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Doubters, back off: Graham Norton is still the best chat host on TV

Effortless: Graham Norton makes his presenting job look easy  (BBC)
Effortless: Graham Norton makes his presenting job look easy (BBC)

Appearing on The Graham Norton Show seems like one of the only genuinely fun bits of being a celebrity. In each episode, an eclectic bunch of famous guests trade outrageous anecdotes over a few glasses of wine, and generally seem to have a whale of a time. It’s miles away from the stilted, smarmy tête-à-têtes that make up the average American late-night show, and has made Norton one of the BBC’s best-paid presenters. But recently a handful of naysayers have argued that the shine is starting to come off this well-honed formula. Earlier this month, an episode featuring All of Us Strangers co-stars Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal, along with The Holdovers star Da’Vine Joy Randolph and actor Kingsley Ben-Adir, came under fire on social media – and in this paper – for a lacklustre lineup and an absence of the usual spark between guests. The not-so-sub subtext to the criticism was this: is Norton’s magic on the wane?

For the past 17 years, Norton has presided over Friday nights on the BBC (his show started out on BBC Two in 2007 before getting bumped up to BBC One two years later). Each episode of his chat show assembles a mish-mash of guests from across the fame spectrum. Hollywood A-listers jostle for sofa space alongside comedians more often found on Would I Lie To You?, the presenter of whatever primetime game show the BBC is currently pushing, or a very British national treasure who’s pretty much unknown on the other side of the Atlantic. Think Lady Gaga becoming enthralled by EastEnders legend June Brown. Miriam Margolyes and pretty much anyone. The ultimate trio of Sir Elton John, Dame Judi Dench and… John Bishop. Or Ryan Gosling silently cracking up while Greg Davies tells a ridiculous anecdote from his time as a teacher in Slough (it’s vanishingly rare to start a sentence with “Ryan Gosling” and end it with “Slough”, but such is the power of Graham Norton). This could be a recipe for clashing egos, but everyone always seems remarkably at ease, willing to trade silly stories and embrace the show’s riotous atmosphere (which may or may not have something to do with the fact that guests are allowed to drink on stage).

Chemistry, as any of the show’s thespian guests would probably tell you at length, is an unpredictable thing. Not every thrown-together permutation of stars is going to alchemise into TV gold: in fact, it’s a miracle that so many of Norton’s lineups do just that. Perhaps he’s a victim of his own success – perhaps we’ve reached a point where we expect every single instalment to be a potential classic, rather than just funny, easy-to-watch Friday evening telly. And describing the aforementioned lineup as lacking star power feels a bit obtuse – between them, Scott and Mescal have appeared in two of the most talked-about TV shows of the last five years. Plus, Norton has been on something of an A-list chat spree recently: last year, he finally managed to secure an appearance from Julia Roberts (previously one of few Hollywood superstars who hadn’t appeared on the red sofa), alongside Tom Hanks, Timothée Chalamet and Cher. There’s just no other name on UK television who could pull in such an impressive lineup (sorry, Jonathan Ross, but it’s true).

The host’s performance, of course, is just one part of a finely tuned machine. His researchers are clearly some of the best in the business, regularly digging out bizarre or embarrassing anecdotes from each guest (one recent highlight? Slow Horses star Jack Lowden, an actor who’s been touted as a potential Bond contender, revealing an unlikely passion for decorating his home with miniature “Christmas villages” during the festive season). The same goes for his bookers, who know that a professional comic who’s done time in the stand-up trenches will be able to boost the mood even if the Hollywood types aren’t playing. But Norton himself brings a charm to the show that’s hard to replicate.

Star-studded: Norton always draws in an impressive array of celebrity guests (BBC)
Star-studded: Norton always draws in an impressive array of celebrity guests (BBC)

Sitting across from his guests, his signature glass of white wine always in shot, he makes hosting look very easy indeed. But you only need to endure an entire episode of, say, the now-finished Late, Late Show with James Corden – I mean the whole thing, not just a Carpool Karaoke segment on YouTube – to be struck by just how good Norton is at this job. He’s just as funny and charismatic as his guests, but he’s well aware that they are the main attraction, not him; instead of dominating the conversation, he gently guides it, interjecting with the odd spiky quip or comment (but never sucking the air out of the room with too many punchlines). He knows just how far to push the stars: the fact that he’s laughing with them, not at them, gets them on board and tends to stop them giving defensive, monosyllabic answers. During Friday night’s episode, Norton made light work of orchestrating conversation between another staggering array of Hollywood names: Daniel Kaluuya, Bryan Cranston, Bryce Dallas Howard and Maestro co-stars Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan (and comedian Kevin Bridges, who gamely quipped that he and Bradley “used to play darts” when Norton asked if the guests already knew each other).

In 2024, most stars could make a half convincing argument for ditching the press tours altogether – surely they could just post on social media instead? – but Norton still manages to make the traditional chat show feel like essential viewing. Long may his reign continue.