Iconic chat show host Graham Norton opens up about his new novel, his “surprising” marriage and why he doesn’t want children

''I think I wouldn't be a very good father.''
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Ever since he quit university and Ireland, to jump on a plane bound for New York, Graham Norton has been surprising himself.

“I never felt like a confident child, I never felt like that guy, I always felt very timid. So I don’t quite know where I got the confidence to go, ‘I’m leaving, I’m filling a backpack and I’m out of here’, but I’m so glad I did,” Graham says, still rather amazed as he flits back four decades to the moment his jet-setting life took off.

The sharp-witted chat-show host and TV personality is ready for cocktail hour in his London flat having recently returned from seaside West Cork, where he now spends three to four months a year recharging at the stunning period home he bought in the mid-2000s in Ahakista on the shores of Dunmanus Bay.

This pretty village, on the amusingly named Sheep’s Head peninsula, is just an hour or so’s drive from Graham’s childhood home in Bandon, and has become a haven for the TV star whose current existence is a lot less frenzied than his well-spent younger years.

Back then he flitted between Britain and the US, building a career that led to his current status as one of TV’s hottest properties.

“If someone had told me as I waited to board a plane to New York in 1983 that one day I would move heaven and earth to spend three months every year in the country I was desperate to flee, I would have told them that they were crazy,” he says.

Graham now spends three to four months recharging at his home in West Cork.

(Credit: (Image: Getty))

But Ireland has somehow morphed into a homing beacon for Graham. It’s where he recently chose to get married – which we’ll come to later – where he frolics on the beach with his dogs (only one dog currently, having lost his soulmates Madge and Bailey in recent years) and also where he worked on his latest opus, which he confesses is another surprise.

“There was a time in my life when I thought I would never manage to write a novel, so to be publishing my fourth feels a little surreal and very special,” he sighs. “Forever Home is both the funniest and the darkest story I’ve tackled so far.”

If he sounds finally confident, he has every reason to. Graham’s novels are bestsellers, his plotting and storytelling more impressive with each book.

I devoured this one in two days and, like his three earlier novels, it’s set in Ireland.

“I don’t know anywhere else. I couldn’t set a book in a small town in England or Wales or Scotland. I don’t know what the inside of their house looks like; I don’t know what they sound like – all that stuff that I know in Ireland,” he declares.

But while there’s plenty of wry situation comedy in Forever Home, it’s the emotional depth of the relationship and family heartache that stays with you.

Graham’s women are vibrant powerhouses, “like life” he comments, perhaps thinking of his mother Rhoda and sister Paula, both key influences in his life.

“There are elements of lots of women, but there’s also me in a lot of them,” he notes.

“It seems very simplistic to say ‘as a gay man’ … but actually having to deal with men in an emotional or romantic way does give you some insight into what women have to deal with, so I think that helps.”

Protagonist Carol is a forty-something divorced teacher, whose relationship with much older Declan has sparked gossip in the curtain-twitching community.

Then Declan is struck with early onset dementia and has to move into a nursing home, and his children cruelly throw Carol out of their house so they can nail their inheritance early.

Distraught Carol, now living with her parents, watches her partner decline as family relations fall apart and, oh yes, then a murder mystery unfolds.

“I start with an interesting situation,” Graham says of his writing process. “With this book I thought about what would happen if you weren’t married to someone and an illness removed them from you – like Alzheimer’s – and you had no rights. Suddenly this life you thought was going to last forever has gone.

“The things that I invariably think are going to be the centre of the book end up at the start of the book and then the rest of the book is what happens next. How do lives limp on or succeed after something very dramatic like that has happened? The characters kind of come out as you’re writing the book. It’s almost like meeting people.”

The Ireland Graham paints in Forever Home is at once claustrophobic and embracing, and I wonder if this is how he sees his homeland.

“I feel it’s less claustrophobic now, more embracing, and I think that’s to do with modern Ireland,” he suggests.

“This book has less coming and going, which is unusual because normally in Irish books people are always leaving and coming back. That’s what we do. I’m always intrigued by that. It never crossed my mind that I was going to stay in Ireland. From a very young age I knew I was leaving. But my sister stayed. She had three kids. Two of her kids are in Ireland, perfectly happy. I’m sure it’s the same in Australia; the people who are perfectly content and settled, and the people who have to go to see the world. I’m jealous of people who can just go, ‘this is where I am, and this is where I’m going to make my life’. There’s a kind of wonderful contentment to that, or a self-confidence in a way, that certainty that this is where I’m living my life.”

Another situation Graham explores in the book is the new world of gay marriage. “For years gay people didn’t have to think about having children or getting married. Those were not options. So we cut our cloth accordingly and we made our lives,” he notes.

“I remember when gay marriage came in in Britain, thinking, ‘there’s going to be a lot of gay divorces’, and actually it hasn’t been as bad as I anticipated. It turns out gay people are better being married than I thought they’d be.”

Graham with guests on his hit TV show The Graham Norton Show

(Credit: (Image: Getty))

When Graham first came out to his mother, he recalls her concern for what his life might hold. It’s the archetypal reaction many gay children experience and something Graham hopes will change.

“I think a lot of parents, when they hear that their children are gay, they immediately think it’s going to be lonely, particularly back then because there was no marriage, there were no kids, all the things that meant you had a full and fulfilling life back then were not available to me.

“But for years my mother has known that’s not true because she has been part of my life and so she knows my friends, she’s met the boyfriends, she knows that my life is very full and it’s not this bleak dark thing. It’s no criticism of my mother because she grew up in a world where if you saw the representation of a gay person, they were either being killed, were a killer or were dying of AIDS. That’s really the only time gay people showed up in something my mother might be reading or watching. It wasn’t a great ad for a happy life. Hopefully things have changed now. Hopefully when parents get the news now, they can be a bit more circumspect and see there are options and there is a life that won’t be like their life, but it can be happy.”

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In his 2014 memoir, The Life and Loves of a He Devil, Graham devoted a chapter to his failed romances and concluded that the “happy ever after” of a life partnership was not for him, he was better solo.

“I’m not sure I’m built for sharing my entire life and heart,” he wrote, adding “I hope I’m wrong.”

In July Graham fulfilled that wish and wed in a private star-studded wedding in Ireland, with another party the day after held in a glamorous marquee set up in the grounds of his home.

His husband is reportedly Scottish filmmaker Jonathan McLeod, though Graham has never publicly confirmed his name.

“You are right. I did recently marry. So that has changed,” Graham concedes with a cheeky smile. “It’s kind of nice that things can come along in your life and surprise you. It’s early days but it’s going well so far.”

When I ask how he feels re-reading that memoir today, he laughs.

“In that chapter I was speaking to a particular ex who isn’t in the book, because I knew that would annoy him more than anything else. But I also always feel people in relationships say they want you to be happy when really they just want you to be in a relationship to validate their choices. ‘I’m in one so really wish you were in one as well’ because they don’t want to see you being content and happy being single. I was! And still in my life I’ve been single more than I’ve been in relationships, and this is the first time I’ve felt that I can imagine this being the rest of my life.”

Graham had the celebration and ceremony more for “other people”.

“I really felt like that was for family. My mum was delighted. For the parents of gay children – my mother is 90 – she really did spend most of her life thinking, whatever happiness I found she was never going to have the buying a hat day, and so I love that we had that, back in Ireland where this was suddenly all possible. That it happened in my lifetime seems extraordinary to me, particularly in Ireland, which has become the Sweden of the 21st century, it’s so progressive. And it was lovely for my mum that she was able to be there.”

Not there were his two dogs, Bailey and Madge, who had star-billing in his memoir as the true loves of his life.

“Madge died in Christmas 2019 and then Bailey lived to see the pandemic. They both died in Ireland. We were home at Christmas with Madge and she died then. When the chat show finished [during the pandemic] we were able to get back to Ireland and we brought Bailey with us and he died that summer. I’m really pleased they both got their final days in Ireland because that’s where they were happiest. Bailey was a very old, big dog and even on the morning he died he was down in the stream drinking and barking. Their lives were full even to the end and then boof, it finished very fast.”

Graham was devastated.

“I remember being on the beach in Ireland and it was so weird, there was no Bailey. Still, I look at people walking without dogs and I think they look a bit bonkers. If I was on the beach, I would always be with Bailey and then there was no Bailey and that was so upsetting. But I did think that I wouldn’t swap not feeling like that for not having had the previous 14 to 15 years. He brought me such joy. I just think dogs are brilliant and that sadness is a terrible ache. Even now, a few years later, I will still hear the click of his little nails on the floor or I’ll think I’ll catch sight of him out of the corner of my eye, but I’m so happy that he was in my life for all of that time because there’s something, no matter how you’re feeling, a dog, the thump of their tail, they are the consummate experts at living in the moment. That’s what they do best. I think they’re a wonderful reminder all the time, whatever you’re going through, you look at your dog and you are reminded that things are okay, you shouldn’t stress too much.”

Another of Graham’s discussions in his memoir was about children and being glad that he didn’t have any.

Does he still feel that?

“Yes, I do. There were times in my life when I thought, ‘should I be a dad?’, but ultimately I think it’s good that I don’t have children. I think I wouldn’t be a very good father. I don’t think I have the patience or the interest. Maybe it would be different if I had an actual child … but I suspect not.”

When he wrote the memoir Graham had just turned 50, a seminal life stage and a good time he felt to recount some funny tales about his colourful life. But behind the laughter was a good deal of pain.

“I remember the chapter that shocked me at the time was the drinking chapter. My ‘I was so drunk I …’ stories were funny. They were anecdotes and when you turn 50 and you put all your ‘I was so drunk I …’ stories in one chapter, by the end of it it’s really not funny anymore. That was a wake-up call and I do remember that being literally a sobering thought from that book.”

“I never felt like a confident child, I never felt like that guy, I always felt very timid. So I don’t quite know where I got the confidence to go, ‘I’m leaving, I’m filling a backpack and I’m out of here’, but I’m so glad I did,” Graham recalling his big move to New York.

(Credit: (Image: Getty))

Afterwards Graham says his relationship to alcohol changed significantly.

“I haven’t given up,but I do drink a lot less. It’s a weird thing to talk about because it is a personal relationship with alcohol, and you don’t want to sound preachy or judgey. Some people give up entirely, some people are alcoholics, some people are somewhere in between. I suppose I’m not a heavy drinker anymore; I’m a slightly lighter drinker. It is still one of my great pleasures. Seven o’clock, having a something and tonic is a lovely thing. I suppose the reason to drink a lot less is so that I can have that pleasure for longer.”

At his next birthday, in April 2023, Graham will be 60 and though he notes “there’s no pretending at 60”, it is another time when he’s surprised at himself.

“I don’t feel the way I imagined I would,” he muses. “I still feel fine. I still feel vibrant and alive and I don’t feel ready to sit in a rocking chair and stare at the sunset. At the same time, you have to go ‘wow, there’s less of this life than there was’ and I think you have to make decisions in a different way.”

Did the marriage decision factor into that?

“It certainly meant ’till death do us part’ seemed more achievable,” he chuckles, adding he’s not sure he’s necessarily become wiser with age.

“I would just say, hopefully I’m not making as many of the same mistakes. Hopefully I’ve spotted some patterns in my life and have tried to iron them out. I think that’s what comes with age: spotting destructive, negative patterns but also noticing the good patterns, that things by and large tend to work themselves out.”

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