Graham Norton says it was the right time to leave BBC Radio 2 as he 'hated having his pay revealed annually'

Graham Norton says it was the right time to leave BBC Radio 2 as he 'hated having his pay revealed annually'

January 7, 2021

AFTER ten years, hundreds of editions and endless A-listers on his Radio 2 show, Graham Norton stunned fans when he revealed he was leaving BBC Radio in December.

But the Irish star’s listeners won’t have to wait long to get their next fix — and in fact, they will be getting twice as much.

The most sought-after man in showbiz will now host TWO shows a weekend on Virgin Radio — starting tomorrow — rather than the one he did before on Radio 2.

And the man responsible is another former BBC stalwart who became a Virgin star, Chris Evans.

Graham, a best-selling author as well as a TV and radio host, said: “It was a moment of madness, it was not my plan.

"The only thing I was thinking was that I might walk away from the Radio 2 show because I had been doing it for ten years, it wasn’t going to get any bigger.

"Doing it in lockdown had taken the joy out of it — and you had to climb six flights of stairs to the studio.

“I was selling a book last September and I went to see Chris Evans in Virgin and he was teasing me, saying, ‘Come here’. He seemed so happy, it was a beautiful day, and I could see my house from the studio.

“Virgin got in touch with my agent about a minute later. The idea of doing Saturday and Sunday came up.

“It all happened so fast. This is so not what I was imagining for myself. This is so not the life plan, the life decisions I was going to be making, my whole thing.

“For the past few years I’ve been talking about working less, doing less, having more time off.”

And he said of Virgin’s high-rise Thames-side studio complex: “It is so modern. I feel like a Bond baddie in my lair, surveying London.”

At 57, and despite a glittering career across all the major channels, Graham revealed that it was the feeling of being wanted that finally turned his head.

The five-time Bafta winner said: “I think it’s to do with this weird year and realising how fortunate we are to work and how important it is that someone cares where you are.

“I just felt that I was really lucky that somebody was saying, ‘Be here, show up, you’ve got a job’, and that was tempting to me in a way that it wouldn’t have been a year ago.

“It was my excitement about doing Saturday and Sunday and being my age and someone wanting me. That’s so persuasive, someone being nice and saying, ‘Do you want to come?’

“I never thought anyone would be trying to headhunt me, and that’s a really nice feeling.

“Last Sunday I woke up and thought, ‘Oh I won’t be in bed this time next Sunday’. It will be a shock to the system.

"I don’t know why we didn’t do Saturday and Sunday at the BBC. It’s too late to follow up on funny stories a week later.”

Lie-ins aside, there is one big positive to leaving a public service broadcaster such as the BBC — his pay will no longer be made public.

Graham was a regular fixture in the annual publication of the Corp-oration’s top-earning stars’ salaries, which was forced upon the BBC by the Government in 2017.

In last year’s report he was ranked third behind Match Of The Day host Gary Lineker and Radio 2 Breakfast Show host Zoe Ball.

But Graham says the list is “pointless”, as it excludes shows made by commercial arm BBC Studios, including Strictly, Top Gear and EastEnders.

Still, no longer having his pay made public was a factor in leaving the BBC.

Graham said: “The high earners list, which I didn’t like being on, hey, now I’m not.

“So to that extent it made me go, but that was a bonus of leaving, it wasn’t the biggest driving force.

"It is that thing — none of us like talking about money. People tend not to bring up their wages, it’s not seen as acceptable.

“The list is rubbish. It doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t tell you what people are earning because of how people are paid, which is why so many radio people are on that list.

“It is pointless, but if they weren’t publishing it, there wouldn’t be that many women on it.

“When they first published it, they were properly embarrassed there were so few women on it.

"I think that list will become more diverse over the next few years. The politicians wanted to see what famous people earned.”

Graham’s rise from the stand-up comedy circuit to being the darling of TV and radio has taken some outrageous turns, particularly in his Channel 4 days in the late 1990s and early Noughties, when he hosted the weekly So Graham Norton and the weekday V Graham Norton shows.

He said: “I worked in a time when there wasn’t social media. I am so glad the shows I was doing on Channel 4 weren’t tweeted about, I’d have been cancelled.

“It’s been the biggest journey with comedy, audiences and what people will laugh at. When we started back in ’98, comedy was quite cruel, roast jokes were huge. That’s really uncomfortable to watch now.

“People talk about comedy police and political correctness, but I don’t think it’s that. It’s the mood of the time.

“The audience will tell you what they want to laugh at. If I went out on my show now and did a cruel monologue, they would recoil, it would go the other way.

“That’s good, because it challenges you to move with the times. I’m not going to pick on someone for laughs, I’m going to think of something funny.”

Graham will still host Eurovision, his chat show and Drag Race on the BBC.

As for radio, he expects he will take a while to adapt to facing no BBC red tape or bureaucracy.

He said: “It will take a long time for me to thaw out from some of those constraints.

"I think people saw me go from Channel 4 to the BBC and thought, ‘Oh, poor him, he’s been muzzled, he’s been put in a straitjacket’. It never felt like that.

“I always felt like a new challenge and a different discipline. I enjoyed it.

“It’s why I went (to the BBC), because I wanted to make shows that could be more mainstream, that could have more of a family audience, that could have a shiny floor. That was my challenge, that’s what interested me.

“That’s a much younger Graham but it’s still in there though.”

His first weekend of Virgin shows will feature Cold Feet’s Fay Ripley, Ralf Little, of Death In Paradise, Location, Location, Location’s Kirstie Allsopp and Phil Spencer, and SAS hardman Ant Middleton.

And alongside his bumper guest list, Graham hopes some of his old audience will join him too.

He said: “The show will be very close to what I was doing on Radio 2, playing music and rambling on.

“Hopefully we’ll get listener interaction and guests as well will be walking by.

“If you think about having an audience for the weekend, it’s a very different relationship than just having them from Saturday morning.

"It’ll be interesting to find out who that Sunday audience is, what they’re doing. Because on Saturday you’ve got a real sense that people are listening as they do things.”

And thinking ahead to a lockdown-free future, he continued: “They’re ferrying kids, they’re waiting outside a supermarket, they’re in a car park at B&Q.

“Sunday, I feel like people are probably in their house more. They’re reading papers, they’re getting lunch, but the radio is on.

“That will be fun to have that six hours with people over the weekend and you can carry things over from the Saturday.

"Those are opportunities I didn’t have before.

“I’ve made the right decision. I’m ready to get out of there (Radio 2) and that’s no disrespect to them.

“It’s just that I have been there for ten years. The show hasn’t changed really in that time.

“I’ve got a big audience but it’s not going to get any bigger. So to come here and have a standing start is a real challenge.”

  • The Graham Norton Radio Show starts tomorrow and Sunday, 9:30am-12:30pm. You can listen advert-free on DAB, online, via the free Virgin Radio app or on your smart speaker

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