Man at His Best

The Greatest Talkshow On Earth

Now in its 20th season, The Graham Norton Show is still pulling viewership and celebrities. Host Graham Norton talk to us about the show and how it got to where it is today.

BY Jim Maloney | Nov 3, 2016 | Film & TV

What’s the craziest thing that has happened in the Green Room or on the show?
All sorts of odd things happen. When Chris Pratt came on and said he could do a British Essex accent and I thought, “Oh, this is going to be embarrassing.” But it turned out he was very good at it. And equally when Rebel Wilson said “I can do the nunchucks” you think, “Yes, I’m sure. When would you ever learn how to do that?” But randomly she had learnt to do it as a kid. So they are nice moments. We did a show with Hugh Bonneville, Matt Damon and Bill Murray and I had nothing to do with that show. Really, I was just sitting on the chair and the couch took on a life of its own. It was out of control but it was fun.

How do you keep the show fresh with each series?
It evolves over time. Often in the audience’s heads, they think the show hasn’t changed at all but if you go back to the early version of the show, it’s very different. The scale of it has changed. The core team who work on the show know what has worked for us in the past [and] every year there are a new members [added to] the team and they do bring a fresh eye. If we [watch the show and we] think something is a bit boring, we will shake it up a bit.

Are there chat shows you watch for inspiration?
Not really. There are chat shows I really enjoy. [The Late Show with] Stephen Colbert at the moment is my favourite because I think [Colbert] is one of the few Americans who are as good at the comedy bits as the interviews. Because I think in America they spend all their time and energy doing comedy bits and so long as they’ve got a guest they don’t really care but Colbert really interviews those people. He does a good job.

What advice would you give to young people trying to be successful in life?
The advice I’d give to all young people is that you’ve got more time than you think you have. Young people think it’s got to happen now. But the plugging away years are not wasted. You’ve got more time to fail than you think, because you’ve got time to start again. At 53 I’m a debut novelist, whereas the 30-year-old me would have thought, “Why bother? At 53 you’re almost dead.”

In all these years of doing the show what do you think of celebrity guests in general?
I think the nicest guests are the ones who have a genuine interest in the other people on the couch. You can have a big star who’s very good at telling stories and, on the face of it, is a really good guest, but if they’ve lost that thing of not being interested in other people then you don’t really feel like you meet them.  The guests that I feel I have encountered or had an opinion about tend to be the ones who properly listen to the other guests and don’t just sit staring at the monitor waiting for their own face to appear. Watch the show and you can see the ones who do that.

TV is no longer the only game in town. You have the Internet as a medium; has that changed your approach?
It hasn’t changed the way we approach the game but it’s sort of odd the way people then approach us or tell us what a success it is. If a clip from the show does go viral then that’s a really good thing. I still don’t know why that is a good thing. In America they are obsessed by things going viral. Hence, James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” is a huge thing. But for James that must be frustrating because all the world is watching “Carpool Karaoke” but he has an entire show of The Late Late Show to do every night. So I feel like we mustn’t lose focus on what our real job is, [which is to make] the best show we possibly can; not kill some time until we can do a thirty second clip. I think people have got overly excited about the success of YouTube.

The Bee Gees once walked out on Clive Anderson after they felt he was disparaging towards them. Have there been moments on your own show when you thought someone might walk off?
No. We would never want to engineer that to happen. If you have invited someone on your show then you need to treat them with some degree of respect. If you invite a vegetarian into your house you don’t force them to eat meat. And on a practical level, once that happened on Clive Anderson’show, booking guests became incredibly hard even if people watched the clip and thought the Bee Gees overreacted. Publicists won’t want to put their clients in a situation where they might get very upset – even if it’s irrational. They want it to be as safe as possible. So, although you end up with a classic moment of television you end up with quite a hard show to produce. 

What have been your top three favourite guest encounters?
Chris Pratt comes up because I had no expectations of him and he has become such a huge star now. He’s got so many movies coming out. I thought he was terrific on the show; he’s very funny yet unaware of his own star status. I think because he’s been so busy making movies he doesn’t quite know [how big a star] he is now. And then there are those big stars that you just kind of go, “That’s Madonna!” To have people that I grew up being a fan of suddenly being on a show that nominally, at least, is mine, is crazy. Jeff Goldblum was one of those people who, at the end of the show, you think, “I’d quite like to go to dinner with you.” Normally I’m sort of, “I’ve met them, and I’m done,” but I thought that he had more to give; like he had some very good stories that he couldn’t tell on the show.

Does the suit help, because you are always immaculately dressed?
It’s a bit like when I did stand-up comedy I would never do it in jeans and T-shirt because I always feel like you should look like you have made an effort. If somebody is getting married and they just show up in flip flops, you think, “Hmm… not taking this very seriously are you?” Even though their heart may be full of love and this is the biggest thing that has happened to them but if you put a shirt and tie on it gives a signal. And I suppose it is slightly like armour.

You can be quite cheeky to guests. What is it about you that you get away with it?
I’m sure I’ve got it wrong too, where you see a slight look in someone’s eye and you think, ‘I’ve mis-judged that.’ For some reason I can remember asking Liam Neeson if he had ever ‘shat’ himself! And I don’t know why I did that. But he did sort of start to answer me and then realise what he was saying!

Do you think people take offence too easily?
Part of me likes a world where people take offence easily because it does make the world gentler. And I think it has changed comedy. Comedy has become a gentler thing. There isn’t that brutal harshness that there was in comedy in the late 80s and early 90s. But equally it is really annoying when people take offence too easily.

How do you deal with guests who come on the show with pre-conditions of what they will or not want to talk about?
If they don’t want to talk about anything, then what on earth are they doing on the show? The only time I’ve thought that we should have stood our ground was when Janet Jackson was on not that long after Michael Jackson had died. Obviously we didn’t want to talk about it but I felt it should have been acknowledged in some way because it made me look rude. But I do understand because they think that if they let an interviewer ask one question about something then there will be follow-up questions but that’s not our show. Those interviews exist and if you want to do one of those interviews you go on one of those shows. We are about having a perfectly nice time. We will tell people the guest has got a film out and then it’s “Please tell us an anecdote about, you know, finding a spider in your ear, or something.” It’s a light hearted, frivolous show. 

Do you mind watching yourself on TV?
I’ve sort of got over the horror of it now. It certainly wouldn’t be my first choice to watch myself on the screen but the enjoyment I get out of watching it is to see how the show has been edited, if they’ve moved things around and fitted stuff in.

Would you miss doing the show?
The work keeps you busy and occupies a bit of your brain but it also is about validation. The fact that you get a cheque at the end of your shift, is validation. And with my show you get ridiculous validation when people clap for you; most people don’t get that. But I don’t think I would miss the applause so much. I think I could live without that. 

When it comes to gay rights, do you think [Britain is] where we should be?
I think Britain is but some countries have some catching up to do. That’s why I think Ireland is a very optimistic story because the Ireland I left in the early ’80s, you could never, ever have predicted that [those citizens] would have voted for gay people to have the right to marry. It was inconceivable. I mean, being gay was pretty difficult; very few people came out and a lot of countries now that have a poor record of gay rights is where Ireland was 30 years ago, so you hope that in another 30 years, they will have reached the point that Ireland has. 

Do you ever come across homophobia yourself?
My friend gave me a birthday card once which said, “It’s not homophobia. Everyone hates you.” So I don’t know if I’ve come across homophobia or if people just hate me!

Do people ever say nasty things?
Not really. It’s just kids shouting something in the street. I don’t react to it, which is something my mother taught me before I went to school. And, although it leads to an almost emotional detachment, it also means you don’t get picked on and those kids will eventually stop shouting things at you because they are not getting any response.

Is there a relationship with how much wine you have in your glass on the show and how well the interview goes?
If there is less wine in my glass it’s because it is going well, because I am talking less, so I am drinking more. Once the couch takes off, I can just sit back and enjoy my wine and watch it happening. 

Has anyone ever got drunk on your show?
Yes, they have. Mark Wahlberg has been on the show and I’m pretty sure he was drunk. When you watch clips of old shows like the Dick Cavett Show, people are there in their hat and gloves, smoking while telling their stories and I wonder if people will watch clips of my show in time and think, “They are drinking! How amazing!” 

Do you like it when the guests drink?
I do. I don’t know whether they are going to drink or not and then I walk out and say hello to the audience and if I see drinks lined up I think, “Oh good,” because I think it sends out a signal that they intend to enjoy themselves. My hopes for the show are raised when I see drinks on the coffee table.

Are there any names from the new series that you can talk about?

I can say that Justin Timberlake is coming on and I don’t think we have ever had him on before. I will be chatting to him because he’s got a movie coming out. He’s on with Robbie Williams, who is performing. I think Tom Cruise is making a welcome return later in the series.

The Graham Norton Show airs each Saturday 10pm on BBC Lifestyle (StarHub Channel 432). The programme is also available for catch-up on BBC Player.