Lockdown has a silver lining for actors and artists
While lockdowns, social distancing, self isolation and closed borders have seen the entertainment industry grind to a halt, Graham Norton says there's a silver lining for actors and artists who would normally be schlepping around the world from The Graham Norton Show in London to the Jimmys, Kimmel and Fallon, in the US to spruik their latest project.
"That's the odd thing, for celebrities it's the easiest press tour they have ever done in their lives," Norton says, with a laugh.
"They don't have to even put socks on. And particularly for someone like Chris Hemsworth, if he is doing a press tour, he's on a plane for a day to get that stuff done. So, it's great for him that he just gets to sit in his house and tell us about the movie he made for a streaming service. He's hit gold."
Speaking of Hemsworth, it hasn't escaped the attention of the top-rating UK talk show host that the Aussie A-lister has just released his first Netflix original movie, Extraction, at precisely the same time as streaming services like Foxtel are going through the roof with cinemas closed around the world due to the coronavirus pandemic and millions of people stuck at home, desperate for entertainment options.
"It's going to be bonkers because it's THE new movie that has come out," Norton says, tongue firmly in cheek, about the Thor actor who appears on his chat show via video link from his Byron Bay mansion in the episode that airs tomorrow night.
"He couldn't have planned it better. In fact, I suspect the Hemsworths are behind the whole thing. They have been building those compounds for years."
Norton himself has also been affected by the strict new measures. While his BBC Radio 2 show has forged on with little disruption, his long-running comedy-chat sensation has had to radically reinvent itself from the usual format of disparate guests thrown together on a couch (often lubricated by their tipple of choice) to a digital solution.
But as the lockdown started to take hold in COVID-19-ravaged London, he says that he and the BBC were determined to press on with the season, not just to bring some joy into the grim reality of 2020, but also to keep as many people as possible employed.
"We had a team of people who were all expecting to start work in March and they are on short-term contracts and all of that stuff so we were really keen to do something to use some of those people," Norton says.
"Obviously we're not using lighting guys and camera guys but we are using researchers and editors - as many people as we can to do the show. Also, I do think there is an appetite for 'any other business' - AOB - on the agenda. And I think our show is AOB and it's quite nice to talk about other things, whether it's a new book or television series and people are looking for new stuff."
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Adapting to the new format has not come without its challenges though. While there's no question that banter between the guest and the host is more difficult and less spontaneous over video link, Norton says it's the lack of response from a live audience that has been most noticeable, again citing the impossibly handsome and self-deprecating Hemsworth as the case in point.
"He's one of those guys who is a movie star," Norton says.
"It's an interesting thing, that kind of chemical reaction that an audience has with somebody and he's one of them. In a way, that's where you miss the audience more. It isn't for jokes and things. I do the radio and you can talk into silence and it's OK but it's that thing - judging how a guest is going and I think guests also like playing with an audience. They like getting that feedback."
Hemsworth has provided many magical moments on the Norton couch, as have compatriots such as Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, Margot Robbie and Rebel Wilson.
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Norton says that if there's a common thread to his Aussie guests that the audience warms to, it's a tendency not to take themselves too seriously compared with their American counterparts.
"Some Americans, particularly the young ones, almost get scared and you understand why, because if you say the wrong thing it goes viral and there's a big pile-on," he says.
"You told a stupid story on a stupid chat show and now you are having to issue an apology and you just want to say 'oh for God's sake'. So, in that sense you can understand why some of the Americans are really schooled and are very careful and I think Brits and Aussie are a bit more 'look, whatever' and seem to get away with more because I think people aren't waiting for them to screw up."
In the 13 years that The Graham Norton Show has been running, the affable host - himself a comedian and occasional actor - has drawn startling revelations and comedy gold from some of the biggest names in entertainment. But he says that being famous or successful or talented isn't necessarily a reliable indicator of their worth as a guest. In his eyes, the best stars to interview are the ones who are genuinely interested in, and interact with, the other people on the couch, especially those less well known.
"Tom Hanks is one of those people. Meryl Streep too," he says. "Although they are big, big stars, they are also actors and they are interested in people. That's why they got into acting I guess. But also, they still know what a good story is, what's worth saying, what's not worth saying, all those sorts of things. Those are the ones you so look forward to coming on."
Norton has previously had Prince Harry and Meghan Markle at the top of his list of dream guests and says while he's not holding his breath for them to appear under the current circumstances, he'd be happy with "any young royal".
"I can't imagine Harry and Meghan will be rushing back to the United Kingdom any time soon - and who can blame them?" he says.
"Good luck to them, I say. And Wills and Kate? Well, you never know. We had a big charity fundraiser here last night called Big Night In that was a combination of Comic Relief and Children In Need and Wills and Kate took part in that. Wills was in a sketch with Stephen Fry, so he's obviously game. Maybe we will get him on the sofa some time."
The Graham Norton Show, Friday, 8.30pm, Channel 10
Originally published as Lockdown has a silver lining for actors and artists