Graham Norton: 'We all get it wrong, when the banter turns out to be a bit rude'

(Image credit: BBC/So Television/Christopher Ba)

The Graham Norton Show returns on Friday and mein host Graham talks about the dos and don'ts of a hit chat show

Graham Norton has taken the dust sheet off his sofa and poured himself a large glass of wine as he awaits the return of The Graham Norton Show on Friday (Sept 30).

Having been a chat show host for nearly two decades – his Channel 4 series So Graham Norton started in 1998 – Graham knows what it takes to keep the conversation lively and how to handle A-list egos as they jostle for the spotlight.

TV Times sat the witty and wise Graham, 53, down in his swivel chair to ask exactly what’s required to make the very best chat show host. He explained why empathy’s not such a big deal, why TV stars shouldn’t dress like the Britain’s Got Talent judges, and which other chat show host gets it just right…

Does it matter what you look like? “Things have changed over the years and now I think you don’t want a TV host who’s hard to look at. You don’t have to be a beauty, but if they’re physically repulsive, that makes it harder – I think we can think of some who were less than easy on the eye.”

How about age? “What is interesting is that there are very few people over 50 hosting a television show any more. I remember the Countryfile court case [in which presenter Miriam O’Reilly won her 2011 case accusing the BBC of ageism] happened just as I was turning 50 and The Guardian did a front page of ‘Faces over 50 on the BBC’ and I was one of them and I was like, ‘Give me a minute! I’ve only just turned 50!”

Is it difficult chatting to celebs? “What’s good about this job is that there’s no formula and there are lots of ways of getting it right. You get someone like a Michael Barrymore, who was brilliant, but he’s Michael Barrymore, so although he was talking to other people, it was all about him. Then there were people who let the other people talk. I think I’m somewhere in between.”

How do you decide what to wear? “I have a lady called Lindsay who goes shopping for me and just knows what I’ll like. When I started as a chat show host I wore really outlandish clothes – it was sort of a signature thing for me – and then I grew out of it and don’t need to do that any more.

"Now the only time I’d wear shiny clothes is to the BAFTAs, because you don’t want to be overdressed like the female judges on Britain’s Got Talent. They’ve misjudged what show they’re on and think they’re at the Oscars. I’m like, ‘You’re judging a dog that’s jumping through a hoop. I think you’ve overdressed.’”

Humour is an important part of being a chat show host, but how do you avoid offending your guests?                                                                                                                 “We all get it wrong sometimes, when what you thought was banter can turn out to be a bit rude. The minute I see on their faces, ‘They’re thinking I’m a prat,’ then you reel it back in.”

 Is status an important part of the job?                                                                                 “The hardest thing that a lot of hosts don’t get until it’s too late is that the job is a very odd mixture of high and low status. It’s high because you walk out and the audience is going, ‘Yay!’ But the minute the guests walk on, you’re low status."

How do you make your guests feel comfortable? “No matter who’s on the couch, it’s your job to be less important and less interesting than they are – you’re there to lift them up. That comes as a shock to some famous people who get their own chat shows. I’ve seen it happen, naming no names…”

 How do you decide what questions to ask? “My show has a particular tone, and mostly we just want people to be light. I feel I’ve really done my job when I’ve lit a fuse and a series of little conversational bombs have gone off between guests and I can just sit back and enjoy the fireworks, whereas if it’s 'ploddy, ploddy, question, question', I feel like it hasn’t quite worked.”

Is it important to empathise with your guests? “On my chat show, empathy isn’t that important. It’s more important for people like Phil and Holly on This Morning. Hats off to them. I think because they do it for three hours a day people think it must be easy, but I’d find it really hard, those shifts that they do, particularly when you’re coming out of something very serious and you turn away from that and go, 'Let’s make a Mexican chicken salad'. Empathy there is a bit more important.”

 Apart from chatting, how else do you keep the audience engaged? “If actors a have little party trick, we’ll do that, and because they’re actors they like showing off. And the red chair segment is a little bit that guests and audience can all get involved in. It ends the show on a high note.”

Guests are always offered a drink. Does this help get the conversation flowing? “When I come out at the beginning and put my wine down on the desk, I do look at the coffee table, and if there are alcoholic drinks I think, “Oh good. Everyone’s in the right frame of mind.” That’s not about being drunk – it’s about saying: 'This isn’t quite work. It’s somewhere between work and a good time' and that’s a very good attitude for the guests to come out with. You’re there to do a job, but also to have fun. ‘

Interview by Vicky Power