Wizard way to find a star: Graham Norton on the TV hunt for a girl to fill those famous ruby slippers
By Richard Barber
Last updated at 11:09 PM on 18th March 2010
First there’s the business of who will play Dorothy in Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s West End production of The Wizard Of Oz, a search that will be followed by millions in the BBC1 talent contest, Over The Rainbow, which starts next week. It will be the fourth of the series Graham Norton has presented.
There’s also the return of his 12-week chat show. Then hosting the TV Baftas. And there’s a spell deputising for a holidaying Chris Evans on Radio 2.
By the time it gets to covering Eurovision in Oslo at the end of May, the exhausting work roster would have taken its toll on many, but it is clearly what Graham Norton likes best. At 46 – he’ll be 47 on April 4 – the Irishman is enjoying the pace.
Graham Norton hosts the BBC talent show to find Andrew Lloyd Webber a star for his next West End production
Early signs are that Over The Rainbow will eclipse previous searches for Maria in The Sound of Music, Joseph in The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Nancy (and Oliver) in Oliver!
‘And I think I know why,’ says Graham. ‘No one is more iconic than Judy Garland in The Wizard Of Oz. So for people to re-imagine Dorothy being played by someone else is going to be very difficult.’
There’s a new panel from the previous shows, and along with judges Sheila Hancock, Charlotte Church and John Partridge, Norton recently spent three days at the Hackney Empire watching the final 110 girls each sing Somewhere Over The Rainbow.
Sheila Hancock, Charlotte Church, John Partridge are on the judges panel to find Dorothy
‘And what’s extraordinary is that, even by the 110th time, I still enjoyed it. There’s something very moving in a situation where each contestant was imagining a different life – one in which she’d be a star. So the song took on a particular poignancy.’
The first two TV shows, next Friday and Saturday, will show highlights from the audition process that whittled down 9,000 hopefuls to the final ten. Then, on eight successive Saturdays, a would-be Dorothy will be shed until the ultimate winner emerges on May 22.
‘I mustn’t pre-judge,’ says Graham, ‘but I think the nation will be on the edge of its armchairs.’
Madonna and Bette Midler are on Graham Norton’s wishlist for his chat show
He’s probably right. But, enjoyable though it may be, isn’t this just one big free plug for yet another Lloyd Webber production? ‘Well, yes. But then look at the benefit felt across the West End after our searches for Maria, Joseph and Nancy. In the depths of a vicious recession, takings have consistently risen year-on-year.’
Apart from anything else, Norton is enjoying working again with Lloyd Webber (or ‘the good Lord,’ as he refers to him).
‘When we met, I was pleased we seemed to get on. But, five years on, I don’t just tolerate the man – I adore him. And he’s wonderful TV. He’s not trying to be the next Simon Cowell. He’s simply his glorious self.’
Graham Norton at the world premiere of Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies. He says he is a huge fan of the composer
Graham is also a fan of his work. ‘I went to see Love Never Dies. He was taking such a massive risk. The first Phantom is the most successful piece of entertainment in the world. But he’s passionate about the story and I think this is his best score ever.
‘I truly believe he’s one of the greats. When we’re dead, when all the Marias and Nancys and Dorothys are pushing up daisies, people will still be singing Andrew’s songs.’
There will be some new songs for the stage show, but a major appeal of Over The Rainbow is that it will also cast a dog to play Dorothy’s Toto in a West End gala performance of the show. Graham rolls his eyes; he has two
dogs of his own. ‘It’s madness, in my opinion. The chances of any dog being able to do anything in an audition when it’s supposed to are virtually nil.’
Overlapping Over The Rainbow will be the return of Norton’s chat show.
‘It’s what I take most pride in,’ he says. ‘It started on Channel 4 and, 12 years later, it’s still going strong on BBC1. It’s the thing I invest most in, professionally and emotionally speaking.’
Almost all the great and the good have graced Graham’s sofa. But a handful still elude him. ‘Number One on that list is Madonna. I’m sure she’ll say yes, though, sooner or later. And I shan’t rest until the wonderful Bette Midler comes to call.’
He’s happy, too, to welcome back Dustin Hoffman (‘he always delivers’), Dawn French (‘never less than a delight’) and a host of top comics.
So is Graham planning to move into Jonathan Ross‘s Friday night slot when he leaves the BBC in July?
‘It doesn’t work like that. When he finishes, it’s the end of that show,’ he says. ‘And who knows? The BBC may decide to bring back the stand-up shows at the Apollo. They were very successful.
‘But we haven’t seen the last of Jonathan. He’s a talented, clever and funny man, a brilliant broadcaster.’
Graham is also a fan of Chris Evans. ‘He’s different from Terry Wogan, but that’s as it should be. He’s a change and people are resistant to change. Give him some time and it’ll be as if he’s always been there. I’m looking forward to standing in for him, though, because I love Radio 2.’
Nothing could be nicer, he says, than to have renegotiated a twoyear contract with the Beeb, albeit at a reduced rate. ‘I’ve always liked doing exclusive deals because it simplifies your life. And yes, I like making money, but you’ve got to face facts, and earning less money is better than earning none at all. I’m still ridiculously overpaid so I can’t possibly complain.’
Away from work, Graham lives alone in Wapping, East London. He once said there’s little he likes better than opening the front door and thinking to himself: ‘Mmm, empty! Nice!’ Is that still his view? ‘Absolutely. Don’t most people cherish time on their own?’
No, most people cherish having someone to come home to. He looks doubtful. ‘I suppose that could be nice, but it’s fraught with difficulty. I’ve always thought I’d prefer to be unhappy alone than unhappy with someone else. I’ve never been a person who needs to be in a relationship. The older I get, the more unlikely it is that I’d settle down with someone.’
So where does he see himself ten years from now? ‘If I’m still enjoying my work, then more, please. But, if telly and I fall out, I’ll be OK.’
And personally? ‘If I end up with a partner, good. But, equally, I think you can waste a lot of time hoping your life will be different. The trick is to relish what you have rather than yearning for what you haven’t.’
That said, not even he can overlook the chaos of the Eurovision curtain-raiser last Friday in which six unknown acts slugged it out to sing a Pete Waterman song that had clearly been popped into his sock drawer in 1985 and had only just resurfaced.
Matters were not helped by gremlins getting into the BBC sound system, most of the vocalists failing to hit the right notes and even Norton, our normally unflappable host, being left gulping like a goldfish at one point as instructions were screamed through his earpiece.
ALL that and Josh, a boy who looked as though he’d been knitted by his own granny, won. ‘Well did you vote?’ asks Norton, not unreasonably. ‘There you go. Look, we had two jobs to do: find someone to go to Oslo and finish on time so Fiona Bruce could read the News at Ten. And we achieved both.’
Even so, you sense a metaphorical wiping of the brow. No such mayhem, however, threatens Over The Rainbow. ‘It’s the biggest challenge we’ve ever set the public,’ he says. ‘But the standard is phenomenally high.
‘We had a lot of 16-year-olds. I worried beforehand that they might not be able to handle it, but I needn’t have worried.
These tiny girls walked on stage in this big, gaping cavern which is the
Empire and were so self-possessed.’
So having watched the other winners evolve, does he have any tips? Lloyd Webber has said the new Dorothy is onstage for virtually the whole of the show: ‘She doesn’t have to be conventionally beautiful. The main thing she has to do is break your heart.’
‘Dorothy has to be innocent and vulnerable as well as tough as old boots,’ adds Norton.
‘She is competing with an awful lot of scenery, as well as men in lion, tin and scarecrow suits. You have to be quite a performer to compete with that!’
Over The Rainbow starts on Friday, March 26, at 9pm on BBC1, with the live shows from Saturday, April 3.