Hindsight: Graham Norton knows how to host a good party

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Hindsight: Graham Norton knows how to host a good party

Posted on: June 26th, 2014 by tommyj

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Quick wit: Graham Norton mixes good nature with a lively mind for one-liners.
Quick wit: Graham Norton mixes good nature with a lively mind for one-liners.

Quick wit: Graham Norton mixes good nature with a lively mind for one-liners.

It’s hard to resist the cheery, cheeky appeal of Graham Norton. If the velvety Michael Parkinson was the consummate TV talk-show host and interviewer of the previous generation, the impish, devilishly quick-witted Irishman has now assumed that crown.

It’s a changing of the guard that has seen the dominant style shift from silky smooth to chirpily convivial.

The Graham Norton Show (Sundays, Ten, 10pm) offers a parade of high-profile personalities, mostly from the UK and across the pond. The guest roster features an almost-exclusive inclination towards the entertainment industry: actors, TV personalities, musicians, comedians, the odd sportsperson. Most of them assume their position on the curvy red couch in order to plug their latest movie, album, TV series, concert tour or tournament. But they also seem to bound from backstage on to the brightly coloured set with a spring in their steps.

Over decades, Parkinson’s estimable interview programs evoked the mellow mood of a cosy get-together – with the memorable exception of that unfortunate encounter with Meg Ryan. Parky, as he was affectionately known, was meticulously prepared and, because he listened to his guests, was able to bounce off their responses to probe deeper. That might sound easy and obvious, but it’s a gift: many interviewers stick to their prepared questions and feel that they’ve succeeded if they plough through the list. Listening and responding with perspicacity is harder and rarer.

Norton’s show, however, feels more like a party fizzing with peppy small-talk, and not just because almost everyone’s drinking. It’s not that Norton hasn’t done his homework, but the mood created in this studio is notably different.

The guests arrive primed to play, ready to recount choice anecdotes, to banter with the host and their fellow guests. Sure, the booze probably helps to lubricate the proceedings. Guests are invited to nominate their drink of choice, a practice now so well-established that Russell Crowe tweeted in his drink order when his appearance on the show was announced.

You can see the Americans, in particular, relishing the latitude afforded in this BBC arena. They’re even allowed to swear. “Apparently you can say anything on this show,” Tom Cruise recently remarked, before offering an hilarious impression of Donald Duck sneezing. The interviewees seem relieved that the customary shackles of talk-show performance have been loosened a little.

Even famously grumpy, reticent or eccentric guests – such as Harrison Ford, Robert De Niro and Bill Murray – look like they’re having a good time. The convivial atmosphere inspires moments of pure TV gold, like Seth McFarlane doing Liam Neeson’s trademark line from the film Taken in the voice of Kermit the Frog, or feisty Miriam Margolyes and a gob-smacked will.i.am delighting in their differences.

Norton has built his show into a vehicle that attracts big names and he clearly has his favourites, including Cruise, Daniel Radcliffe, Michael Buble and Margolyes. However, the upbeat mood doesn’t always work its magic: poor Juliette Binoche, uncomfortably perched beside Ronnie Corbett and Ricky Gervais, looked like she’d landed on another planet amid the boyish British humour. Most of the time, though, the guests are persuaded to relax and the stars duly shine.

Belying the festive, anything-could-happen mood, the show runs to a tight and firmly fixed format. It opens with Norton in the audience, revving up the crowd, and moves to his monologue on stage, which frequently features a few bitchy stabs inspired by recent events. They’re often aimed at English TV types whose photos inspire little recognition on this side of the world.

Then comes the cry of “Let’s get some guests on!” and they bound in. Generally, three assemble themselves on the couch, a distinctive piece of furniture that requires careful consideration to allow comfort and really challenges women in short skirts. Comedians are usually placed at the end furthest from the host, positioned to lob in deft one-liners when openings arise.

Then come the interviews, with each guest given space to chat and flog their wares. They’re also encouraged to natter among themselves, but not too much, because attention and control shouldn’t shift too far from the host. This part of the program often features other bits of funny business: Norton displays a childlike pleasure in curiosities culled from the internet – animals behaving strangely, messages misspelled on special-occasion cakes – and he’s rarely encountered an example of action-figure film-promotion merchandise that didn’t tickle his fancy.

Finally comes the music act – followed by congratulations on the new album – and the Red Chair, a segment that encourages viewers to stay tuned to the end, in which hopeful storytellers are either flipped backwards in their seats by a lever readily within Norton’s reach or allowed to walk away in triumph. It’s an entertaining exercise in power and judgment that works wonderfully well on TV.

Norton’s show is not the place for probing or revealing profiles. As befits its times, it’s about quick lively bits, snippets of information and amusement. But almost everyone emerges looking good: witty, amiable and usually self-deprecating, which is a reliably endearing quality.

In Graham Norton’s well-constructed TV playground, everyone looks like they’re having fun.

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