Graham Norton: My career could've gone a very different way

By Steven McIntosh
Entertainment reporter

image copyrightSophia Spring

Graham Norton's career has been so long and varied, it's a pity he can't be a guest on his own chat show.

The last three decades have seen him go from waiter and bartender to actor, talk show presenter, radio host, newspaper columnist and awards ceremony compere.

Throw in his Eurovision commentating and the various BBC One talent shows he's fronted and it leaves you wondering how he has recently found time to add "novelist" to his CV.

But, the 55-year-old tells BBC News: "My career could've gone a very different way.

"I could've been another one of those people who went to the BBC or went to ITV and their career just kind of flatlined. And that was sort of on the cards."

Norton has now been with the BBC for 14 years, having made the switch from Channel 4 in the early noughties. At that point, his previous chat show So Graham Norton had become So Very Popular it was extended from one night a week to five.

After moving channels, he fronted various talent competitions but didn't immediately host a programme of his own.

"When I got to the BBC, actually, I didn't really have much to do," he says. "And they were very loyal and stuck with me."

These days, he says, he's happy where he is, adding he "can't imagine our show on another channel".

But recently, the BBC has become a tricky place to be for presenters.

image captionNorton has fronted talent shows including Let It Shine, alongside Mel Giedroyc

The corporation is now compelled by law to reveal the salaries of its highest-paid stars.

Chris Evans, Gary Lineker, Steve Wright, and - of course - Norton himself are among the names who are now annually revealed as the corporation's biggest earners.

"The salary thing, it's frustrating, because it's so inaccurate. It's so all over the shop," Norton says. "There are people I know who make millions from the BBC who are just not on that list. It's just like, really?

"It's amazing that journalists just get that list, and they must know it's rubbish. And they publish it like it's gospel."

It's true that stars who present major programmes for the BBC are absent because they appear on programmes made by production companies, which aren't obliged to publish talent salaries.

Norton's own figure was listed this year as being in the region of £600,000 - thought to be made up mostly of his Radio 2 salary, because his TV chat show is made by So Television.

image copyrightMalcolm Prince
image captionNorton often has authors on as guests on the Saturday show he presents for BBC Radio 2

But the presenter says he genuinely "doesn't know" how the corporation arrived at that figure.

"Myself and my agent look at that number and we go 'I wonder how they came up with that'," he says.

"It bears no relation to anything I know. But if that's what they say I earn, that's what I earn."

Former culture secretary Karen Bradley has said publishing the salaries brings the BBC "in line with the civil service" on transparency.

Asked if he agrees it's in the public interest, Norton replies: "No. Because it's micro-managing.

"The public transparency was already there. They'd already published what proportion of the licence fee is paid to on-screen talent. Now, that's the bit that people should be interested in. This bit is just gossip. It's so weird that when MPs discussed the charter, this was the demand they made. And I was like, really? You just want to know what Gary Lineker makes. That's so pathetic.

"But anyway. The poor old BBC are having to do it, and what the BBC said would happen is happening. They are losing people, because it's not comfortable, it's not nice."

Norton may not be planning to leave the corporation anytime soon, but he has recently branched out into a new career path: writing novels.

It's an industry he was so keen to get into that he actively made it a condition of writing an autobiography that his publisher would also release his fiction.

"Most novels are unfinished, they're on a memory stick somewhere or a hard drive in a drawer," he says.

"And that's because no-one is emailing you going 'where the hell is the rest of that novel we're paying you to write'. So I knew I wouldn't finish unless I had a deal. So people started sniffing around asking me to do memoirs. And I thought 'ooh this is a good opportunity to broker a deal where they agree to a novel'."

He says the desire to write fiction was a "bucket list thing," adding that his publisher "had no idea what it was going to be, and nor did I".

"I had a slight worry after I got that deal to write that first novel, I thought what if this is the worst, longest homework ever, but as it happened, I really enjoyed doing it."

The result of that deal was 2016's Holding, which was met with generally warm, albeit not glowing, reviews.

"As a novel, it's fine," said The Evening Standard. "You'll get through it nice and easy in no time at all."

image captionNorton presenting with Joanna Lumley on Children in Need last year

Similarly, The Guardian said: "Holding is a solidly written piece of popular fiction that isn't quite as sparkly as it should be but has enough in the way of action and charm to keep the reader interested."

Its follow up, A Keeper - released this week - tells the story of a woman who returns to Ireland after the death of her mother. But when she finds a box of love letters in the attic, it opens up a whole batch of family secrets.

Norton is surprised we've actually read the novel before speaking to him. Partly because, he admits, he often doesn't read the books of the authors he interviews.

"When I say I've read them I'm lying," he laughs. "I don't tell authors I haven't read their book. I'll dip into them. I'll have frisked it, and if the author is good and sells it to me, I will then make an effort to read that book."

He adds that his busy schedule means he "doesn't have the luxury of writer's block", and doesn't tend to procrastinate during a designated writing day.

"If I was a full time writer, if I had nothing else to do, then yes, I probably would spend half the day on Facebook," he says. "But because I'm not, this is a pleasure for me. It's something I want to do, I enjoy spending time in the world of this novel."

While his TV chat show is generally reserved for movie stars and musicians, Norton's BBC Radio 2 slot on Saturday mornings often features other authors - recent guests include Val McDermid and Marian Keyes.

"For me the surprise is how welcoming and generous those authors you mention are," he says. "They're almost excited that I've joined their fold.

"Whereas if a writer just started a new chat show," he laughs, "I'm not sure I'd be that thrilled. I wouldn't be going 'Oh have some of my guests, I'm so pleased you've got a chat show!'"

A Keeper by Graham Norton is out now.

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