Archive for June, 2004


Daddy cool

TIMES MAGAZINE – June 26, 2004
Ginny Dougary

He may be pushing 80, but writers don’t come cooler than Elmore Leonard, with Hollywood players from Tarantino to Malkovich beating a path to his door. Ginny Dougary meets the crime master.

We’re sitting in a darkish room in the back of his home, and Elmore Leonard is dishing the dirt on Hollywood in an appropriately laid-back way. He’s pushing 80 but is most uncreaky and lean in his jeans, sneakers and navy round-necked sweater, inconspicuous spectacles, a glint of dull gold chain around his neck. Leonard is cool. Perhaps not quite as cool as his books – that would be hard – but almost. On the way to his second study, devoted to half a century of works by himself, we walked through the kitchen, passing Christine – his wife – her hair in punky tufts, standing by the sink, chopping and watching an old black-and-white film on a television suspended from the ceiling.

Leonard and I had managed to talk our way through lunch without noticing we’d missed it. Round about tea-time he offered to make me a hot dog. This, I think, was not a serious suggestion but a droll nod to my appreciation of the almost fastidious, connoisseurs’ delight his characters take in their consumption of junk food. Leonard was there, long before Quentin Tarantino had his Pulp Fiction characters, on the way to a hit, marvelling that in Paris a Quarter Pounder McDonald’s is called a Royale.

Freaky Deaky (published in 1988), the author’s own favourite, was the first of his books I read and I can still remember being tickled by this sort of dialogue: bomb squad (soon to transfer to sex crimes unit) cop’s father Art Mankowski, frying hamburgers, asks son Chris, “You want your onion fried or raw?” “I’d rather have a slice of green pepper, if you have any, and the cheese melted over it.” “I think there’s one in there, take a look. Get the cheese, too, the Muenster. Where’d you have it like that?” “It’s the way Phyllis makes ’em,” Chris said. “You put A-1 on it instead of ketchup.” And so on for pages, the precise merits of a particular relish refinement batted back and forth, between observations on marriage, career tips, cartoons and sexual deviancy.

It’s not that that this sort of characterisation hasn’t been done before – Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger, which I read many, many years ago, is a blur for me now apart from a scene when one of the baddies demands that his scrambled eggs are served runny, which still seems quite horribly creepy – but what’s special about Leonard is the way he imbues white trash taste, most democratically, with something like the nuance of sophistication.

Before Tarantino came along – the Detroit writer’s number one fan, along with a disparate devotee base of poets, junkies, jailbirds and Martin Amis – the received opinion was that Leonard’s books did not translate well on to the screen, although not for the want of trying. The writer’s personal all-time turkey was, until recently, the 1969 version of The Big Bounce, starring Ryan O’Neal, which he has consistently described as “the second-worst movie ever made”, although a recent remake seems to have surpassed it in awfulness. Even its producer, Stephen Bing, best known as the father of Elizabeth Hurley’s baby, approached Leonard at the launch party to offer his apologies.

Bad Big Bounces aside, there have been some notable cinematic successes in recent years: Steven Soderbergh directing Out of Sight (starring Jennifer Lopez as the cop and George Clooney as the con escapee in that fantastically sexy scene in the boot of a car), Get Shorty and Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, recast from the Leonard novel Rum Punch. Tarantino has still got the rights to Killshot but plans to be on the screen rather than behind it, and is currently filming the sequel to Get Shorty – Be Cool with John Travolta, returning as the Miami mobster Chili Palmer, and Uma Thurman.JJohn Malkovich has the rights to Freaky Deaky and Danny DeVito to Leonard’s last book of short stories, When the Women Come Out to Dance.

Leonard says he doesn’t do scripts any more, not since 1993: “I don’t get any fun out of it,” he says. “And I haIaIve (this drawn out like a southerner) to have fun when I’m writing.”

He tells me that on the set of Be Cool, the director was warned that in order to secure a PG-13 rating you can only get away with saying “f***” twice, and they were already at a count of no fewer than 32 of the offending word. “Really?” was Tarantino’s chilled response, “Well, f*** that” – and everyone agreed the two-f**** exchange was so fabulous it had to go into the actual movie.

There had been a bit of bother behind the scenes, apparently, with Danny DeVito insisting on his rights – from his initial contract – to final approval of Get Shorty’s sequel. Leonard: “And MGM said, ‘We’re not gonna give you the final cut so we’ll just put it on the shelf.’ And everybody who’s involved is yelling at Danny DeVito, saying: ‘God, what are you holding out for?'” Leonard’s agent finally came up with a deal – which was to offer DeVito any of his client’s books the actor fancied, including the opportunity to commission a new work, and a commitment from MGM that it would make the picture. Which is how DeVito came to own When the Women Come Out to Dance and Be Cool will not end up languishing on a shelf.

My favourite tales from Leonard’s considerable store of prima donna lunacy involve Dustin Hoffman. Some years ago, the actor had agreed to star in LaBrava but wanted to fine-tune the script. Once a month for seven months, Leonard would fly from Detroit to New York, as did the director from Los Angeles, to be creative with Hoffman. First of all, the seasoned actor had a problem with the idea that he could be expected to play a man who was in love with a 50-year-old woman. Surely it would be more credible for his character to be entwined with a much younger woman than himself? Leonard duly agreed to go home and rewrite the story.

The next month, Hoffman felt it might be more credible still if the younger woman already had a boyfriend whom she felt compelled to leave because of her uncontrollable attraction to the older man. Leonard agreed once more to make the necessary adjustments.

By the time they meet again, the actor has had a complete change of heart: “Hey, you know, I will fall in love with a 50-year-old woman. I’ve just met Anouk Aimee and she’s terrific.” After a brief discussion on wrinkles (her lack of), the phone rings and – incroyable – it is none other than the French actress herself. Hoffman insists that the writer and the director come to the phone in turn to say a few words. Leonard congratulates her on her performance in A Man and a Woman, to which she replies: “Humphh, zat was 27 years ago.” “Well, I really had no idea what to say,” Leonard shrugs.

All of which nonsense is recounted in the most even tones, with just a hint of “Lord, what fools these mortals be” mischief around Leonard’s eyes. The story moves on, and now the actor has been approached by the makers of Get Shorty to play the lead role. Leonard is in Adelaide on a book tour when he receives a phone call from Hoffman: “You’ve been saying terrible things about me for monthsI and my people have been protecting me from reading your book because they say it’s all about me!” Emboldened by the great distance which lay between him and Hoffman, Leonard replied: “What? You think you’re the only short actor in Hollywood?”

Our day together had started with him phoning the plush hotel he had recommended I stay in, and insisting on driving over to pick me up from his home ten minutes away. I assured him that I’d already booked a cab. “Then cancel it,” he said firmly.

So we drove together through the serene streets of Birmingham, the affluent white Anglo-Saxon suburb of Detroit which has been Leonard’s – rather surprising – home for the past five decades. In my mind’s eye, I still held an image of the writer from an old American Express advertisement: in profile, on a seat, all in black from his tilt-hatted head and shades to his gleaming black-booted toes, gauntly poised for action like Lee Marvin but with an old typewriter, instead of a gun, on his knees. The allure, of course, is that the dude in black has a toughness and an unknowability about him, a whiff of danger even, which suggests that you would be ill-advised to mess with him.

This quality – which the photographer Annie Leibovitz was obviously striving for – chimes in with what one might hope for from the guru of crime fiction. Such a writer’s habitat might be a gothic pile or perhaps a stark but stylish loft in the inner-city, probably not a pleasant neo-Georgian house with shrubs and blossomy pear trees, and inside: chinoiserie, friends’ paintings, willow-sprigged wallpaper, an antique desk, tables covered with many framed photographs of family.

On our drive, Leonard had pointed out a building where one of his middle-aged sons has his own advertising agency – he had worked as a copywriter himself in his twenties – and approaching the substantial mansions and drives of his neighbourhood, gestures to a side road where a daughter lives. Another daughter and son live close by and only one of the five children, Chris, is far away, running hisJrestaurant in Arizona. There are now biblical quantities of grandchildren – as witnessed by the dedication to his first children’s book A Coyote’s In the House (if Leonard pens a kiddie book, can Tarantino’s Disney be far behind?): “Shannon and Megan; Tim, Alex, Max and Kate; Ben, Hillary and Abby; Joe, Nick and Luke; and for my great-grandson, Jack.”

He has said in the past that his children are the reason he has stayed so long in the same place (albeit with regular breaks in Florida, another setting for his books). Today, however, he asks me what more could he want, wafting a hand vaguely towards the french windows, the tree-lined garden beyond with its swimming pool, tennis court (he now watches rather than plays), and population of squirrels, chipmunks and possums. JJ Perhaps it is because he is so prodigiously hardworking – he is never without at least one book on the go – that I sense some disapproval (and Leonard is notably unjudgmental) of writers who squander their time not writing. When I ask him whether he likes the literary scene, for instance, he says: “Yeah, but in small doses, because I think of Joseph Heller right away who was 12 years between books, between the big oneI what was it?”

Catch 22. “Iand the next one. Twelve years! What was he doing? He was having lunch. With his friends. Out in the Hamptons.”

On his desk, which suggests a most unchaotic approach to creativity, there is a neat pile of yellow A4 pages, filled with words, a couple covered in an inky scrawl, and one with a paragraph or two in his typewriter. For The Hot Kid – the book he is working on now – Leonard is returning to his boyhood. He reads the opening line out loud in his steady voice: “Carlos Webster was 15 the day he witnessed the robbery and killing at Deering’s drugstore. This was in the fall of ’21 in Okmulgee, Oklahoma.”

His early years were peripatetic on account of Leonard Snr’s job as an executive in the motor industry – latterly with General Motors in Detroit – picking out dealership locations. Born in New Orleans in 1925, his family moved back and forth from Dallas, Oklahoma City and Memphis before settling in Detroit in 1934, where Leonard Jnr has remained ever since.

We look at a series of black-and-white photographs of a very young Leonard dressed up in different disguises and looking scampish, next door to his rather upright older sister. There are no pictures of his mother here – whom he describes as “a wonderful, thoughtful, non-judgmental woman” – but his father looks exquisitely turned out: “Well, all the men in the Thirties wore suits and hats. I mean, even bank robbers. Particularly bank robbers! Which is what I am covering now.”

There is one outfit of the young Leonard which could be read as a thread between the boy and the man; the imaginative link to a world that still fascinates him. He is dressed in a cap and suit, foot on the step of a curvy-bumpered car, brandishing a gun. It’s a child’s re-enactment of the famous pose struck by Bonnie Parker (as in Bonnie and Clyde). I’m wondering if Leonard himself is The Hot Kid of the title: “No, no, but there is something about that time which affected me. It was said that there were probably 20 bank robbers for every doctor in America then, and I was certainly aware of the desperadoes. I was aware of what was going on with Bonnie and Clyde, and Pretty Boy FloydI It was in the papers all the time.

They were all killed, but the important ones were killed in 1934.”

His sister used to read to him a lot, which got him into reading himself, popular fiction for the most part. His father was always concealed behind the pages of Forbes and Fortune and the newspaper, but he remembers his mother joining the Book of the Month club in 1940.

He was named Elmore after the hero of a book his paternal grandmother was reading at the time his father was born. “It was a formidable name to handle, and tough just to stand up in class and say, ‘I’m Elmore Leonard.’

Oh jeez,” he says, “I wish I had been John or Jim or Jack or Bill. Bill was my favourite.”

He says that he felt very much loved growing up but reckons he wasn’t spoiled because “I got whacked a lot” – this delivered with relish. “By my mother, she was the whacker.” He doesn’t remember being aggrieved by it and – besides – he was a whacker himself as a father – “But I didn’t overdo it.” (This sounds odder than it might since “whack” is Leonard hood-speak for murder.)

Steinbeck was one of his favourite novelists, and he still rates him – quite considerably, judging by the number of admiring references to him in a crisp piece published in 2001 on rules for writing – most of which start with the words “Don’t” (“go into great detail describing places and things”); “Never” (“open a book with weather”, “use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue”, “use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’); and “Avoid” (prologues).

While he makes honourable exceptions for Barry Lopez (on the weather) and Margaret Atwood and Jim Harrison (descriptive writing), Mary McCarthy gets lightly admonished for being a writer who sticks her nose into her prose: “I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ‘she asseverated’ and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.”

I suspect a similar criticism of Martin Amis, although Leonard describes the younger man as his champion: “He has said more good things about me than anyone here.” First of all, he says that he would be unable to write a classic novel in the omniscient voice of the author: “That’s an author who has the language and the more interesting the language, the more literary it becomes. But I don’t have the language. I don’t have all the words like Martin Amis. He uses words I’ve never heard of; ones I’ve never seen on paper.”

For an example, he says: “I questioned him about a word he used – when we were being interviewed together – and it was something similar to ‘plastered’. Like ‘the suit was plastered on to his figure’. It was a building word, a construction word – and my daughter knew it but only because she’s into re-doing houses. I said to him, ‘Do you ever look up words in the dictionary?’ And he said, ‘Yeah. Once in a while.’ And I said, ‘This word. Did you just think up this word?’ And he said, ‘Well, it fit and I thought it went with the paragraph and with the way the paragraph was written, and it went with this particular character, this man.’ And I said, ‘So you didn’t have to look it up, huh?'”

Leonard has always liked stories with a beginning, middle and end. And although after the war he enrolled at the University of Detroit to read English – with heavy doses of the classics – it was the reading he did in his own time that gave him the most pleasure. He particularly disliked a course on the Romantics – Keats and Shelley not really being his bag. What did he think of Shakespeare: “I liked him but I was never attracted to imagery, and he is imagery all over the place,” he says. “I remember saying to Joyce Carol Oates I thought imagery got in the way of story. And she said, ‘Well, so much for Shakespeare.’ But I was thinking of Raymond Chandler, not Shakespeare.”

He wrote a couple of directionless short stories at university, sent them off to magazines and when they were rejected, resolved to narrow his tastes down to a particular genre and become an expert at it. Westerns were his first choice, partly because they were so big in the Fifties: “So I thought, ‘I think I can make it here without too much trouble.'” More rejections came when he wrote without doing any research but as soon as he started exploring Arizona, New Mexico in the 1880s, Apache Indians, the cavalry and cowboys – “What they wore, what they ate, everything – I started to sell immediately.”

He takes out boxes from shelves and opens the lids to show the magazines – pulp fiction, indeed – that would run his stories when he started out for two cents a word – “So I’d get a hundred bucks for a 5,000-short, which was better than the quarterlies who’d give you a free subscription to their magazine, which would normally cost $ 25.”

I had read that he would get up at five in the morning and type for two hours, before heading off to his advertising job – slogans to sell cars; nothing very memorable – and had assumed that since he was married in 1949 (to Beverly Claire Cline), the first of the five children appearing a year later, he had gone into writing the better to support his burgeoning family. But, no, he says, he did it because a full-time fiction writer was what he wanted to be.

He was successful enough at the western – Hombre was chosen as one of the best 25 westerns of all time – but it was crime, when Leonard made the switch, that really paid.

I have rarely met a writer who inhabits his own books as much as Leonard, or who is so unabashed about his enjoyment of them. He says that Tarantino knows his work better than he does, and will often refer to a minor character that the author himself has forgotten. But, frankly, I find this hard to believe. Just about the only time Leonard loses me is when he goes into the plots of some of the 37 novels I haven’t read, which he does quite often and at some length: Glitz, the one that turned him into a cover-boy when it became a New York Times bestseller in ’85; Killshot; Touch; Pronto; Unknown Man Number 89.

Leonard is far stronger, as he says himself, on character than plot – “Most books sell on the strength of the plot. Clancys and Grishams, those are plot-heavy books, but mine are all character.” I love the way he talks about his characters as though they are absolutely alive to him: which is literally true in the case of Chili Palmer, even down to his name, an ex-Mafia employee of an old schoolfriend of Leonard’s who worked as a private investigator in Miami Beach.

He is brilliant at capturing the way people speak and rendering them absolutely believable, and finds it hard to understand why people marvel at the authenticity of his dialogue: “People ask me all the time: ‘Where do you get that dialogue? What do you do?’ And I say, ‘Well, I hear it. Don’t you hear it? Don’t you hear people’s voices?’ So you have a certain type and it’s a caricature to begin with and as you work on it then that person becomes real to you.

“It’s the way that Steinbeck said, ‘I want to know what the person looks like from the way he talks.’ I thought he let me off the hook then back in ’56 or whenever it was. I thought, ‘Oh, thank God, I don’t have to describe people.’ Because what good is it? Some authors go into great detail – how close the eyes are and all that, and it doesn’t matter. Who cares? Because by the time you’ve introduced somebody, the reader’s already picturing that person. You don’t want to louse up the way the reader sees the character.

So let the readers see the person and then you make them talk and somehow it all fits.”

His characters have to earn their right to be in the limelight; if they bore him, they will be dispatched quite ruthlessly. He often rewrites scenes from different characters’ viewpoints before deciding how the story will pan out most effectively. The best character for him is: “A very minor one who might not even have a name. But he finds himself in a very important scene and he talks and I like the sound of him and I have to give him a name and then give him a little more background and he sort of insinuates himself into the plot.”

In the days, a long time ago now, when Leonard drank, he made a point of never drinking while he wrote. But there were far too many days when he wrote hungover. Booze, for him, was tied up with his notion of manliness: being one of the sporty boys, talking the talk, walking the walk: “It made me feel good; gave me a little swagger.”With his love of disguises and outfits, his first wish was to join the marines “because I liked the uniform” but he was rejected on account of his weak eyesight, and had to settle for a sailor suit instead. “Well, I got to like it, too,” he says.

“And I liked being in the Navy and I liked playing the role.” He was posted with a construction battalion to the Admiralty Islands near New Guinea to maintain an airstrip used by fighter planes that went on bombing missions around the Japanese islands. Leonard was in charge of handing out the beer, and once in a while he made a trade with the cooks for a bottle of bourbon – which swiftly became his poison of choice.

The drink, he says, would bring him out: “And then I was less inclined to be passive and not say anything.” That’s how you tended to be? “Yes.

Self-conscious. And then, of course, when I was out of myself I thought I was very funny.” Your friends at that time said you were. “To a degree, definitely. I could overdo it, too.”

I would guess that Leonard is probably still a little shy in company.

Although he is perfectly voluble in our interview, when we go out to dinner that night with Christine, and later on to a jazz club, he says less and less. But then it was hard for him to get a word in edgeways between his wife and me, and by the time it was approaching midnight it had clearly been a long day. I felt quite badly for him when he said, “Please take me home”, particularly since he was the one driving.

He joined AA in 1974, relapsed, and finally quit in 1977 – the year his 28-year first marriage ended. He and Beverly had been part of a heavy drinking country-club set that would meet up four times a week, and holiday together in the Bahamas and Europe – “and it got out of hand”. I say it sounds a bit like Updike territory. “Yes,” he says, “in a way.”

Round about now, Christine walks into the room and starts opening and closing the white shutters of the many windows, quite noisily. Leonard carries on talking, unperturbed, and lights up another of his long menthol cigarettes. We move from drink on to shooting – he practised with a friend from the Florida department of law enforcement, so he could write about the smell and the feel of a gun – to fashion. His books are always great on clothes – the Kangol beret, which he himself wore long before Samuel Jackson, a Joan and David handbag, a brightly coloured do-rag (bandanna favoured by rappers) – but it’s still a bit of a surprise to hear him enthusing about fashion shows: “Yeah, I’ve been to about half a dozen.”

What do you enjoy about them? “These giant women coming down the runway to the disco beat. You know, stomping along. Yeah, I like it.”

He says Christine, of course, wears very good clothes – as she comes into the room again, and it transpires that she is emerging from a state of extreme frock shock. A long and shaggy story ensues involving a wonderful outfit put in the boot of the wrong limousine by a bellhop in New York.

Fortunately, said outfit had been tracked down to the Hamptons and had just this morning arrived on the Leonards’ doorstep. “You know the really weird thing, Ginny,” Christine tells me, gazing over her Jay Jopling specs, “the most unbelievable thing is that I had a premonition about this.”

The dress is, indeed, beautiful – with a little train, delicate random beading on the bodice, and the most unusual fabric. When his wife leaves the room, Leonard turns to me: “I said at the time, ‘It’s just a dress.’

But then later, thinking of her reaction to it, it was considerably more than just a dress to her. It made me think.” And back comes Christine bearing a shocking-pink marabou jacket: “Marabou is really in right now,” she says. “Sonia Rykiel. Probably 15 years old. I just hang on to these things and they come back in style.”

Leonard fell for Christine a few months after his second wife, Joan, had died of cancer. He tells me he and Christine had their first date on June 19 and got married on August 19, and that was 11 years ago. Joan had seemed particularly involved in his books, coming up with the titles for Freaky Deaky and Get Shorty, and the endings of a couple of the others, listening to his pages at the end of each day. I ask him if he misses her a lot, and he says: “Mmmm. No.”

He also says that he was happy and self-sufficient for two years after his first marriage ended, but really he needed to be married. “I really like being married – being with someone you love and who you can talk to andI Christine and I met because she came to do the gardening.” He liked the way she handled her secateurs – and she still insists on dead-heading, while leaving her crew to take on the rest of the garden. Leonard says there’s a pretty fierce boundary war going on right now with their Mormon neighbour over whose shrubs are rightfully abutting whose border.

Writers, in my experience, are considerably less tricky to deal with than actors or pop stars. Even so, Leonard is pretty exceptional. To interview him, I didn’t have to go through an agent, an assistant or a secretary. He does employ a researcher, Gregg Sutter, who has done the initial legwork for him since the early Eighties checking out locations and lining up suitable cops and criminals whom he thinks might interest Leonard. The writer had even dispensed with the intermediary of the publishers’ publicist by asking me to phone him directly, which I did. The first time I tried to get through, he was away in LA on the set of Be Cool and I ended up speaking to Christine who sounded disembodied, like a kooky old lady rather than the vibrant fiftysomething livewire she is in person. Leonard returned my call and didn’t dick around with our arrangements.

I had spent the previous day or so checking out the locations in some of his books, as well as what my excellent driver, Mike, called “The ruins of Americana”: the old city centre of Detroit, with its majestic Thirties hotels, the Hilton, the Cadillac, the Madison-Lenox, the United Artists cinema with its peppermint and tangerine Art Deco facade, all long since empty and abandoned, populated by people standing on street corners with specifically no place to go.

We drove past the overblown, colonnaded mansions of the super-wealthy in the outer suburbs, and the sullen-faced inhabitants and burnt-out crack-shacks of the inner city, where so many buildings have been razed to the ground that it looks oddly pastoral, with great expanses of land returned to meadow. We got lost trying to find Kronk Gym which was built in 1926, with its black-and-white photos of Ali when he was Clay, still used by training boxers, now in the middle of nothingsville but once a thriving area of theatres and restaurants and offices and smart homes. We ate in Nemo’s, “A Detroit Classic”, where the very stupid white whackers in Mr Paradise eat their burgers and drink their beers. And in a completely desolate area, I stumbled upon the Key Club – still open and undergoing renovations, which seemed like a supreme act of optimism – only to discover from the owner that this is where Leonard had chosen to hold his party for the new book.

When I told him about this later, Leonard – you could see – was chuffed. He and Greg, the researcher, had thrown the bash as a thank-you to all the homicide cops and medical examiner’s office for their time and insights. I said that I really felt I was in LeonardLand; even Mike the driver, Irish-American, an alcoholic now singing the praises of AA, full of cracking stories and sharp observations, was beginning to seem like someone the writer had invented. He misunderstood me and thought I was going to attempt to write like him. (As if.) But what he said was spot on: “Don’t write out of the side of your mouth the way those who try to imitate me do.

And don’t try to make tough guys tough because my guys don’t try to be tough; they’re just themselves. I have an affection for them – and that’s the difference. I have an affection for all the people. The bad people – they’re bad, but so what?”

You see, Elmore Leonard doesn’t need to be told to be cool.

Celebrities, Comedians

Being Graham Norton

THE TIMES – June 1, 2004
Ginny Dougary

Britain’s naughtiest chat-show host has played his camp, cheekie-chappie card to the max. But now he’s showing worrying signs of growing up. Ginny Dougary watched him dip his toe into the US market – and asked a few rude questions of her own.

THE AFTERNOON REHEARSAL FOR GRAHAM NORTON’S New York television show had barely begun before I was thrown out, which was strange since I was sitting next to the entertainer’s business partner at So TV, Graham Stuart, who had invited me in as his guest.

The idea had been for me to get an impression of what the chat-show host was like behind the scenes. Norton was in his mufti, as opposed to one of his bad-taste TV suits, of low-slung jeans showing off his svelte new body, a sexy T-shirt and trainers. After having interviewed him, I’d say he is more insecure about his looks than any woman I’ve come across — which is a shame as he’s quite cute enough, a bit like a bouncy version of the Warhol star, Joe Dellesandro.

The script just needed a final dusting: an uncontroversial Iraq joke — “Dolphins? Isn’t that a little odd for a war in the desert?”; a news flash that Hugh Grant has announced that he’s giving up acting (“I thought he had already”) and an obligatory smutty joke about masturbation. Norton asked the floor manager whether an American audience would understand “wanking.” “I learnt it today for the first time,” she says. Quick as a flash, he replied: “Well, that’s a lifetime wasted.” “So naughty, so campy so saucy”, as the usually sober Wall Street Journal described So Graham Norton.

He had just got into running through his Oscars questions with the researcher who was “being” the actress Susan Sarandon, when a thunder-faced man from the front row bounded up the stairs to whisper something in my neighbour’s ear. I heard the words “Get rid of her”. Awkwardly, Graham Stuart, although creative producer, had been overruled by Jon Magnusson (son of Magnus), executive producer, who did not want a journalist observing the proceedings. And so we were forced to depart.

Poor Stuart began to bluster, to which I responded, “But didn’t he say ‘Get rid of her” and he collapsed in mortified laughter. He begged me not to write about the incident — obviously realising how at odds with the relaxed, apparent spontaneity of the show such high-handed behaviour would look. But, as I pointed out to him, that’s precisely what made it interesting. If part of Norton’s appeal is that what you see is what you get, then what could there conceivably be to hide from a journalist’s gaze? And, to be fair, as far as I know Norton himself had raised no objections to me being there anyway.

Of course, while control-freakery is not part of Channel 4’s remit, it is absolutely routine in Hollywood. Now that Norton is on our screens five nights a week, with his sights clearly set on the States, perhaps his burgeoning success means that he is increasingly less likely to be surrounded by cheery, down-to-earth individuals like himself.

There is definitely something sweet about Norton’s manner; that combination of mischief and innocence abroad in the world of foolish mortals is not merely his schtick for the stage. Although innuendo is hard to avoid when you are around him — my question “Do you go down well in Sydney?” is greeted by an inevitable titter — mercifully he doesn’t go in for endless wisecracks. He has often commented that he would find it alarming as well as draining, for himself as much as anyone else, were he as full-on off the screen as he is on it.

The idea that he may be irredeemably uncool does seem to exercise him a bit. He once said he hoped never to find himself described as the “class clown” by an old schoolmate, which suggests that he is sensitive to the suggestion that he might have been. Like other Norton fans — although less of him for me is definitely more — he first came to my attention as the hilariously gruesome happy-clappy priest in Father Ted, singing Pogues songs in the campervan long into the night. His reading of his youth-obsessed priest was that he was a touch on the pervy side, but that’s not the way his Channel 4 bosses wanted him to play it. I think he has become more circumspect as his profile has grown, while still managing to be offensive about the celebrities on his hitlist: Celine Dion being his current top dog.

Even in the old days, which were not all that long ago (just turned 40, Norton was still waiting on tables in his early thirties), he was reluctant to dish the dirt on his more difficult interviewees. But he did apologise to his interviewers for having to be so discreet, on the grounds that if he dissed one of the powerful agents’ clients he wouldn’t be able to get anyone else from their stable.

No with the exception of Raquel Welch whom he once called “a grumpy old bitch” on air — “I did, and in fairness no one’s come up to contradict me” he can’t remember any of his guests being tricky or even weird. I had been told by someone who worked on the programme that Bo Derek, for instance, didn’t get it at all. “I think she was all right, though, we’ve had her twice.” I read that Boy George got grumpy… “Did he? I don’t remember him getting grumpy” He says that some people “get quite silent and just wait for it to end because they don’t like it”, but he doesn’t elaborate further.

I am by no means a Celine Dion fan .— in fact, everything about her sets my teeth on edge but by the end of Norton’s sustained spiel against her in New York, “I read a headline in a British newspaper, Dog Has Facelift, and to my surprise it had nothing to do with Celine Dion… I expect she’s at home relaxing in front of the fire, licking her balls” and so on, I actually began to feel sorry for her. It was too cruel, like witnessing a schoolboy bully attack ing the playground misfit.

Norton says, most disingenuously, that “When I call her a dog, I’m not calling her ugly; I’m literally calling her a dog. She looks like a dog!” This discovery came about from one of his shows’ games, Stars in Your Pets’ Eyes, in which audience members brought in their pets who allegedly looked like famous people: “There was an Afghan hound and we put a sort of glittery snood on its head and it looked sooooo like Celine Dion it was uncanny.”

I’m sorry, Graham, but it’s just ridiculous for you to pretend that you’re not being incredibly rude about her. “I like dogs!” he says. Now come on, if you adored Celine Dion “Oh, I don’t adore Celine Dion.” What precisely do you find so ghastly about her? “Erm. Nothing really. I think what she’s done is quite clever, going to Las Vegas for three years. That’s a very good idea rather than trying to make albums and have hits and so on.”

Over the years he has mercilessly lampooned a number of female celebrities, although now that he tends to hobnob with them at parties, it’s probably quite convenient that he’s forgotten which ones were once his victims. “Minnie Driver? What have I said about Minnie Driver?” (“She’s just so ambitious and needy” to take one random comment.)

So does he have any male targets? “Erm, Michael Douglas is quite high up on our list. Basically our constant joke is that he’s dead. I’ll do jokes about Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas because, like, what the f*** do they care about what I think about them? You know what I mean? They’re in love, they’re rich, they’re happy, they’ve got babies, they’ve got Oscars, so what does it matter? Let’s have them.”

“What the television does is take the mirror and move it around…you live with constant self-loathing”

Since he’s hardly aiming to be Jeremy Paxman, it’s probably not surprising that Norton tends to have people he likes or admires on the show: Mo Mowlam (who is now a friend), Joan Collins, Dolly, Cher, Whoopi and Dustin. He wouldn’t want to ask them tough or controversial questions, partly because he’s relying on their goodwill to make fools of themselves on one of his daft games towards the end of the show. But he also has his own, not always immediately apparent, ethical sense of what is appropriate television.

I ask him whether he’s ever had anyone on the show whose views I imagine he finds obnoxious, like, say, gun enthusiast Charlton Heston, and I’m surprised by the force of his response: “I think Charlton Heston is a very, very old man and it’s sort of cruel to wheel him out as a spokesperson for anything. Do you know what I mean? I don’t think he could order a breakfast, so to ask him to justify why people should have the right to bear arms seems…”

Did you see Michael Moore’s film? (Bowling for Columbine, a passionate anti-gun documentary, featuring Charlton Heston,) “Yes, and I think Michael Moore’s a very bright man but he does a lot of shouting at receptionists. He seems to make his point with people who have no power; the people he’s supposed to be the friend of. He never gets to talk to the head of whatever company he’s attacking, and so he always rants at some receptionist or security guard, and you think, ‘What’s the point of that?’ He would supposedly want that receptionist to have better working conditions, and one of those improved conditions would be not to have a fat man with a beard shouting at you.”

I say that I would definitely want to ask Cher about her Botox habit: “Yes, and you can. Because your interview will be good whether she’s happy, sad or serious. She was genuinely upset when she said that she knows when people tell her she looks great, in brackets afterwards it’s understood they mean ‘for your age’. That she will never actually look great again.”

I roll my eyes and he says: “It’s the world’s revenge on pretty people, is what it is. ‘The plain shall inherit the earth.’ We’ll be in old people’s homes looking at old photographs saying, ‘Oh look, what happy days,’ and Cher will be sobbing.”

Hey, excuse me, I don’t think of myself as “plain” exactly, thank you very much — and I don’t think you are either. “We don’t trade on our beauty” he says, mock-primly. “We never have.”

But Dolly’s quite happy to talk about all her plastic surgery, isn’t she? “Yes, and she still looks fantastic, but she can’t keep looking like that. It’s the same as someone needing to be talked down off a building. They need to be talked down into age. The danger is that they’ve kept it at bay for so long, it’s like they need some kind of age counselling.”

Heat magazine apparently rang Norton’s agent and insisted they knew that he’d had a face-lift in America, and she phoned him in a panic to ask if it was true. “And I said, ‘Don’t you think I would have sued a plastic surgeon if this is how I looked after my plastic surgery!” Which is almost as horrible as anything he says about Celine Dion.

It was seeing himself on television that prompted him to lose weight. He says that producers and directors just tell insecure performers that telly puts on at least 7lb: “And it soooo doesn’t. When I had more weight on, I could tuck a shirt in, pull it so, look in the mirror and think, ‘Oh, I look all right.’ And all day long you’d have a certain level of confidence about that being the way you looked.

“But what television does is take the mirror and move it around, so that you suddenly see a bit of flab hanging here or there. So losing weight is to do with me not liking to look like that, but I only knew that I did because of television.”

He says that when he was younger he never felt particularly slim or attractive either: “See, that’s the tragedy You live with constant self-loathing, and the terrible thing is that as you get older, you look at old pictures of yourself and go, ‘God! I looked really good then. What was I thinking?”

He has said that it was a bit of a blow to him to discover not that he was gay but that he was camp. He also said something interesting about how most gay men would like to be taken as straight, explaining that that’s what being a gay man is about, liking men. On the surface of it, Norton does not appear to be riddled with neuroses but when he refers to his self-loathing — which, however casually presented, is a pretty strong statement — one wonders whether that uncomfortable accommodation with himself can be traced back to his early effeminacy; a sense of difference which was compounded by his family being Protestants in the Catholic stronghold of Bandon, County Cork.

We ponder what it is that makes certain homosexuals mince and flap their hands. Where do those giveaway mannerisms come from? He ummms and ahhhs and finally says, “I don’t know is the short answer. I mean, I don’t think I developed being camp, I think I was quite a camp child.” But I’ve never met a little boy who talks like Kenneth Williams. “Oh no, I think little boys do that,” he grins. “And the parents are obviously sitting there going, ‘Oh God.”

He continues: “It is an interesting idea where it comes from. It’s like how everyone who comes from a certain town has a particular demeanour or accent… it’s a unifying thing. It’s also self-protecting. You could be seen as emotionally vulnerable, and so if you have this very strong veneer you can say, ‘Actually this is me; I’ve created this’… and I suppose it’s also a kind of badge of belonging which can make you feel less isolated.”

What is odd, we agree, is that when a woman acts like a particularly poofy man it sounds totally unnatural. “Yes, it’s true that when women are arch or camp you suddenly realise, oh, those qualities that you thought in a gay man were feminine, actually aren’t. They are ‘other’; they are something else completely”

What is laudable, and certainly likeable, about Norton is the apparent ease with which he retains his links with the normal world. He is obviously jolly well-off, being in the position to turn down a £5-milJlion overture from the BBC to stay with Channel 4, and while he has property in New York and Cape Town, he continues to live in a three-bedroom house in the decidedly unstarry East End neighbourhood of Bow. He shared the house with his American boyfriend, Scott Michaels, but they separated in 2001 after being together for Graham Norton five years; Norton’s newfound celebritydom as the sing-along being a contributing factor to the break-up.

He is now on the guest list of A-list Hollywood hosts, but Norton’s real friends are still the ones he made years ago at the Central School of Art and Drama, waiting tables and dreaming up tasteless sketches about Mother Teresa and Karen Carpenter to take to the Edinburgh Fringe. If he wants to go to The Ivy, he’ll just book a table and pay for the pals who can’t afford it: “The way I look at it, I used to pay for Scott, so it was no skin off my nose to pay for other people. And my friends know it’s not costing me really. Something that would be a big chunk of their wages, just isn’t for me.”

He’s single at the moment, which suits him, he says, because he doesn’t really think he’s cut out for relationships, He considers it an achievement that he lived with Scott for as long as he did, and during their first few years together they only saw each other once a month in either LA or London. He spent a summer living in Soho but it was not a success: “It was too much for me; I’m too old.”

Is he worried that if he picks someone up in a bar, it’ll end up as a kiss’n’tell story? “What are they going to tell? I suppose they could sell one of those ‘He was crap in bed’ stories, but I don’t think the tabloids are that interested in how good or bad gay men are in bed.” What about a rent boy story? “Oh, rent boy would be good, but then you don’t have to be careful there, you just need not to do it. You don’t suddenly get a bill and think, ‘Oh, I’ve been with a rent boy’ you kind of know when that’s going on. How about if I stole a girl’s boyfriend? They’d like that. Or if I went out with a closeted celebrity, they’d love that.”

Indeed, as he knows from experience, the tabloids love the idea of that story so much they’re not above inventing it… which was what happened a couple of years back when Norton went to the Brits “on a date” as it was reported, with Ben Fogle, the handsome (and straight) former picture editor of Tatler and star of the BBC’s Castaway. The next morning both men were doorstepped at their separate homes, “and I think poor old Ben was a bit freaked out by it. He’d not had that sort of attention before and it was weird — like being gay is a sort of contagious disease. ‘Oh, he’s had contact with one of the gays.’ You know”

One thing I couldn’t help noticing when doing my research on Norton was that he had a slightly unreliable CV; not in a Jeffrey Archer-self-aggrandising way but more in terms of emphasis or contradictions. There is a question mark, for instance, over what almost every respectable journalist refers to as Norton’s “psychotic episode” (the words are always attributed to him), which he allegedly had while living in appalling digs in his first year at Cork University, featuring fornicating couples in the hallway, bounding rats and winter flies kept in a polystyrene dish on top of one of Norton’s speakers. But now when I ask him about the phrase, he says, ‘‘Psychotic episode’? I can’t believe I’d ever say that I’ve had a psychotic episode. I’ve never had a psychotic episode.”

The detail that is most muddling is how seriously he ever contemplated becoming a rent boy himself. The story has come up in various forms over the years; the general line being that the young Norton thought it was the only way he might be able to have gay sex. However, he now says dryly: “My prostitution career has, I think, been much exaggerated. The confusion is that there’s a story I told in a show I did called Charlie Angels go to Hell which is about me when I lived in a hippie commune in San Francisco when I was 18, and it’s about a friend of mine who did have a plan to become a prostitute… but in the show I told her story as though it happened to me.”

He then proceeds to tell me about his friend’s bizarre attempts at phone sex, naked in a glass box, and how she ended up giving oral sex to a pornographer because she was too unworldly to say no. But still, I’m sure I have read quite unequivocal accounts of him weighing up the pros and cons of going on the game himself So I ask him outright whether he ever did consider it? “No.” And that isn’t one of those lies you have said you sometimes tell journalists? “No.”

Yet this is what he told an Esquire journalist, David Quantick, in 1999: “Because I was from Ireland and I was so naive, it seemed that the only way to have sex, to broach the subject, was to turn it into a career. I didn’t know how to chat people up or go into bars. So I was doing it for all the wrong reasons — for the sex, not for the money.”

Quantick went on to explain the three reasons why Norton did not go through with it, two of which the comedian has given to various reporters over the years. One was that God saved him from such sinfulness just in the nick of time: “The night before, a pressure cooker exploded on me causing a large blistering on my chest, which I just took as a sign from God.” And, two that his would-be pimp wanted to have sex with him first to test him out: “He was annoyed that I went, ‘Actually, no.’ He said if you apply for a job as a secretary, you have to type a letter. And I thought, ‘You’ve said that before.’ It’s so callous and horrible.”

Reading these two versions of the rent-boy episode does make one wonder whether Norton may not be sanitising his past, per haps because no American network would be likely to touch an entertainer — Rupert Everett notwithstanding — who even flirted with the idea of being a male prostitute.

Whenever he talks about his year in the commune, however, he never pokes fun at any of his San Fran former housemates, which someone who was determined to reinvent himself might be tempted to do. They do sound vaguely cultish — or at the very least deeply stoned — renaming themselves by picking three letters out of a box. “Obo”, now in his sixties, is the man to whom Norton lost his virginity — “and now poor Obo is bothered by journalists every six months, when he’s just a nice man whom I don’t think is gay but felt duty bound because he was a hippie.”

I mention the group marriage (Obo apparently had 14 wives, or maybe not). “I don’t think it was 14, but he did elope from a group marriage with a girlfriend who had got pregnant and when the baby was born, it was black, so she had eloped with the wrong man.” God, I say, this must have been the Jerry Springer episode of your life. “But I was just the sweet, innocent Irish boy skipping through it, collecting stories,” he says.

Norton’s career took off in 1997, after he won Best Newcomer at the British Comedy Awards, vaulting over Jack Docherty whom he had stood in for over the summer. “He was lovely about it, very generous and nice,” is his recollection of what must have been a tricky evening. He shook my hand and said, ‘Well done.” Soon after, Channel 4 offered Norton his first series.

In those early interviews, he often spoke in a constrained, slightly dismissive way about his family. But not any more, particularly since the death in 2000 of his father, Billy, to whom Norton dedicated the first of his four Baftas a week later. (Wanting to avoid mawkishness, he simply said his gong was for “Billy Walker”; most people in the audience did not realise that the comedian’s original name was Walker changed to Norton because Equity already had a Graham Walker.)

He’s not religious, but the ritual of the funeral was important to him: “If you left the hospital and that was it, it wouldn’t be enough because it’s your dad — your dad’s dead — and you want all these people to come together and say that the life mattered. And it was lovely. It couldn’t have gone better. It was a beautiful day”

He always thought that he was more like his mother, Rhoda “in that classic gay man way, yada yada yada”, but now he’s finding out more and more about his father he’s not so sure. “Suddenly friends and relations and work colleagues are talking about him in a way they never talked about him before because why would they then – he was there.

“He was shyer than my mother but with a very sunny disposition, a very nice, gentle man. In the nursing room after they’d called us and said, ‘He’s gone’, the nurses were in tears and were so sweet and lovely. It was surprising because this was an old people’s home. I mean, nobody gets to go home.”

When he talks about his days in Sunday School, it is like listening to a Graham Norton sketch — with the horrid vision of his Father Noel lurking somewhere not so very far away “Was it called Scripture Union or The Sunshine Club? Or was it called Happy Hour? I think that was it. Oh, the irony of it all.

“I remember a lady giving this talk with an easel and lovely pictures, and there was one of a door and Jesus was outside knocking. And the door was covered in ivy because it hadn’t been opened for years. But someone did open the door and Jesus stepped in… and that was the door to your heart. [This getting almost unbearably kitsch] And I do remember trying very hard to open the door of my heart to Jesus arid I believe [look] the ivy is still there. No, nothing happened. But, actually, if there is a God I think he’s not a very nice person so it’s irrelevant to me whether he exists or not.”

It’s time to wrap up; Norton’s got a show to rehearse. He tells me he’s toying with the idea of writing a book, having been singularly unimpressed by other people’s efforts about his life. He’s a bright chap with more talent, I suspect, than is currently on display. I wonder whether he ever gets sick of the dirty knickers aspects of his show? He admits he does and thinks that this series is already quite different from its predecessors: “There’s a lot less audience stories. We rarely do big games. There are fewer props on the show [Bang & Olufsen phone, which still looks pretty preposterous, has replaced the doggy-blower] and the guests get to speak more. You know, it’s evolving.”

I interviewed Oprah Winfrey, some years ago, when she had decided that her show needed to evolve in a radically different direction. She turned her back on the freak-show confessionals and went up-market, introducing her now famous book club. It’s hard to imagine Norton going the same way but then it’s equally hard to imagine him doing the same campy trash in ten years’ time. If he continues to tone down his show, as he claims he is doing, we might eventually end up with something relatively mainstream.

An un-naughty Graham Norton? That’s sooooo scary!