Why The Graham Norton Show is so special

Why are movie publicists so keen to plonk their stars on Graham Norton's sofa? Because of this...

When it comes to the UK film junket circuit, publicists inevitably get limited time with the talent involved in a major movie. Thus, when Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice comes along later this month, the demands on Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill in particular will not be small. They’ll be expected to attend the film’s premiere, do a press conference, and do interviews with selected outlets.

And then there’s a strong chance they’ll end up on Graham Norton’s sofa.

I’ve been following Graham Norton’s chat shows since his earlier work on Channel Four, and his manner with his guests has rarely left me ever less than entertained while watching his programme. But I do think that The Graham Norton Show is something special, and it’s why his sofa – and Jonathan Ross’ comfy chairs on the other side – is the one that film publicists fight the hardest to get movie talent onto.

For years, of course, the star interview on the television was dominated by Michael Parkinson. Parky occasionally got a rough ride, particularly in the latter years of his show, for his questions not being deemed probing enough. But I never really saw it like that. I always saw it that Michael Parkinson simply wanted to have a nice, long chat with his guests. Sure, not every interview went to plan, and the frosty chat with Meg Ryan while promoting In The Cut inevitably spring to mind. But then it’s easy to remember the one that went wrong, and overlook the hundreds that went right.

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Graham Norton, I think, has taken much of what made the Parkinson show work so well, and put his own twist on it. And I think the crucial decision Norton made was to – wherever possible – bring all his guests out at the same time.

This isn’t always possible, I should note. Sometimes, when two major films are battling for sofa space in the same week, publicists will determine that the show should be split, with some guests leaving halfway through, ready for the others to get their turn in the spotlight. Sometimes, too, there are premieres going on, that stars leave to get to the recording of Norton’s show on a Thursday night.

But for the most part, everyone comes out together. And what Norton then does is ask individual questions to his assorted guests, but also sit back and allow them to talk to each other. To follow where the conversation goes and let it develop. Thus, you get sublime moments where Lady Gaga and Dot Cotton from EastEnders (June Brown, of course), get on like a proverbial laundrette on fire. If the guests had been brought out individually, something like that would never have happened. But it did, and Norton let it.

I can only speak as a viewer, but there’s a very relaxed atmosphere that comes across with The Graham Norton Show. Not just because guests are allowed to have a drink, but also there seems an intangible warmth to it. Perhaps it’s the fake fruit. I can’t put my finger on it.

It’d be remiss, too, for me not to mention the golden instalment where primarily the cast of The Monuments Men came on to promote the movie. The film wasn’t one of the most memorable for all concerned, but the interview with Matt Damon, Bill Murray and Hugh Bonneville and Paloma Faith? Gold. Television gold. Damon gamely tries to promote the film, whilst Murray and Bonneville? Well, take a look at just a flavour of what happened…

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Finally, there’s the big red chair. I think it’s interesting how well Graham Norton makes this segment work. In his book, The Life And Loves Of A He Devil, Norton cites The Two Ronnies as the influence behind the way he ends each show.

Ronnie Corbett was a guest on the show back in 2009, and thus “the idea was to see how members of the public would fare telling their own favourite anecdotes – if we got bored, we would simply pull a lever and the storyteller would be ejected into oblivion”.

The thing was, the chair “proved more expensive than anyone had expected”, hence the need to find more ways to use it. Thus, producer Jon Magnusson suggested they use it at the end of each show. “Russell Crowe claims is it the only reason he comes on, while Tom Cruise refuses to touch the lever”, Norton adds.

However: the beauty of the red chair segments is I never get the sense that Norton is encouraging us to laugh at people. The people who appear on the show are in on the joke. And I think that’s really important.

The whole package works. Norton is a host light on ego. His guests give every impression of actually enjoying being on the show. And it’s very, very rare that I’ve got to the end of an episode, and not laughed myself silly. No wonder publicists are so keen on Graham’s sofa.

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It seems fitting to end this salute to The Graham Norton Show with a thoughtfully-compiled collection of Red Chair stories. We, of course, don’t take any responsibility for the content. Because we are cowards. And it contains pubic hair.