- 23 Nov 22
With Graham Norton having just published his latest novel, the witty and compelling Forever Home, Paul Nolan turns the tables on the superstar talk-show host for a deep dive into his life and career. Up for discussion are fame, mortality, politics, social media, Queen Elizabeth’s death and Tom Cruise.
In addition to hosting the UK’s biggest chat-show, Graham Norton has also developed a parallel career as a successful author of commercial fiction. Having debuted with 2016’s Holding, he has since gone on to write a series of novels that explore small-town Irish life, each mixing rip-roaring storylines with a quirky comedic edge.
His fourth novel, the recently published Forever Home, focuses on forty-something Cork native Carol Crotty, a divorcee who finds love with the much older Declan. However, when Declan is moved into a nursing home, his children start angling to have Carol removed from his house to protect their inheritance, while the disappearance of his previous wife starts to take on a more sinister hue.
It’s a pleasurable and witty read, and as with all of Norton’s books, has enjoyed a positive critical reception. Furthermore, Holding was adapted into a ITV series earlier this year, suggesting that Norton is truly the man with the Midas touch. I’d been supposed to meet him in person during a recent visit to Dublin, though a series of unfortunate events – including a delayed flight from London – put paid to the plan.
When I eventually catch up with the 59-year-old author and broadcaster over Zoom, he’s in an English hotel in the middle of a book tour, with Nottingham next on the itinerary later this evening. His hair and beard now liberally covered with grey, Norton – who married his partner, filmmaker Jonothan McLeod, in a low-key ceremony in Bantry House earlier in the summer – is a warm and likeable interviewee. And as you might expect, he’s a naturally very funny person.
I start by asking him if he’s ever considered writing a novel about the London media scene, or if Ireland, and particularly his Cork roots, remain too strong of a creative draw?
“It’s a bit of both,” says Graham. “I’d be surprised if I never write a book based in the world of television, but it probably needs to be written after I’ve stopped working in TV, so that I can really go to town! Well, not go to town, but just not worry about upsetting publicists, producers and channel heads, or what have you. I don’t know about you, but I love reading and watching things about the world I work in. But I wonder how niche that is? I love them, but I wonder how big an appetite there is for a book set in the world of London TV.”
Well, I consider The Larry Sanders Show – Garry Shandling’s immortal satire on the world of late-night US talk-shows – to be one of the greatest TV series ever, so perhaps there’s a novel to be written in that vein.
“I love The Larry Sanders Show,” nods Graham. “We reference it a lot in our office (laughs). Nearly everything that’s happened in that show has happened to us. Every now and again, something will happen and we’ll be like, ‘Wow, even in The Larry Sanders Show they didn’t get that (laughs).’ But they did an amazing job.”
Indeed, I’ve experienced my fair share of Larry Sanders moments throughout my time as a journalist, so it seems to be a show with a special resonance for those who work in media. Going back to Forever Home, although his condition isn’t really delved into, it appears that the character of Declan is suffering from dementia. Was it something Graham had personal experience of?
“There were two things going on there,” he explains. “One was exploring that idea of two slightly older people in a not-very-stable relationship, so that when one of them is taken away, the other has no rights. The kids can go after the house and all that kind of stuff. So I needed something to get him out of there. But also, in a novel – particularly a novel where there’s secrets from the past and things like that – if you take the memory away from the key character, I think that’s interesting.
“In terms of the portrait of them as a couple dealing with that, my dad had Parkinson’s, which is the same thing, kind of, in that it’s a degenerative disease that robs you of the person. They are still alive, but it’s not great.
“Obviously the age I am, lots of my friends have had this with parents. So far, none of us have had it with partners, but presumably that day isn’t too far away. I’ve heard lots of these stories and was able to tap into that in putting this together. You do always worry, because you don’t want to get it wrong. Which is why in the book, in the end I don’t specifically diagnose him, because I wanted it to be a generic, catch-all degenerative disease, so that anyone can relate to it.”
There was also another factor.
“Talking to friends,” Graham continues, “it’s a real mess, that whole diagnosis. There’s people with Parkinson’s who have dementia as well, and there are people with Parkinson’s who are failing physically. This is a novel, it’s an entertainment ultimately, so I didn’t put my doctor’s hat on.”
The evening before our interview, I saw an emotional interview with ex-Sky Sports reporter Chris Kamara, who quit his job earlier this year after being diagnosed with apraxia, a disorder that causes problems with motor planning to perform tasks or movements. Kamara, who’s only 64, spoke bravely and movingly about his condition. As I get older, I sometimes find it haunting to think that there could well be some illness or condition – or simply a disaster of some description – out there lurking, waiting for us.
How is Norton with those kind of thoughts?
“It does loom,” he says, “and look, ultimately, we’re all on God’s kill-list. The death threats are real, they’re coming from above! What do you do? I’m like you, I do think about it. I’m a lot closer to him, I’m knocking 60. The only way I can make any sense of it is, how lucky am I? I’m nearly 60 with no real health worries, so I’ve had a great run. There are people and awful things befall them in their teens and twenties, or their thirties and forties. I’ve done okay.
“And also, is it when you’re over 40 or 50 when you can’t get MS anymore? So that’ll cheer you up – that’s one off the list!”
Going back to the books, Norton reckons the majority of his TV audience are unaware of his literary exploits.
“Most of the people who watch the show still don’t know I write novels,” he says. “Particularly in Britain. I think the relationship between Irish people and books is much more mainstream. I was very struck that when Seamus Heaney died, it was the number one headline on the news. Funnily enough, Hilary Mantel wasn’t the number one headline, but at least she made the news. But there are very few writers, and certainly poets, who would warrant a news headline.”
When Heaney died in 2013, there was actually a minute’s silence before the Dublin-Kerry All Ireland semi-final the following weekend. Could you imagine a minute’s silence for a poet before a football game in England?
“No, I cannot!” responds Graham, roaring with laughter. “I’ll stop you there!”
The Fame Game
Of course, prior to the chat-show, Norton had found some success as a comedic performer, most memorably as the hilariously excruciating priest, Father Noel Furlong, in Father Ted. But it was with the Channel 4 talk-show So Graham Norton – which celebrates the 25th anniversary of its first broadcast next summer – that he first became a proper star. Subsequently, when The Graham Norton Show began broadcasting on the BBC in 2007, his career went into the stratosphere.
Did he always have the ambition of hosting his own talk-show, or was it just something he fell into?
“A little bit of both,” says Graham. “Growing up, I would watch The Late Late Show and I would fantasise about being a guest. It never crossed my mind to be the other person, the guy in the chair. But of course, being the guy in the chair is a much better job because you’re on every week. Hopefully you can surf the vagaries of the entertainment industry and still be there. Jack Docherty had a five-night TV show on Channel 5 and he went on holiday. I was hosting a panel show for Channel 5, so they asked me to sit in.
“I sat in for two weeks and I absolutely loved it. It was that kind of movie moment where the clouds part, the angels sing and you go, ‘Oh my God, I found my job.’ But of course it was somebody else’s, so it was quite a bittersweet moment. Luckily, one of the producers on it was a man called Graham Stuart, who I now own a company with, and he’s still the executive producer on the show. He was the one who said, ‘Look, you’re good at this, let’s head over to Channel 4 and try to pitch a chat-show to them.’ We got a pilot and that was it.”
A while back, a writer of my acquaintance gave me pause for thought when he posited, “Who wants to be famous anymore?” There was a fairly lengthy list of cons, including the inevitable social media backlash if, god forbid, you should find yourself on “the wrong side” of any public debate, as well as the increasing difficulty of maintaining privacy in the age of smart-phones.
With Graham being one of the most famous people in Ireland and the UK, I wonder what he makes of it all.
“One of the things I’m grateful for is that I’m the age I am,” he says. “I’m coming to the other end of my career. When I think back to when I started, and falling out of clubs, being drunk, lying in a gutter – the list goes on! – I’m so grateful I’m not doing that now. One, because it would be very tragic (laughs).
“But two, because you’d end up in the papers, and actually, you’d end up online. Even now, people will take photos of you asleep on a plane, and post it on Twitter and stuff like that, which isn’t the worst thing in the world. It’d be nice if it didn’t happen, but if that’s the worst that happens, it’s fine.”
If I were famous, I sometimes wonder how I’d deal with being constantly recognised. A while back, I remember somebody wrote that if there’s privilege in being well-known, there’s also privilege – and certainly a lot of peace – in anonymity.
“It’s really day to day,” says Graham. “I hope that most people who’ve met me have had an okay experience, but I’m aware some of them haven’t. I can be surly and snappy, but I try keep a lid on that, because you’re aware this person is only meeting you once. They don’t know that you’ve just had a bunch of people stop you, and you started off lovely, and as your walking down the street’s gone on, you’ve become progressively less lovely. I think some people are amazing, they’re on all the time. I’m not. But equally, I’m a lot nicer than some people!”
Recently, Graham found himself in the headlines after suggesting – shock, horror – that perhaps Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby took a bit too much flak for skipping the queue to see Queen Elizabeth lying in state. Personally, this is stuff I could give a shit about –
“And I couldn’t give a shit about it!” interjects Graham. “Actually, I think the number of people who give a shit are tiny, but they all have a Twitter account. Newspapers now will say, ‘Viewers slam latest BBC drama.’ Then you click on that – which is all they want you to do – and their evidence of the nation slamming something is three tweets, and only one of them is very negative.
“If you’re a journalist, what a lovely job – you literally don’t have to leave your house. You just Google the name of the show, see if there’s a couple of tweets about it, and then bingo, you’ve got 500 words. It is what it is. I think if you’re on Twitter or have any experience of it, you know that to be the case. But most of these papers are aimed at older people who don’t have Twitter, so they genuinely think viewers have slammed the plot-twist in something, or some performance by an actor, when in fact they haven’t.”
From a personal viewpoint, I was fairly indifferent to the Queen’s death, so I was largely disinterested in the avalanche of media coverage. What did Graham make of it all?
“I don’t know what it was like in Ireland,” he says. “In Britain, obviously people knew this was coming, and I think particularly people in the media were like, ‘Okay, how are we going to navigate this?’ Because there were all these rumours about, ‘Oh, there’ll be nothing on for a month’, because a lot of it was in the charter. There was a question about whether I’d do my Virgin radio show or not, so if that hadn’t happened I would have hightailed it back to Ireland (laughs).
“But we did do the radio show and I’m very glad we did, because we thought, ‘Well, we’re there for everything – we’re there for birthdays, anniversaries, taking the kids back to university. So of course we’re there for this.’ Oddly, I think in Britain – and I’m sure people will disagree with me – most of it felt pretty genuine and sincere. I’ve lived there for 38 years, so I’ve seen the work she’s done and I was aware of her.
“So whether you’re a republican or a monarchist, you had a respect for that woman. She put the hours in, and she had that stoicism and that adherence to duty, all of those things. I felt that, and in her death you felt that. But it was kind of humbling to watch the British public’s response, because it was real, in that she’s in their DNA. They’ve grown up with her: if they went to church they prayed for her; if they went to school, they learned about her; she was on the stamps, the money, everything.”
Graham also points to another remarkable statistic.
“I think nine out of every 10 people in the world were born while she was the Queen,” he notes. “Obviously, a 96-year-old woman pops her clogs, it shouldn’t be a surprise. And yet, there was a sense that she was just an institution, it was like driving past a building. She was like a landmark. So I kind of got the response in Britain. That was my experience of it, I’m sure people reading this will be going, ‘What the hell is he talking about?’ I don’t know what it was like in Ireland – it might have felt forced, I don’t know.”
Well, for people of my age, it’s been interesting to see the royals once again become a major focus of pop culture. Largely, this has been on the back of Netflix’s truly outstanding drama The Crown, and to some extent, the Diana biopic Spencer (even if Kristen Stewart’s sublime performance wasn’t enough to make that fully work as a movie).
But for Irish people, the royals are purely of historical and cultural – and occasionally comedic – interest. Obviously, the emotional attachment isn’t there.
“Do you remember trip she did?” asks Graham, and of course I do. “That was amazing. I felt it changed everything. All of these people who didn’t care about the Queen suddenly… And also it was a big event in Ireland, there was 24-hour coverage, so you actually saw what she did, all day, everyday. The grimness of it: perched on a stool in the middle of Croke Park for hours on end. Or standing at that dinner just shaking hands for hours on end. There was no sense of envy there, you didn’t think, ‘Oh, I wish I was Queen.’”
Politics, Controversy & Tom Cruise
Generally speaking, how interested are you in politics and current affairs?
“I am interested in it, in that I think we all have to be,” says Graham. “Sadly, we’re all being forced to be more interested! There’s that. I tend not comment on stuff because of what I do. So when I do interviews, I try to be the good little interviewee. And if someone asks me a question, I will sit up and try to answer as blandly and inoffensively as I can. But then, of course, it’s the secondary reporting of that interview.
“So suddenly, it’s ‘Graham Norton weighs in on’, all that kind of loaded language. Like I unfurled a proclamation on the steps of the GPO and went, ‘This is what I think about this.’ No, it’s not, it’s just me answering a question. So I try, as much as possible, not to comment on stuff. Because in the end, I’m vaguely interested in my opinion, but no one else should be. I’m not a commentator, I’m not an expert.”
He sees further problems with the celebrity-industrial complex.
“Most people end up being involved in the way that I just described,” he continues. “Most people, off their own bat, don’t elbow their way to the front and go, ‘Here’s what I think.’ I think celebrity voices are artificially amplified, and often very distracting and unhelpful. With most things you think, ‘If you’re really interested in the subject, talk to somebody who knows the fuck about it.’ Find an expert, someone who’s directly involved and impacted. Not somebody in a shiny suit off the telly, it’s just not appropriate.”
I’m about to make another point when we both spontaneously erupt with laughter – Graham is a man who knows his way around a measured response.
“That put you off!” he chuckles.
Clearly, you’re skilled in the art of the diplomatic answer.
“I’m so not,” he insists. “I’m constantly learning, I’m constantly getting this wrong, which is why I’m saying this to you.”
As if in illustration of Graham’s point, a perfect example of how stories take on a life their own online – and spiral off into all kinds of unexpected directions – occurred in the weeks after our interview. Talking to Mariella Frostrup at the Cheltenham Book Festival, Norton – referring to John Cleese – said that cancel culture is really about accountability. Elsewhere, he suggested that the media would be better off talking to trans teens and their parents, rather than giving so much airtime to JK Rowling.
There the matter would have rested, had not English singer-songwriter Billy Bragg enthusiastically retweeted the clip. This caught the attention of Rowling, and there followed the obligatory exchange of barbs between Bragg and the Harry Potter author. Naturally, the story was all over the media, and days later, Norton deleted his Twitter account. The whole episode was somewhat random and bizarre, and very 2022.
Back to the present. Has Graham ever met Micheal Martin or Leo Varadkar?
“Now,” he says. “No, is I think the answer. But did I meet Micheal Martin? I might have shook his hand. I seem to remember… What was I at that Micheal Martin was at?”
Well, he is from Cork as well.
“Yeah,” nods Graham. “So it must have been a Cork-y thing. I feel like I’ve shaken his hand, but maybe I haven’t. Maybe he was just at something I was at. That’s a question for when you’re interviewing Micheal Martin!”
At this stage, of course, the list of celebrities who’s appeared on The Graham Norton Show is a like a who’s who of entertainment. But I’m particularly interested that Tom Cruise always appears when he has a movie out.
Cruise media appearances are thin enough on the ground these days, and just recently, one of my favourite podcasters, Bill Simmons – among the most powerful and influential people in American media – noted that he’d love to have the superstar actor on, but didn’t think he could get him (lately, Simmons’ website The Ringer also ran an article arguing that Norton’s series had eclipsed all of its American rivals, and thus held the “talk-show belt”).
Does Graham feel he has a good relationship with Cruise?
“I hope so,” he says. “He doesn’t do it for the good of his health, let’s say. He comes on because, pardon the pun, he is a man with a mission. Tom has been a great supporter of the show and the star power he brings with him is extraordinary to be around. I love the impact he has on the audience. Even if they weren’t huge Tom Cruise fans at the start of the show, they love him by the end.
“Perhaps surprisingly, he never comes with any provisos or ‘no go’ areas for the interview, but then I guess when your star burns that bright, he knows that it isn’t in our interest to upset him.”
Finally, how long do you think you’ll continue doing the show?
“Who knows?” says Graham. “I’m not really in a position to say. I don’t want to stop, if that’s what you’re asking! I’ve culled about 10 weeks from the schedule, which seems like a pretty sweet life/work balance to me. But in the end, it just takes some BBC executive to notice us and decide to make a big splashy change. Nothing has a God-given right to be in the schedule or on TV, and that’s how it should be.”
• Forever Home is out now, published by Coronet.