Graham Norton’s appearance at Listowel Writers’ Week last Saturday night added a hefty dose of celebrity magic dust to what was already a very soundly baked literary cake. Rumours and questions abounded before and after his arrival: Was he flying in by private jet? No, he took a domestic flight! Does he buy his own clothes? Yes, he does! Who looks after his two dogs while he’s away working? Ehh… A guy called Mark!
So what is Graham Norton really like? Just as he appears on TV it would seem – a man who loves life, is full of fun, bursting with celebrity gossip – in fact, the type of guy you’d just love to be mates with.
A huge roar went up from the packed Listowel Community Centre as soon as he arrived at the back door accompanied by RTE’s Rick O’Shea, who did an impressive job interviewing him. Throughout the seventy-five minute conversation the audience rocked with laughter, recognition and applause as he relayed tales from his latest memoir The Life and Loves of a He Devil, and more besides.
It’s been ten years since Graham wrote his first memoir, and that, he said, had been a fairly straightforward ‘and then this happened’ type of autobiography. This one, he decided, would be about the loves of his life: Ireland, which he’s fallen in love with (after running away and vowing never to come back), his two dogs, the people he’s met, booze (no, he doesn’t have a problem with it), men, work and finally, a very brief chapter on the things he loves to hate.
Rick started by asking him what he thought about the recent referendum result on same sex marriage. “Right now it feels incredible. I watched the results come in on CNN from Vienna where I was doing the Eurovision Song Contest and I found it really moving. You worried about how people would react to either result, but it seems that everyone, on both the Yes and the No sides, has been very dignified.”
Graham said it took time for him to admit he was gay. “Thirty years ago it wasn’t an easy realisation to come to, or easy to accept. For me, it’s not about getting married. It’s about living in a society where people say, ‘You’re fine, just get on with your life.’”
When he first told his mother he was gay she said, ‘But it’s such a lonely life.’ “Of course it seemed like a lonely life because gays were invisible and didn’t fit into the community at large. And I think that’s what’s so special about what happened in Ireland last weekend.”
It wasn’t until his father became ill that Graham’s love affair with Ireland really began. By that time he was forty and had started to come back regularly, more so after his father died.
“Ireland is brilliant at death, but in a genuinely good way. When my father died it made me appreciate the community in Bandon in a way that I never had previously. It made me feel the things I thought were there to hold me back were actually there to support me. People stepped in to fill the gap and that was the beginning of me thinking that maybe I’d judged this country too harshly. I now spend two or three months every year in West Cork and I genuinely love it.”
He then went on to talk about Madonna, who has always been an important figure in his life. “The whole point of her dance routines is that she embraced the gay audience, and it was extraordinary to have a friend like that, who was at that level.”
Somewhat bizarrely, on the day 9/11 was unfolding in New York, Graham found himself in Dolly Parton’s Tennessee theme park (Dollywood), where he’d gone to make a documentary for Channel 4. Normally Dolly’s recorded music would be relayed throughout the Park, but on this day he and the crew were gathered around a white plastic rock (which happened to be a speaker) listening to reports about planes, and a tower falling down. Later, when the rest of the world was in shock, he was sitting with 2,000 people in Dolly’s Dixie Stampede watching pig racing; such was the disconnect between the vast American States.
He also related the ‘strange day’ he attended the wedding reception of Liza Minnelli and David Gest. Probably the strangest spectacle of all was the sight of Michael Jackson having his dinner alone on one of the big banqueting tables. Security guards stood all around the table – facing out! “Being the King of Pop didn’t look like that much fun.”
Rick asked how difficult it was to get the chemistry right on his BBC TV show every Friday night. “It’s a pure guessing game. The upside of doing it in that format is that you’re not left alone with someone! The downside is that you don’t just prepare one interview, you need to prepare three, four, or five, so you’re always looking for links. Guests’ ‘early jobs’ is always a good area, and ‘meeting the Royal Family.’
“The shows where you don’t have to work are the ones that I like, where the couch just takes on a life of its own; the shows where the guests get on really well, like the one with Bill Murray and Matt Damon. The funny thing was, we didn’t even know if Bill Murray would turn up, but he did and it just took off.”
A whole chapter in the book, in fact the first chapter, is devoted to dogs. “It does annoy me when people say dogs are child or relationship substitutes. They’re not. They’re dogs. I cannot imagine what gift, what Ferrari, what tropical holiday, what penthouse apartment I would have to give a boyfriend to get the same reaction as a five day old sausage from the fridge… “
The last fifteen minutes were thrown open to the audience. One of the questions was: “Did you have to beat your way to the top in TV and media?”
“Number one is be lucky’ he said. ‘Another thing is to recognise opportunities. I was plugging away, doing stand-up, radio, panel shows and the aim… the thing you think you’re working towards… is getting your own show.
“And then I got my own Channel 4 show and I don’t know if was just a panic attack but I remember being very stressed. I realised that actually, the thing that can be your big break can be the thing that absolutely destroys you. If that had bombed, then all those years of plugging away… So, it’s a bit of luck, a bit of don’t quit. I had no Plan B. I didn’t have the choice of quitting. I had to keep going…
The evening ended with Graham presenting a bouquet of flowers to Phil O’Connell on her retirement from the Centre after twenty-five years. What a fabulous send off!
We’d like to say a big Thank You to sound and lighting engineer Seán Flood and Listowel Community Centre Manager Tony Dugan for helping make the evening the resounding success it was.
And if you fancy a bit of a howl over the summer, then do pick up a copy of The Life and Loves of a He Devil. In the words of that other great Irish TV host Terry Wogan, “It’s full of wicked asides, tart observations and sharp remarks that could only have originated in Graham Norton’s witty brain.”