Friday 19 January 2018

Graham Norton: 'Mum knows who she wants me to go out with- In her eyes he's the one'

Over lunch in London, Graham Norton tells our reporter about his home life, his love-hate relationship with Ireland, and how he might get married one day

Graham Norton has revealed his concerns over his future at the BBC
Graham Norton has revealed his concerns over his future at the BBC
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Looking almost sylphlike wearing a blue polka-dot shirt with jeans and runners, the exalted Corkonian rocks up into Shoreditch House, a chic members-only club in East London, last Monday at 2pm for our lunch appointment. The urbane chat-show potentate of long-standing and crowned head of celebrity interviews on the box is his usual winning self.

Everyone in Shoreditch House suddenly seems to be looking above their delicately tossed salads in his direction, looking at our Graham for a goo. I find it remarkable that for someone so famous in England, and further afield, that he is "currently single - thanks for asking".

I ask Graham Norton would he see himself getting married or adopting one day.

"Adopting a husband!" he laughs. "'I've adopted my husband.' Never say never. It is becoming, as the years go by, less likely."

Why is that? In all the times I have interviewed Graham Norton down through the years - going back to 2004 when his autobiography So Me was released - the grey-bearded star always comes across as somehow implacably pragmatic, normal.

"Isn't that a reason not to get married? So, I think you need to get carried away if you get married."

Are the phone-lines burning up from County Cork with his mother Rhoda - whom Graham is taking to a posh country house in Ireland to celebrate her upcoming birthday - asking him, more in hope than expectation: 'Have you met a nice man yet'?

"No, they're not. She knows who she'd like me to go out with. She's met him. He's a friend of mine. She adores him."

And does Graham?

"I mean, I like him. He's my friend. But no - we're not dating. But in my mother's world, he's the one." Graham adopts his mother's voice: 'Why can't you find someone like him?'"

And why can't he? "I'm not particularly interested in finding someone like him."

Has Graham ever been in a relationship where he and his partner, to paraphrase the book, 'lie down like a wounded animal - dying'? Was that the break-up with his Australian ex, Ashley, of many moons ago?

"No - that [relationship with Ashley] was like a trip to the vet!" he laughs. In Holding, Graham writes of Rosemary and Robert's marriage and, in particular, 'when full wet kisses became chaste lips barely touching ... two people lying in the dark'.

Is that when Graham gets out of a relationship? "I don't feel like I have ever been in a relationship like that, because I think my relationships have ended. I think the thing about marriages - particularly in Ireland - they go and they morph into something so terrible, lying in the dark together."

Was that Graham's parents' marriage? (Graham's father Billy died in 2000.) "I hope not. What's that phrase about marriages are a covered dish? I really hope it wasn't. And I don't think it was. But, equally, we all know those couples where you kind of think, 'Jesus!' I always think if you are in a relationship and it is going through a bad phase, I often come to the conclusion that actually what we had was a good phase and this is what this relationship is now."

But is that not just turbulence, I say to him. When a plane hits turbulence you don't get a parachute and jump out?

"No, you don't. Turbulence? I think it is more like the plane is in free-fall, and it is not going to right itself. You can imagine that the pilot is going to do something but actually the pilot is dead and the drinks trolley is never coming back again."

Was he always so negative about romantic relationships? "I don't mean to be. I am negative because you are asking me to be negative. Equally I know lots of people who are in love and happy."

Graham told the Telegraph in a 2013 interview (though he says now that he can't recall saying it) that Bruce Forsyth once told him that "he couldn't bear to go home with the 'onstage him'." Graham says he sees himself as "just a guy who works on telly". He laughs that he is considerably less upbeat at home than he is on the television. He also laughs that it would be "nuts" if he was the upbeat 'onstage' version of himself while at home in Wapping.

Has anyone ever gone to bed with the onstage version of campy TV superstar Graham Norton and woken up with him, the laconic, philosophical Irish man who loves Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall? "They might have thought they'd gone to bed with the onstage Graham Norton and then, you know, after a few hours of complete boredom and no celebrity surprises - 'Your house is devoid of celebrities!'" he laughs.

Is it Graham's deepest fear that potential suitors might be going out with him for the wrong reasons?

"It is not my fear. It is their fear. If I think that's what they think they're doing, then I will quickly disabuse them of that," he says, "And I think, after half an hour, an hour, you realise: 'Oh, hang on. This is very like a house. His life seems quite like a life.' So I don't think it takes long for people to figure that out."

Is he possibly finished with romance? Will he have his dogs, Madge and Bailey, around the house instead? "They are dogs! That does kind of bug me when people say these are my doggy boyfriends or my fur children. No - f**k off! They're dogs! They s**t on the street!" he laughs.

"I do love them, but I love them as dogs! They are not proxy anything. They are actual dogs in the role of dogs."

The home he shares in Wapping with Madge and Bailey has an intriguing - considering the owner's wealth and apparent sophistication - lack of sophistication, as Graham describes it. "The overall effect of the house is of rich student. It never looks quite the way I imagined it." When he is not at home or on the box, Graham cycles around London to keep fit. He was running "but my 53-year-old knees weren't liking that. So now I'm on my bike." Graham doesn't have people pointing at him as happens around the City of London, primarily because he has a "kind of World War II pit helmet on". His relatively slim frame is in stark contrast to Sergeant Sumo, as he is referred to in the book, aka PJ Collins.

Is the character his inner Graham? Is he, or has he ever been, PJ Collins?

"I could imagine being fat pretty easily. I think I have a fat mind and probably a fat person's relationship with food. But also I think it's that idea of being an outsider. In a way, that's what that means. It is anything that separates you. Being a guard separates you a lot already, which is why, I think, PJ finds it quite easy to be a guard. I think guards in small communities have a very tricky job: that line of being friends with everyone and then: 'I'm afraid I am going to have to arrest you because you are drunk as a skunk and driving.'"

Has Graham ever been arrested?

"Oddly," he laughs. "I never have."

Asked did he hear stories growing up about happenings about the place in County Cork from his parents, Graham says that his mother Rhoda - whom the book is dedicated to - told him the story that was to inform Holding while they out for a walk one day. It was a story not untypical of Ireland - of a woman "who had been a farmer's housekeeper, but more was going on. They were much older. They weren't the kids that were in the book. More was going on. The understanding was, he would marry her, and then out of the blue - I may have made this up, but I seem to remember that they read the engagement [to another woman] in the paper; he was going off to marry someone with land on the other side of the valley.

"And she went in and cleaned the house for the last time, then locked the door and went home to her sister's and was never seen again, and that the house was just left like that.

"So, that was kind of the story that I had going in: to write a bitter-sweet [story] of thwarted romance in Ireland," he says, (adding - because I asked him - that he grew up reading Edna O'Brien and he "loves Edna O'Brien".)

Erroneously, Graham believed that he didn't have the "skills to write a book about that." That's when he thought if he put a crime element, a mystery element, into the book, then it would give it "a framework, a hook".

"That is a much easier book for me to write as my first book and also it is also much easier for a reader. You kind of know: the bones are found at the beginning in the first chapter, so you kind of think whatever else happens I am going to find out who owns the bones."

Unfulfilled and unhappy Evelyn, he says, "might have been me had I stayed in Ireland. I could have turned into that."

Is he channelling some inner part of his psyche with this book?

"The book came out of my head. If you want to psychoanalyse me with this book, knock yourself out. It is interesting - and I wasn't aware of it while I was writing - but when I was writing it, I was like: 'Look at me looking at other people in relationships.' Then I was thinking: 'And they're all awful, terrible relationships.'"

Big Tom in Holding, we're told, drank the farm and gambled his money away. Did Graham growing up in -Cork know farmers like him?

"Weren't there always those women that everyone just pitied because they had married a f**king fool? The drunk husband and you know, 'Oh, he made a real show of her'?"

Graham notes that when publishers sent out Holding to get feedback in advance, lots of people referred to the character Brid O'Riordan as an alcoholic. He laughs at this. "I didn't write an alcoholic. I just wrote someone who self-medicated a bit!"

Does he self-medicate?

"We all self-medicate! We are self-medicating now!" Graham says raising his coffee cup.

In Holding, the character Martin decides that if there was a God, then God 'was an awful b*****ks'.

Does Graham feel God is an awful b*****ks or is just something Martin said? "I must say that would come straight from me. Straight from me. But, yes, if there is a God, he - good plan! It is as basic as...'

Children with cancer? Auschwitz? Rwanda? "Everything. It's the Calais Jungle. It's all the s**t you see on the news. So," he says, "someone is in charge? Someone is running this?' Because you wouldn't want to claim responsibility for that. Because if there was a God, you'd just want to go; 'There is no God!' You'd bow out."

Those who have faith would say that God doesn't give us anything we can't carry.

"I totally respect other people's right to believe that, if that gives comfort. If you genuinely think that will get you through the darkest of times, it is a good thing for them. I can't choose to believe that. My way of getting through any dark times is to know that there are brighter times. Because that is just the way s**t works."

What were the dark times for him? "Before I had any success," says Norton who is now worth trillions and has won awards to match (seven Baftas for Best Entertainment Performance, and Best Entertainment Programme), "I had eight years of working in [London] restaurants. I was living in a council estate - probably a house block you can see from here," he says vaguely pointing from the vantage point of the sixth floor restaurant we're in.

"I had zero money. Literally counting pennies. It was hard to believe at times. I had boxed myself into a corner where I was working in a restaurant and the restaurant was less and less successful. And then it closed. It was good that it closed because it forced me to go, 'Okay, if I get a job in another restaurant, it is like I'm saying this is my career.' By that stage, I knew I would have stabbed someone in the face with a fork if I had worked in restaurants much longer. I had to get out. It galvanised me to do bits of writing and help out friends with no plan."

Evelyn talks in the book about having 'banished that youthful version of herself completely.' Has Graham?

"I think 'banished' is kind of a negative thing. I don't know who I was going to become. I suppose when I was younger I thought I was going to wear corduroy trousers, work in an office and have children, because everyone did. That was the most you could aspire to. That was to belong. That was succeeding." Graham left Ireland in 1983/84 to seek his fortune, and to truly belong. He says he didn't hate the Ireland he left behind. "Hate is a strong word." Graham told me in 2014: "I was never in love with Ireland.")

"I certainly never felt I would go back," he adds, "because it didn't feel like a place that I fitted in. It didn't feel like a place that I would flourish. It is interesting now, because now I really love going back, and I am always sad when I leave, but I wonder if I was 18 now back at UCC would I still want to leave. It seems to me that the curtains have been drawn and the windows thrown open. Ireland physically seems brighter. Maybe it is only because I only spend the summers there."

"I think the nicest thing about Ireland is how the young people revel in their modernity and their tolerance. I think they wear it as a badge of pride that they would not be homophobic. It will be interesting to see as generations grow and that kind of darker past that we had - that Ireland that we all grew up in where it was all about what you couldn't do..." Graham adds that because he "knew from a very early age I was leaving, I never really engaged" with the politics of the country in which he was born (April 4, 1963).

Is that because he grew up in a country effectively homophobic by law and where homosexuality wasn't decriminalised until 1993?

"Not consciously, no; in reality, yes. I mean, the idea of being an actor, which is what I nominally wanted to be - if you came to England you could go to drama school. There weren't drama schools in Ireland."

Does he find it slightly annoying, even trite, to be referred to as, variously, a national treasure and a gay icon?

"It is nicer than being called a blight on Britain. They are nice things for people to say, but they are sort of meaningless. Actually meaningless."

Has he interviewed anyone on The Graham Norton Show who he felt was a bit of a homophobe?

"I don't think I have, no, because if you sense that someone doesn't like you, I think it is a bit facile to kind of go: 'It's because I'm gay!' They're lots of reasons not to like me," he jokes, laughing, adding that his friend Maria "sent me a card once for my birthday that read: 'It's not homophobia. Everyone hates you.'"

As if.

Holding, by Graham Norton, is published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced €13.99

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