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!