Conducted ~2/2003 & ~8/2004
Graham Norton may not be a household name here in the United States, but he’s certainly made an impact in the UK.
A few years back, I became hooked on his Channel 4 show, So Graham Norton, which soon morphed into the nightly V Graham Norton. It was brilliant not only for its humor, but also for what it got away with (which would seem shocking to American viewers raised on the comparatively tame Carson, Leno, Letterman, and Conan). A sexual, scatological, pop culture blender unhindered by the often Puritanical bent of network TV in the US, his show was anything but buttoned-down.
Norton himself is an impish whirligig, chatting up guests spanning an eclectic spectrum ranging from Cher and Dustin Hoffman to Lindsey Wagner and the mom from The Waltons. Hell, he even journeyed to the States to do an episode at Dollywood. He’s also keen on audience participation and games that exist somewhere in the realm between camp and delirious rubbish.
After his lengthy run at Channel 4, he was given a short run on Comedy Central, titled The Graham Norton Effect, presenting essentially the same show. However, Comedy Central decided (foolishly, methinks) not to renew, and Graham went back to England.
Upon arriving back in England, Graham struck a massive pact with the BBC. After a few confused years bopping around as the Beeb tried to decide what to do with him, someone finally had the bright of idea of letting him do what he does best, resulting in his talk show return with The Graham Norton Show - a near identical clone of his Channel 4 heyday.
I originally tracked down and chatted with Norton during his V Graham Norton period, going in-depth into his background. I then followed that up with a second interview as he was about to begin his run on Comedy Central.
Hope you enjoy them both…
KEN PLUME: You were born in Dublin?
GRAHAM NORTON: Born in Dublin, but never really lived there. When I was about two, I think, my family started to move around Ireland. My dad worked at Guinness, the brewery, and I think he must have been a bit rubbish at his job, because they just kept transferring him all the time. It wasn’t until I was about 14, 15 that we settled in a place called Bandon, County Cork, which is down in the south.
PLUME: So this was what - late ’60s, early ’70s, mid ’70s that you’re coming of age in Ireland?
NORTON: Yeah, that’s when I was kind of aware of things - kind of early ’70s, I suppose. What would I would have been… around 7 or 8 then.
PLUME: What was the social fabric like in Ireland at that time?
NORTON: Well, Ireland - it was a place apart. Although it was very close to England and close to Europe, it was a world apart. It was a very old fashioned place, I would say. But in lots of ways, I was kind of slightly outside the fabric of society, particularly because it was Southern Ireland - because I was growing up as a Protestant in Southern Ireland.
PLUME: What is that like? That almost sounds like an outsider in a room of outsiders.
NORTON: Well, it is slightly, in that I think it was 1% or 2% of the population are Protestant. So, you know, we went to Protestant schools and things. I never knew - mostly we lived out in the middle of nowhere, so there was no one to know. But whenever we did live with neighbors, and they had kids, I would never know those kids, because I didn’t go to school with them. Yeah, it was isolated, I suppose, but not miserable or anything. I think I quite liked it.
PLUME: Were there the same frictions in the South, as there were in the North?
NORTON: No, not at all, because everyone just got on it with it. The mix of the population, because it was so Catholic - essentially, Southern Ireland is complete Catholic. There was no conflict… You know, 2% of the population - if they’re not happy, really, they should move.
PLUME: And really, how much of a threat is 2%?
NORTON: Really. And they’re Protestants, they’re nice Protestants.
PLUME: In comparing the social structure, was it just that the conflict became socialized in the North as opposed to the South?
NORTON: Well, no, I think the North it was to do with Sovereignty. You know, in the South, because it become a Republic, I think the Protestants who remained there, chose that. They decided it. Whereas the Catholics in the North, didn’t. It was just a situation very badly handled at the time, and they did it, it was a quick fix to turn the six counties into that kind of little adjunct of Britain.
PLUME: But it really wasn’t a fix, was it?
NORTON: Ah, no. Short term solution, and presumably all the politicians who made that decision quickly retired, going, “Phew.”
PLUME: It’s all on paper. Well, how would you describe your childhood? Would you say you were isolated away from the other children wherever you would move just by nature of the school you would go to?
NORTON: I mean, it all sounds quite miserable in that it was quite isolated, so it’s one of those odd things. When I talk about it, I do kind of think, “God, that sounds miserable.” But I don’t remember it as being miserable. I remember watching lots of television… television was my friend. But I was quite happy about that. It would have irritated me if people had come around and interrupted my viewing habit. I grew up in a one station environment - it was only one television station. But they bought in mostly, because a lot of culture links with Southern Ireland are far closer to America than to Britain. Lots of the TV they bought us, was American.
PLUME: So would it be America of the 1950s, 1960s, or current American fare? How outdated was it?
NORTON: Oh, it was a real mix of things. You felt like they’d buy like one hot show - like they’d buy Charlie’s Angels or something - but then in order to buy that, they’d have to buy lower stuff. So suddenly you’d be watching Charlie’s Angels, but you’d also be seeing That Girl… I Love Lucy was there. What else did we get? We got a lot of really odd shows that they never got here (in the UK), like The Flip Wilson Show - which I remember really, really liking …
PLUME: So it was an entertainment potpourri…
NORTON: Yeah, it was a real entertainment potpourri, but like I say, more heavily dominated by American shows than British.
PLUME: What was your preference? Of the shows you would watch…
NORTON: I loved Lucille Ball growing up. I remember liking The Flip Wilson Show that was on. I supposed I was just generally drawn to American programs more than British programs. British programs, it looked like Ireland. There were hedgerows and things, where it was exciting in America. There were no hedgerows in between houses. Shared lawns - it was very thrilling to us.
PLUME: There was space between houses…
NORTON: Yeah, that too.
PLUME: What was the view, then, through the prism that you were looking through, of America?
NORTON: It was very odd. I thought I was looking at America, I thought I was seeing America on television. It’s only when you go to America, you realize, “Oh, no - I was looking at California.” That’s all I was seeing, ever … It was a real surprise when I finally got to California and realized, “Oh, this is where they make television. Now I get it.”
PLUME: Well, how was your view, then, of the UK?
NORTON: The UK to me, just seemed - I thought Britain was a much more urban place, a much more sophisticated place, and in a way kind of frightening. Because, I remember I was getting into my teens, and punk rock arrived, and I just remember being so depressed, because I was thinking, “Oh no!” Finally I’m old enough to go out - I don’t want to be dirty and be spitting on people. America on that level always appealed much more, in that it always seemed kind of more glamorous, whereas Britain was always a bit grungy, a bit real … You could tell that people were living in the same sort of economy as we were, and they were just making the best of it.