Mr Graham Norton’s Wardrobe Diaries
The life and times – and evolving attire – of the UK’s chat-show king
The Bafta Award-winning comedian and presenter Mr Graham Norton may be best known for his long-running talk show, but it’s his style – or, by his own admission, lack thereof – that has made an equally big impression in the UK. Mr Norton made his name clothed in vivid outfits, often sequined or bejewelled, which commanded attention. He is, it’s fair to say, a very particular sort of fashion icon. But an icon nonetheless.
“There is a sense of clothes on TV being part of a persona, but it’s also about insecurity,” Mr Norton says. “It is the equivalent of a novelty tie or Christmas socks. I wanted people to know that I was a wild and wacky guy – it was my shortcut to that. My stylist bought lots of clothes like that, but when we were on five nights a week, we ran out. That was when she started commissioning suits and I ended up looking like your grandmother’s sofa.”
Mr Norton’s life in style has been a varied one. Growing up in rural Cork with his Protestant father, a travelling salesman, his sartorial range was rather limited and colour-free. While at university in Cork, he became a denizen of the city’s many secondhand shops – it was here that he got a taste for bold suits and outre accessories. After a year spent in a commune in San Francisco, he came to London to study drama. He got his first big break playing an exasperating priest on cult Channel 4 sitcom Father Ted, but made more headway as a presenter, becoming a regular stand-in on Channel 5’s The Jack Docherty Show, which was modelled on the late-night US chat shows.
As his TV career gained momentum, he started to establish his own style. Channel 4 soon gave him his own show, So Graham Norton. Billed as an antidote to Mr Michael Parkinson’s comprehensive questioning, Mr Norton turned it into a riotously funny and irreverent must-see. As the calibre of his celebrity guests got bigger, so did his wardrobe.
“I began spending a lot on clothes. I went on huge binges. It was a big part of the excitement of having money.” He joined the BBC in 2005 and was given the top job of hosting Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Saturday-night talent show. In 2009, he was awarded the coveted Friday-night slot previously held by Mr Jonathan Ross’ chat show, which he retains to this day, along with the annual coverage of the Eurovision Song Contest. In 2012, he sold his production company to ITV for around £17m.
When he looks back at his sartorial choices, particularly the ones he made in his forties, he describes himself as “all at sea”: “If I was going to a red carpet thing, I would dig out something nuts to wear. I always felt a responsibility to wear something crazy. Not quite like, say, the responsibility Joan Collins has to look glam, but nonetheless, I felt it.”
With his first novel just out, and two best-selling memoirs under his belt, you could say he’s sobered up, sartorially speaking. But he is a firm believer that “retail therapy really does work”.
“In a shop, I am like a jackdaw. If there is something shiny, I am drawn to it and then I have to talk myself down. I look at myself in the mirror and go, ‘You are a 53-year-old man. No!’”
Here, Mr Norton speaks to MR PORTER about his life in style.
Early years: a travelling salesman’s son
“When I was young, I travelled all around the country with my father, who worked for Guinness. The thing about Ireland is that we like telling stories – and the country is absolutely full of stories. Walk down a road in Ireland and every house will have a tragedy, an eccentricity. In England, we like gossiping about our friends, but in Ireland, we just like the story and don’t care who is in it, to be honest.
“I do remember I had a particular outfit that I loved at this time. It was light brown cords, with a sweater that was also brown, and there was a Snoopy T-shirt, which I was very fond of. And of course, Snoopy is now back – Gucci has gone very Snoopy. I also used to have two shirts, both with cowboy prints on them, which were accessorised with matching ties – in the same fabric. And that is a look I still like today.”
Student years: a false start
“I took after my father when it came to dressing, then and now. He was not a very natty dresser. And now I spend so much money on clothes, but still look like I don’t. My dad was one of those people who, well, you know, his shirt tail would immediately come out the moment he tucked it in. And I think I am slightly that man, too – I spend lots of money on smart suits and shiny shoes, but something will go wrong. The knot on the tie will be all over the place, something will always be off.
“Cork was great for second-hand clothes – two-tone suits; bright colours; long, bad scarves – I wore them all. Ridiculous clothes. It was crazy. When I arrived at University College Cork, where I studied English and French, I really wanted to feel like I existed. The clothes I wore were the equivalent of self-harm. I needed to feel the pain to feel that I existed.”
San Francisco – a formative year
“I had a year in San Francisco between university and leaving for London. I lived in a hippy commune. I remember having some dungarees, which were ‘ethical’, which meant they had no buttons because buttons were bad and they had no zips, either, for the same reason. You just knotted the fabric. There was an extraordinarily complicated fly on them, which meant you needed a penis like an accordion to get it out. There was a lot of interesting dressing around this commune.
“But I loved that time. That was kind of the foundation of everything I have done. Americans are so positive and say things such as, ‘If you want to do that, then do it!’ Which they do not say in Ireland. That kind of gave me the confidence to apply to the Central School of Speech and Drama in London.”
London in the 2000s – limelight and sparkling jackets
“I remember when we were doing five nights a week on V Graham Norton and Big Brother was on after – the viewing figures were through the roof. Once we had just recorded the show and we were sitting on the terrace of the Oxo Tower. It was a beautiful evening and life felt pretty amazing.
“Back then, Dolce & Gabbana were doing lots of beaded things, embroidered things… I remember going into the shop and buying some white trousers – they had all these crystals on them and they must have been about a couple of grand. I thought: ‘Well, this is nothing without a jacket.’ I saw this sparkling jacket covered in more jewels and I said to the guy in the shop, ‘What size is that?’
“‘That jacket is ver-r-r-r-r-y expensive,’ he said, and I was thinking, ‘Are you an idiot? I’ve just spent all this money.’ So I said, ‘Why? How much is it?’
“‘£35,000,’ came the reply – and that was 20 years ago. I did not buy it.
London now – something totally different
“I always wanted to write a novel. Writing always comes easy. But who was going to publish a novel by an unknown author? So I said to the publisher, who were after my memoirs, how about we do a two-book deal? I write an autobiography first and then you publish my novel? It was incredibly nice of them to say ‘yes’. I think somewhere they hoped it might be funny. And it clearly wasn’t going to be. And then for a while there they were hanging on to, maybe… darkly comic. But even that they have had to abandon. It was deliberate, really. It is difficult when you are off the telly. I get in the way. It’s like I am reading it aloud over your shoulder. I wanted to remove myself as much as possible – that is why it’s not funny.
“Writing a novel was one of the most pleasurable things I have done. But that was because I was doing other things, too. I enjoyed it as a reaction – it was non-collaborative, there are no meetings, no discussions, I just got on with it, just me and the keyboard. If I were just a writer, I might go a bit looney-tunes. Bad things would happen, I am sure. I’d be talking to the dogs a lot.”
Holding (Hodder & Stoughton) by Mr Graham Norton is out now