Sunday 21 January 2018

The charming man who could talk for Ireland and is now ruling UK television

Graham Norton's BAFTA win at the weekend was just reward for his warm, witty, uniquely Irish chat show

Winning: Graham Norton with his BAFTA at the weekend
Winning: Graham Norton with his BAFTA at the weekend
Graham Norton
Oprah Winfrey
Pat Kenny
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

Sunday night's triumph at the BAFTA Awards captured Graham Norton to a tee, and encapsulated everything that makes him a truly great light-entertainment broadcaster.

The fact that he presented the London jamboree demonstrated his versatility. The fact that his eponymous chat show won the award for Comedy and Comedy Entertainment, illustrated the excellence of the Corkman and his programme.

His witty, good-natured acceptance speech showed, well, what a witty and good-natured guy he is - one of the primary reasons Norton has been such an astronomic success in television. And his playful tweet afterwards - '#timeforbooze' - summed up both his public persona and his attitude to the whole fame merry-go-round: don't take it too seriously, it's just showbiz.

The Graham Norton Show has now been running on BBC since 2007. And in that time, the 52-year-old from Bandon has steadily risen to be possibly the biggest star in the British telly firmament.

He'd already earned his stripes, and gathered a devoted following, on Channel 4 with similar talk-shows - So Graham Norton, V Graham Norton - and a raft of other programmes (he's probably best-known, after the BBC chat show for his sardonic commentary on the Eurovision).

But BBC One is the big leagues, the big-time; it's the gold standard of UK television. When he made the move from Channel 4, many observers wondered if Graham's cheekiness, irreverence and sometimes downright filthy sense of humour would fit the profile, and whether he might have to tone it down.

Not a bit of it. The Graham Norton Show is probably unique among similar celebrity-centre talk shows, in that nothing is off-bounds, nothing is sacred and those big stars sitting on the couch had better be prepared to have the mickey mercilessly taken.

In fairness, most of them are game. The odd grump - Harvey Keitel comes to mind - can't let go enough to buy into the show's ethos and have some fun - but usually it works.

An especially clever conceit is the way Norton's team have all three guests on together, for the duration of the show. That way, as he explained to me in an interview last year, "you have a precaution against an uninteresting guest - I can just talk to someone else".

They also put a lot of thought into balancing the three personalities: for instance, a woman might prefer to sit beside another woman, or a particular Hollywood star might not take too well to a ribbing from some brazen comedian of whom they've never heard.

It almost always works brilliantly. I'm thinking in particular of a show from a few years back, when Kristen Stewart - a great actress who, as Graham put it, "finds it hard" to get into the mind-set for traipsing around the promotional circuit - was teamed up with comic Chris Rock, chilled-out actor Stephen Mangan and, believe it or not, Englebert Humperdinck… and looked as if she was having a ball.

It also helps, of course, that Norton himself is so enormously likeable.

Re my interview with him last year, it was one of those times when you meet someone famous, someone you really respect and admire and have great fondness for… and they turn out to be exactly the same in real life. Relief is mingled with sheer pleasure at being in this person's company.

It's no surprise that so many of his celebrity guests appear to be having a great time on his show: the man's personality is infectious. He makes it almost impossible to not relax and enjoy yourself - and there, in my opinion, lies the secret of his success.

He neither makes them feel uncomfortable with "hard-hitting" questions or any of that stuff, nor spins out the questions through a too-slick patter, nor brown-noses his guests so much that the viewer feels they're being sold a con and the celebrity feels they're in the presence of an inauthentic robot.

Norton chats to them, has fun with them, embarrasses them, flatters them, flirts with them, is curious about them… he's less of a television presenter, more of a really interesting and interested friend, having a casual chat in the pub.

Best of all, for me, is how his modus operandi totally cuts the legs out from under any notions of pomposity or specialness. The show could be having some daft little comedy bit where, say, Graham puts on a wig and rings for pizza takeaway in Moscow… and it doesn't matter if you're an Oscar-winning legend or an up-and-coming rock band, you're expected to take part. And most of them do.

He's a little bit camp in the flesh - though the on-air persona is, I think, a mite exaggerated for effect - very funny, sharp as a tack, open and generous. Again, there's that fundamental authenticity: what you see is what you get.

I can't imagine Norton to be significantly different in his behaviour in any imaginable circumstance; I can imagine him being as warm and charming with your granny or the local postman as he is with Anne Hathaway or Bono.

He's also an excellent writer: Norton's 2014 memoir, The Life and Loves of a He-Devil, was among the two or three very best autobiographies I've ever read, no exaggeration.

Beautifully written, with wonderful insights into the whole world of fame - he doesn't just relate anecdotes, entertaining as they all are, but frames them and comments on them in a wider context - and surprisingly thoughtful at times, too.

The sections on Ireland are particularly affecting. Understandably, as a young gay Protestant with an artistic bent, Graham found the Ireland of the 1970s and 80s a fairly cold house.

But in the intervening decades, the two have been reconciled: he now spends large parts of the year in West Cork, and recognises the good in Ireland, and how much of it there is, as well as the bad.

More than this, he gets us. There's one passage in the book where Norton praises the Irish capacity for talking, in this case around a pub table.

How it often goes nowhere and that's part of the beauty of it all; how his English friends are bewildered and amused by how a conversation about, say, gates can begin and keep on going for an hour, with all manner of diversions and jokes and irrelevancies and serious points and local histories.

How Hiberno-English conversation is funny, surreal, colourful, loquacious, poetic, ridiculous. It is, he concludes, talking for the sake of talking, as pointless and wonderful as birdsong.

There, perhaps, is the last strand in whatever mysterious DNA has made Graham Norton the king of light entertainment in the UK. He loves to talk and loves to listen. He revels in it, is engaged with it, is passionate about it.

Talk, for Norton, is an art-form and worth doing for its own sake - he'd probably be having similar conversations every night with his friends, even if he'd never become a TV presenter.

I think a lot of that must be obvious to the stars on his couch, and is clearly obvious to the viewers at home. Funny, surreal, colourful, loquacious, poetic, ridiculous: sure what more could you want from a television chat-show host?

How does Graham rate among the greats?

1 Gay Byrne. The undisputed king of them all, at least from an Irish perspective. And it's not too much of a stretch to imagine Gaybo conquering the talk-show scene in Britain or America, either. Responsible for more iconic Irish telly moments than you could shake a stick at.

2 Oprah Winfrey. Her touchy-feely "share your pain" confessional shtick wasn't to everyone's taste, but there's no denying how ground-breaking, influential and massively successful Oprah has been. She basically invented an entire new genre of TV; the world loved it and continues to love it.

3 Graham Norton. Witty, clever, playful, ironic and refreshingly free of BS: the Corkman is pretty much ideal for handling all those celebrity egos.

4 David Letterman. A legend of late-night US television, "The Dave" has always struck us as cut from a slightly different cloth to his Stateside peers: he's a little more laidback, sarcastic and urbane, not quite so eager to please. Those are all good things.

5 Michael Parkinson. Another legend of broadcasting, he got attacked by emu, frozen out by Meg Ryan and sparred with Muhammad Ali - and through it all, the unflappable Yorkshireman carried on regardless.

6 Jon Stewart. An unusual mixture of satire and serious programming, The Daily Show has become a certifiable phenomenon since first airing in 1999. Stewart has been an intelligent, droll and affable host, though he recently announced his impending retirement.

7 Dame Edna Everage. The brainchild of writer Barry Humphries, Dame Edna was an average housewife from deepest Australian suburbia, who somehow found herself a star on British television. Sounds gimmicky, but it was rather clever and funny, possums.

8 Ellen DeGeneres. Some of us still remember her most fondly from that 1990s sitcom in which she played the owner of a bookshop. But Ellen has become even more successful over the last decade, with her breezy, silly, funny chat show.

9 Terry Wogan. The Limerick man's self-titled chat show, which ran from 1982 to '92, provided several all-time great moments, including that time David Icke claimed to be the son of God. Really.

10 Pat Kenny. With a new show that has begun on UTV Ireland, Pat has proven his durability. And for all the vitriol he endured during a decade at the helm, his Late Late Show was actually often better than it was given credit for.

Irish Independent

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