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Graham Norton

06 May 2021

TV star and acclaimed novelist Graham Norton opens the book on storytelling. By Pam Francis.

Graham Norton

Graham Norton had it all planned. As he approached 60, he would gradually cut down on his radio and TV work and focus on being a novelist. Instead, he has doubled his radio output, leaving his Saturday show on BBC Radio 2 after ten years for two weekend slots on Virgin Radio.

‘I really thought I’d like to work less, and then lockdown happened and I was doing… a lot less. Suddenly, I realised work is more important than I thought: it defines us. And work defines our leisure time as well – it’s only leisure because we are not doing the things we are paid to do.’

Working after retirement

Graham certainly wasn’t expecting to be offered a new job in radio. ‘I am so surprised that a big commercial radio station wanted me. I’m 58. In most careers, and particularly in showbiz, you should really be shown the door at that point. Broadcasters are constantly chasing younger audiences. So, it was really flattering, and one of the reasons I moved,’ says Graham.

Not that his writing is taking a back seat, he tells me from his home in central London as we meet on Zoom to chat about his novels. After a huge success with his third novel, Home Stretch, which is out in paperback this month, he is about to bring his characters to life in his fourth book.

‘I grew up in a nation of storytellers. Irish people like stories. I notice in Britain, people either tell gossipy stories about people they know, or celebs. In Ireland, it could be about the brother-in-law of my neighbour’s colleague, as long as it’s a good story,’ he says.

Graham’s writing transports him from radio and TV, where he has won five BAFTAs for The Graham Norton Show (his BBC One comedy chat show) and three for So Graham Norton (his earlier version for Channel 4), into another world. But in Home Stretch, that world is one he is familiar with. Set in 1980s Ireland and New York in the Noughties, it tells the story of a young man who survives a car crash that kills three of his friends and leaves behind the secrets and stigmas of that night.

‘It’s the most personal in that it’s the only book I’ve written where one of the main characters is gay. It’s the first time I’ve tapped into things that people might associate with me. A character who leaves Ireland and goes to places I’ve been, although I didn’t stay away as long,’ says Graham, who at 20 left his home in West Cork, hopped on a plane to New York, and ended up living in a hippy commune in San Francisco.‘I was what you call an economic hippy in that I couldn’t afford a proper rent although I did wear eco-friendly dungarees. They were very hard to get in and out of.’ He says his parents were expecting him to return to his English and French studies at University College Cork.

A longer version of this article appears in the May 2021 edition of Saga Magazine - download the app for more articles like this.

‘In order to keep everyone sweet, I said I’ll be back. But that door was so firmly closed in my mind. Any year away from your parents, away from somewhere you know very well, away from your friends is wildly formative. I realised how people of my generation were very conservative with a small c. Quite judgmental of anything different or odd. America knocked that out of me. There, if you have a dream, you give it a whirl,’ says Graham whose ambition then was to be an actor. On his return, he went to drama school in London, later appearing in three episodes of the Channel 4 sitcom Father Ted.

Graham Norton's funniest moments

Like his main character in Home Stretch, he kept the fact that he was gay to himself while he was living in Ireland. ‘I did keep it a secret. I kept it a secret from myself, in that I kept thinking maybe it will go away. There must have been other gay people in Bandon or Cork, the places I lived. But I didn’t know them. I never had the big coming out conversation. I sort of drifted out over the years.

‘I hear young people talking about coming out as if it’s this thing you do and then it’s done. But you have to keep doing it. I’m on TV, but I’ll be in the back of a taxi and the driver will start talking about some women in their summer dresses. And I’m like, OK, do I say that I’m not looking at the women in the same way as you are, or do I just nod?’

Is Graham in a relationship? ‘I’m currently single, and not unhappy about that,’ is all he will say.

As we chat, Graham seems much more relaxed and far less flamboyant than his loud and very funny TV persona.

‘That’s an amped-up version of me because I feel I ought to make an effort on telly,’ he says. ‘If I was like that all the time it would be quite annoying. It’s very hard to sustain if it’s nothing like you.
‘Years ago, I remember Dolly Parton telling me that. She said, pick a persona that is pretty close to you, otherwise life becomes difficult. So, mine is basically me, but turbo charged.’

‘I can’t believe I’ve had any of the success I’ve had, particularly that it’s lasted as long as it has. I really thought I would have slipped into full-writer mode. And at the back of my mind, I thought I could do that. But actually, I would miss all the other things, so hopefully I’ll keep doing them for a bit longer.’

A longer version of this article appears in the May 2021 edition of Saga Magazine - download the app for more articles like this.

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