Graham Norton has been a successful chat show host for two decades, and as Vicki Power discovers, no one seems more surprised by that fact than the man himself

“It’s because every single episode is different, and you can’t plan for what will happen on the night. I think the chat show is like a series of first dates. I love first dates, whereas fifth dates are like, ‘Oh, it’s you again…’ ”

We’re discussing Graham’s upcoming season in the host’s chair of the flagship BBC chat show that bears his name, which returns this autumn. After starting out as the saucy, flamboyant compare of Channel 4’s So Graham Norton and V Graham Norton, Graham left for the BBC in 2004 and has hosted The Graham Norton Show since 2007, gradually toning down his sauciness and wardrobe to rebrand himself as the nation’s statesman of chat. Each week he attracts Hollywood’s great and good alongside Britain’s biggest stars to his sofa for banter.


With guests Tom Cruise, Annabelle Wallis and Zac Efron

Staying at the top of the showbiz tree for so long is a testament to his tenacity and talent. Yet Graham’s relaxed persona and self-deprecating humour belie the ambition that propelled him to the top of Britain’s chat show tree. That same ambition that has perhaps also kept him single and unattached.

Does Graham feel he’s sacrificed a lot for his career? “Yes,” he says slowly. “Because it’s such a high-risk strategy, trying to find success in show business— particularly the kind of field I’m in, where I’m almost a parasite of show business. I’m the bird on the back of the hippo, not the hippo.

“Once you get there, you can’t risk losing it. If I have to tape on a Tuesday because that’s when Tom Cruise is in town, then I won’t go to my friend’s wedding. Happily, I’ve never had that happen, although someone reading this now will probably go, ‘You did do that! It was my wedding!’

 

 

"I think the chat show is like a series of first dates. I love first dates, whereas fifth dates are like, ‘Oh, it’s you again’"

 

 

“As far as I know I haven’t had that happen, but I dread that moment where I have to say, ‘I’m sorry. I’m working.’ It’s such a silly job—who really cares? But it does matter to the show, to the production team and to the BBC that they get the biggest stars on their chat show, so it’s like, ‘I’m sorry, and I’ll buy you a nice present, but I won’t be there.’ And that’s hard.

“I wouldn’t say that I’ve made sacrifices for my career—I’d just say that I prioritise it.”

Graham adds that he doesn’t feel that his career drive has prevented him finding lasting love, either, even though a previous boyfriend alleged it in a kiss-and-tell story earlier this year.

“I don’t think I’ve made sacrifices in my personal life,” says Graham. “I can’t think of anyone in my life where I think, Oh, if only I didn’t have this stupid career I could still be happily ever after with that person. I’m pretty much happily ever after with my own life now, rather than pining after the one that got away.”


Carrie Fisher's final appearance on Graham's show just two weeks before her death. Alongside Grayson Perry and Sandi Toksvig

Instead Graham goes on dates—“as I said, I really like first dates”—and hangs out with a close group of loyal friends, few of whom are famous. But one famous friend of many years was actress Carrie Fisher. Graham even took her as his plus one to Liza Minnelli’s wedding to David Gest in 2002. Carrie’s final interview was on Graham’s show last December. She died two weeks later.

“Carrie didn’t seem well the night she was on my show. She didn’t want to come on,” Graham reveals. “She said, ‘I feel terrible and if it was anyone else, I’d cancel.’ But she perked up a bit after eating.

“When I heard later that she’d had a heart attack, that was less surprising to me. She wasn’t a well woman. But then for her to die! I still haven’t quite figured it out. It still hasn’t sunk in.”

 

 

"Carrie didn’t seem well the night she was on my show. She said, ‘I feel terrible, and if it was anyone else, I’d cancel’"

 

 

When we meet, Graham has just returned from a long summer break at his holiday home in West Cork, the county in which he grew up and where his widowed mother Rhoda and elder sister Paula still live. Along with taking a break, he’s been busy writing his second novel. Published last year and set in Ireland, his debut novel Holding was well-received and a best-seller in Ireland, where it took the Irish Book Awards’ Popular Fiction Prize.

“I was thrilled, because I wanted to write a novel, but had no idea anyone would want to read it,” he chuckles. “I was particularly gratified that the book did so well in Ireland because I was worried about how people would react to me writing a book set there because I haven’t lived there full-time for so many years.”

Writing it came about as a kind of bucket-list challenge. “I do one new thing every year,” he explains. “Last year it was the novel, this year it was [BBC One talent show] Let It Shine, and next year will be the second novel.” Graham says he also fancies a bit of travel, although not for any extended periods that would separate him from his two beloved dogs, labradoodle Bailey and terrier Madge.

He admits that he’s considering novel-writing full-time once he steps down from the chat show, although he stresses he has no time frame in mind for that yet. And, as he says, he’s still enjoying those “first dates” he partakes in each week with a new bevy of stars on his chat show sofa. 

“Some nights I’m introducing the guests on the show and I look around me and think, Wow, this is my show and these people are on it,” says Graham with a laugh. “It really is incredible.” 

 

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