Norton in a pose for Cosmopolitan in 2002 for the Everyman male cancer campaign.
Graham Norton visits IT Tralee North Campus

Deirdre Reynolds

One morning after the night before, Graham Norton was speed-cleaning his bedroom when he noticed that a key piece of evidence was missing.

Alarmed that his cleaner, Margaret, should find a used condom among the rumble, he did what any good West Cork boy would do, and turned the place upside down, even texting the gentleman caller in question to see if he knew anything about the misplaced prophylactic.

The mystery was solved two days later, when the TV presenter's giant Labradoodle, Bailey, set about doing his business in the local park. Unfortunately, the offending article got stuck.

As his second memoir hit shelves here this week, it's just one of the cringeworthy anecdotes that Norton recounts as though to prove a point.

Yes, he may have his own Friday night chat show on the BBC and be worth in the region of €38m, but the 51-year-old still finds himself having to wrangle an undigested condom from a dog's arse, all while praying he doesn't wind up on the front pages of the red tops in a bestiality scandal.

Most people have never heard of Graham Walker, the failed actor from Bandon, but there isn't an Irish or British person alive who hasn't heard of comedian and TV personality, Graham Norton.

Now considered a 'national treasure' on both sides of the pond, in the 10 years since he penned his first autobiography, So Me, Norton's star has expanded even further since being poached from Channel 4 by the British Broadcasting Corporation.

And the BAFTA-winning host reckons his staggering success is all down to having an 'Irish Mammy'. "There are all sorts of modern phrases to describe my mother's style of parenting: tough love, firm but fair, no nonsense," jokes Norton, who took his great-grandmother's maiden name at drama school to avoid being confused with another actor. "I would simply call it Irish.

"When I was about to do the Leaving Certificate, my mother gave me a good luck card. Inside it she had written, 'You can only do your best'. Then on the line below: '. . . but do it!'

"Obviously I enjoy the trappings of wealth but equally I am my mother's son," adds the presenter, who got his big break filling in for Scottish comedian Jack Docherty on his Channel 5 chat show in 1997.

"There is always a part of me that is mentally preparing for it all to end."

Growing up gay in 1970s' small-town Ireland, the Guinness salesman's son never dreamt he'd end up sitting opposite stars like U2, Madonna and Tom Cruise, with loud suits and an even louder studio audience.

As a Protestant teenager with confusing feelings towards the French foreign exchange student, he just knew he didn't belong.

"Growing up, the TV was more than entertainment, it was a good friend and a window to a world outside rural West Cork," Norton reveals in The Life and Loves of a He Devil. "For me, sitting inside the box rather than being on the couch opposite it is still a dream come true."

"It's impossible to imagine what it was like growing up gay in a world where homosexuality didn't exist," he continues. "People thought I was joking when I said on an Irish chat show that I just thought me feeling out of step was because I was Protestant, but it's true.

"Obviously I knew I was different, but because I was an outsider for many reasons, it wasn't till much later and after hearing the stories of other gay men who had grown up in similar circumstances that I fully realised that I had been gay all along."

Fleeing Cork for the bright lights of San Francisco at 20, former UCC student Norton admits he thought he'd never come back.

So more than three decades on, it comes as just as much of a shock to him as it must to bemused tourists to find the International Emmy recipient wandering around the tiny village of Ahakista for two-and-a-half months each summer.

Today, the presenter's mum Rhoda and sister Paula can even traverse the 'Graham Norton River Walkway' in Bandon, should the mood strike; while his old college bestowed its most famous dropout with an honorary doctorate last year.

"A real turning point in my relationship with Ireland was when my father died," reveals Norton, who lost his dad, William, to Parkinson's disease in 2006. "As the funeral approached, in addition to seeing new facets of my father, I was also beginning to fully understand the small community I had grown up in.

"Living there had stifled me and I spent most of my childhood and adolescence longing to be released. . . but now . . . the bonds that I had felt holding me back were now there to support me.

"In recent years I have done more than simply return," adds the London-based star. "I have been invited back. This always makes me feel very grown up and is somehow a measure of success that no BAFTA or comedy award can begin to match."

Despite his success abroad on hit shows such as Channel 4's So Graham Norton, Comedy Central's The Graham Norton Effect and now The Graham Norton Show on BBC One, or maybe because of it, Ireland's hottest telly export still has his detractors here, and there's 'nul points' for guessing why.

"Oddly, the thing that incenses these people the most is when I am commenting on the Eurovision Song Contest and I refer to the UK entrant as 'we' and the Irish act as 'they'," says Norton, who also famously played camp cleric Fr Noel Furlong on Father Ted in the 1990s. "My Twitter feed lights up with hate-filled comments where 'traitor' is about the mildest of the insults.

"It does seem surprising that these people can't figure out that I am doing a job and being paid by the British Broadcasting Corporation. If they are that fiercely patriotic then perhaps they should stop watching the BBC and enjoy Marty Whelan's Irish-centric commentary on RTÉ."

"When I get on the plane to go to Cork, I feel like I'm going home," he explains, "but equally when I get ready to board the return flight to Heathrow I also feel that I am homeward-bound.

"I know I'm not British, but it is the place I live, work, pay taxes and vote. The UK has given me my life, my friends and my career. Of course I feel like I belong, but that doesn't stop me feeling Irish: embracing one thing doesn't automatically mean rejecting another.

"The people who don't understand that are the bullies, the homophobes and the racists."

Anyway, having just signed another three-year contract with the BBC, the modern-day Terry Wogan isn't going anywhere.

But he has no intention of becoming the Beeb's next Bruce Forsyth - who only quit Strictly Come Dancing earlier this year, aged 86 - either.

"Retirement seems like such an odd word to apply to myself because I still feel so full of energy and enthusiasm," says Norton, who split from partner Trevor Patterson last year, "but at the same time I have no desire to be a Bruce Forsyth or Des O'Connor.

"I love working but I also want some time to enjoy my life without the constraints and pressures that come with my job. The secret is to get bored of the show before the audience does, and I'm not there yet, but knowing where to stop the story to ensure a happy ending is the toughest job of all."

If like Sirs Terry and Bruce before him, an OBE for his services to British broadcasting is forthcoming, don't worry he says, there's always his two pesky mutts, the aforementioned Bailey and wire-haired terrier Madge, to keep him grounded.

"I dread to think how self-obsessed and removed from reality I might have become over the years if it wasn't for my furry friends," laughs Norton, who's set to sign copies of his book in Eason bookshop on O'Connell Street, Dublin on Saturday, November 8.

"After all, it is hard to remain smug and aloof when you are wrestling with two over-excited dogs and struggling to pull a plastic bag out of your coat pocket to pick up a piece of shit."

The Life and Loves of a He Devil: A Memoir by Graham Norton, published by Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99, 292 pages

Indo Review

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top