Voices: Is it time for Graham Norton to cut the chat?

‘Not a scoobie doo’:  Graham Norton with his ‘celebrity’ guests Andrew Scott, Paul Mescal, Joy Randolph, Kingsley Ben-Adir and indie rockers The Last Dinner Party (So Television )
‘Not a scoobie doo’: Graham Norton with his ‘celebrity’ guests Andrew Scott, Paul Mescal, Joy Randolph, Kingsley Ben-Adir and indie rockers The Last Dinner Party (So Television )

Whenever Hollywood stars come to town, Graham Norton’s sofa is where they want to be.

Ask any A-lister – a spot on his Friday night chat show is a high point in their otherwise soul-crushing promotional ‘round’.

Even us civilians can see why. The visiting celeb gets to undo their top button or shake loose their hair, vibe with other famouses, and down a glass of wine on telly (verboten in the US, even on late-night talk shows).

The genial host blows a little smoke up their latest project, and they get to present a relaxed, naughtier side to the viewing public: a cheeky swearword here, a risque anecdote about a body part there, all cleared in advance with transatlantic publicity teams, obviously. Clip it up, watch it go viral.

Cameron Diaz, you’ve tried laser hair removal ‘down there’, haven’t you? Adele, remember when you nipped out for a pint of milk wearing just a poncho, and thanks to a gust of wind you flashed a passing bus? Patrick Stewart, remind us of the time you had to ask your doctor to check if you’d been circumcised…

Cue gales of sympatico laughter from the studio audience. It’s all sassy and good-natured, the perfect weekend-starts-here unwind, and Norton is undoubtedly a genius at generating the fun. He’s even described himself as the show’s “comedy butler”.

This year marks 25 years since Norton fronted his first TV chat show and, with The Graham Norton Show now in its 31st series, he’s had the schtick nailed down for a while. For a fun Friday night in, you will need: a Hollywood legend with a new film out, an easy-on-the-eye rising star or two, a gobby British comic (usually one under contract with the BBC) and, to close, a musical number from a slightly excruciating new band.

In his time, Our Graham has chummed along with some stellar guests. Last year, he finally enticed Julia Roberts onto his sofa – reputedly, one of the last big stars to have held out on him – and, with her wedged in between Cher and Tom Hanks, got her talking about her three children, about how Pretty Woman was originally written "much darker", and to be studio-heckled for supporting Man Utd. In an age without TV watercooler moments, it was approaching one.

“There’s an alchemy on the night that you just can’t predict,” he says. Except sometimes, you can. And the audience at home is first to notice when the chemistry is off.

Last Friday, the guest list consisted solely of four actors, which is always a red flag: Andrew Scott, Paul Mescal, Da’vine Joy Randolph, Kingsley Ben-Adir, every one a Pointless answer. The musical turn was The Last Dinner Party, a posh, all-female five-piece rock band who’d won the BBC’s Sound of 2024 showcase. (Hello, dumpster.)

Social media was immediately underwhelmed, so out came the knives, with X/Twitter users calling it the worst ever sofa line-up.

“For the first time, I have literally no idea who any of these people are,” wrote one viewer. Others said: “Hands up all those who have no clue who anyone is? Not a scooby doo” and “Quite possibly the worst Graham Norton guests of all time tonight. Dreadful.”

The “amateur band from an all-girls’ public school” came in for particular stick: “Art-school dropouts”, “Why does every new indie band sound like they went to school with Emerald Fennell?”, “I wonder who the famous mummy or daddy is who has got them a spot on TV?”.

Randolph, who has since been Oscar-nominated for her role in The Holdovers, seemed as underwhelmed as the viewers, summoning barely any enthusiasm to tell her anecdote about the time she was held up in a dim sum restaurant. Her obvious befuddlement at the Big Red Chair – everyone’s favourite bit, when an audience-member is invited to tell a story and are either allowed to walk away unscathed or get dramatically flipped backwards in the seat, depending on their yarn – suggested she’d never watched an episode before. Like it’s a hardship or something.

Norton, until recently the BBC’s third highest paid star, has been king of the TV sofa circuit since the late 1990s, when won an unexpected Bafta after standing in as host of Channel 5’s barely remembered Jack Docherty Show. But after a quarter of a century at the helm, can he say his heart is still in it? Michael Parkinson’s self-titled chat show managed 25 years, on and off, between 1971 and 2007 before he called it a day.

Norton recently turned 60, and has not long been married. When he decides he has better things to do than get self-promoting celebrities tipsy for our entertainment, there’s no obvious, national treasure-shaped successor in the wings. Claudia Winkleman? Alan Carr? Rylan?

And he already has more than just his chat show to keep going. He has novels to bash out during his summer-long sojourn at his west Ireland home, a book podcast to record, a supermarket wine collection to (what?) sample and, most pressingly right now, a low-rent reboot of Saturday teatime quiz Wheel of Fortune to salvage. (Bring back the live studio audience – and get a Carol Smillie type to turn around the letters…).

As in life, it’s not the punch but how you come back from it that counts. So, after last week’s nadir, who will be on Norton’s chat-show sofa tonight? It being Oscars season, we’re promised no fewer than five Hollywood actors (Bradley Cooper, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Bryce Dallas Howard and Daniel Kaluuya) and, to lighten the luvviness, stand-up comedian Kevin Bridges.

Five actors? My inner dashboard’s flashing red. It could go either way. And if it goes down hard, social media will have something merciless to say.