Hilarious, charismatic and charming, Vicki Power caught up with the adorable funny man himself to talk surviving lockdown and growing up gay in Ireland.
Graham Norton is used to being the funniest person in the room. His wit works at warp speed, finding the most amusing riposte to quips made by the A-listers that cluster on his chat show sofa.
At the same time, his warmth encourages the prickliest of celebrities to loosen up and share a funny story with the audience. In person, Graham is just the same, witty and waspish, if slightly more subdued when the cameras are not on him.
As we chat over a Zoom call — he’s still on summer holiday at his house in County Cork, Ireland — Graham opens up about lockdown life and finding love. The show must go on He helped the nation through the early stage of the pandemic with his BBC1 chat show conducted lockdown-style.
I’m certainly not ready to retire.
Confined to his home in London’s Docklands with three TV cameras (but no camera operators), Graham chatted to celebrity guests in a low-key fashion over Zoom, without a studio audience. He confesses it was a relief to him that the BBC wanted the show to go on. “It was a very different show but it felt like a privilege to be able to do it,” says the host, 57. “We were really keen to, not just for the audience, but for the people who work on the show.”
It helped keep him sane during the Covid crisis. “I was one of the lucky people in that I got to work throughout lockdown,” continues Graham. “I had things to do and a kind of structure and that really helped. “It made me realise I’m certainly not ready to retire. I get asked about it all the time, but having a place to be, and people to connect to, is validating.”
An incredible career
Graham has been a chat show host for 22 years, first on Channel 4 and, since 2007, on the BBC. The Graham Norton Show’s American-style format sees guests sat together on the sofa, where his questions and amusing repartee create chemistry between the Hollywood elite that makes the show go with a swing.
Over the years, Graham’s seen off chat show competition and he remains the nation’s go-to host for helping us wind down the working week and start our weekends with a bang. A born entertainer Perhaps he has stayed the course, muses Graham, because he was born a people pleaser. “It’s how I’ve ended up in this job, probably, and maybe it’s why I’m good at this job,” he says.
“But then again I think most people have that gene. Every now and again you meet someone who doesn’t have it and it’s quite shocking to meet someone who really doesn’t care. I find it quite admirable. I’m like, ‘Wow, you really don’t give a s*** what people think’.
“Simon Cowell was like that at the beginning, but I think he’s developed it now.” The latent seeds of Graham’s talent as a performer — he studied acting and then moved into stand-up comedy — were sown in his somewhat nomadic childhood. Thanks to his father’s job as a Guinness sales rep Graham was forced to learn the skill of fitting in and making new friends.
The family lived in 13 houses in 17 years. “I figured out how not to stand out as a kid, which was important,” he explains. “I remember a former classmate has since said that I was popular at school, but I certainly don’t remember that. I got by okay and over the years realised I could make people laugh, too. That helped.
“It was by no means an unhappy childhood,” he adds quickly. “I think kids are pretty robust, and my parents always presented the moves to me and my sister [Paula] as a new adventure. It’s not like we were being chased by bailiffs.”
I figured out how not to stand out as a kid, which was important.
Yet, although Graham has found a place in the hearts of a nation, he admits he has always felt an outsider. In Ireland, fitting in wasn’t always easy for a ‘weirdly effeminate’ boy from the wrong religion. “I think there is an element of outsider with me,” he muses. “I think because I grew up Protestant in southern Ireland. And I was gay at a time when people weren’t and I didn’t know anybody else who was, so that makes you slightly different.
“So I think from that point of view I did grow up an outsider. Even now, because I work in TV, it’s almost like there’s a bubble around you.” A natural storyteller Graham inherited his wicked sense of humour from parents Billy and Rhoda, he says, and his story-telling skills just from being Irish.
“The Irish are not like the English — they just can’t shut up,” he laughs. “In rural Ireland, where I grew up, you go out to the shop and somebody will stop you with a story about the farmer up the road or the creepy house in the village. Stories are in the ether.”
I was gay at a time when people weren’t and I didn’t know anybody else who was, so that makes you slightly different.
He has channelled this rich childhood experience into three novels, Holding (2016), A Keeper (2018) and Home Stretch (2020), which have been warmly received by critics and readers. All three have been set in rural Ireland, but the latest “contains more of me”, he says, than the previous books.
It concerns a fatal car accident involving teens in which the driver survives but some of his passengers don’t. “It seems to happen regularly in Ireland and I really couldn’t stop thinking about that. What happens to that person when you’re just starting your life and you’re responsible for the deaths of some of your friends?”
What’s personal to Graham is not the car crash or fatalities but the characters. “I suppose because one of the central characters is gay and I’ve dealt with some of those issues about being gay in Ireland,” he explains. “I hope it’s quite an optimistic book, which may by the time it comes out look like Pollyanna [ie overly optimistic], but hopefully it’ll be a balm for our times.”
He gives a burst of his trademark hiccupping laugh. Fiercely independent Being single and spending lockdown on his own left Graham plenty of time to write novels alongside presenting the chat show and BBC2 radio show. He says he wasn’t lonely during lockdown, but than again he’s had practice.
I think two things with being older is that the older you get, the fussier you get and the less right you have to be fussy.
He’s been unattached for much of the past decade and candidly admits that finding a long-term relationship seems unlikely now. “I think two things with being older is that the older you get, the fussier you get and the less right you have to be fussy,” he quips. “It’s a perfect storm.”
In the past Graham dabbled with dating apps, joking that he gave up because he’d met too many damaged people. “I’m not out there looking,” he says. “You won’t find me on an app. I did all those things, but I found them not to give big returns.”
And would he like to find love again? “Of course, yes,” he concedes with a laugh. “Well, you know, being in love isn’t a terrible thing and so if that were to happen it would be nice. But you can’t plan for those things — you either do or you don’t find it. We’ll see.” He adds, apropos of nothing, “But I would like it to be requited. There’s been loads of unrequited love — happily not since my twenties — and that’s miserable.”
Being in love isn’t a terrible thing and so if that were to happen it would be nice.
Devotion to his rescue dogs Madge, a terrier, and Bailey, a labradoodle, has provided stability and brought a measure of love to his life, although he reveals during our interview that Madge died in 2019. He’d considered sharing the news on social media, but then decided against it.
At heart he’s quite a private person. As we’re speaking, Bailey wanders into the shot and Graham pauses to coo over ‘Bailey bear’, as he calls him. Despite his success and riches — he also has a house in New York City — Graham remains down to earth in a way many famous people aren’t.
Yet he’s unimpressed by fame and celebrity, preferring the company of a set of mostly long-standing, non-famous friends rather than the A-listers that crowd his sofa. “I’m just the hired help on my show,” he jokes. “I’ve noticed that sometimes my guests will go out with each other after the show, but they don’t ask me.”
He doesn’t even hang around to drink with them in the Green Room after the show. “I’m usually the first person to leave the studio. I tell people I have to get home to my dog, which I think is a very acceptable excuse.”
Secrets of success Graham attributes his early adult life with keeping him grounded. “I became successful after I was in my mid-thirties, and by then I knew about the ups and downs of success, and I knew that both would pass.
“It’s a mantra that keeps your feet on the ground when really nice things happen, but equally it picks you off the floor when really bad things happen. I think it’s about the most useful mental tool I can think of for navigating life.”
Talented, successful and level-headed, too. Our admiration for Graham Norton only grows.