QUESTION OF ENDURANCE
Graham Norton may face his biggest challenge yet as he gets ready to interview 50 celebrities in a seven-hourlong chat show, writes Andrew Fenton, but one thing is for certain – he won’t be short of big-star names to fill that daunting list.
THE GRAHAM NORTON SHOW Sunday, 9.30pm, Ten
SAMUEL Johnson rode a unicycle from Sydney to Melbourne to raise funds for breast cancer research, while Little Britain’s David Walliams swam the English Channel for Sport Relief. And in March, Graham Norton will conquer his own personal Everest, with a seven-hour-long chat show for Comic Relief.
Forget ultra-marathons, forget Johnson’s new plan to unicycle around Australia. Norton faces the gruelling prospect of chatting to 50 celebrity guests, including Walliams and Dr Who’s Matt Smith, in the ultimate test of endurance.
‘‘It’s me, sitting in a chair for seven hours,’’ he laughs in his cheeky Irish accent. ‘‘The only people enduring this are the audience.’’
After almost two decades in broadcasting, Norton is at the top of his game with his Friday night show on BBC1 attracting the biggest names in the world, from Johnny Depp to Madonna.
Just two months into the year, he’s already chatted with Denzel Washington, Helen Mirren and John Malkovich – and had a rather memorable encounter with a word-slurring Mark Wahlberg who toyed with Norton’s nipples.
The Irish host also attracts the best musical acts, such as Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift.
‘‘Suddenly there are only 600 people there seeing Taylor Swift with you and that’s special,’’ he says.
There’s a simple reason they get so many highprofile guests. Ratings.
‘‘It’s BBC1, it’s a good demographic, so if you’re trying to shift an album or a film it’s a good show to go on,’’ he says, adding they try to keep promo to a minimum. ‘‘Everybody has their spiel, we often just let them get that out of their system and that’s almost when the show starts. And then we’ll take that bit out!’’ he laughs.
While it looks effortless, an incredible amount of preparation goes into the show. Each guest is assigned a producer and a researcher, who trawl through their background looking for funny anecdotes or incidents. The holy grail is a topic all the guests have an amusing story about. There are also ‘‘pre-interviews’’.
‘‘If you decide to do something on rabbits and the pre-interview reveals they never owned a rabbit, it’s better that happens then rather than on the show when I’ve got a hundred rabbits in cages out the back which are now useless!’’
Norton has a ball during dress rehearsal with the researchers standing in for the celebs. ‘‘Those are the funniest because I can be so rude to the guests! I get it all out of my system and say everything I want to say to them, and then on the night I’m good.’’
He admits he sometimes crosses the line: ‘‘Like at a dinner party when you think of something hilarious to say and you hear it and think ‘that just sounded mean’.’’ But they cut those bits out too.
Born in Dublin, and making his Edinburgh Fringe Festival debut in 1992 in a drag comedy act as Mother Teresa, Norton’s most memorable early appearance was as the incredibly annoying Father Noel Furlong in cult comedy Father Ted. ‘‘It wasn’t really a turning point. It didn’t really lead to anything.’’
His big break was as the fill-in host of chat show The Jack Docherty Show.
‘‘It was the first time I’d ever thought, ‘Wow, I’ve found the thing I want to do!’ But it was somebody else’s job.’’
Talkshow king: The many faces of Graham Norton.