‘Liam Gallagher slams cancel culture’. ‘Piers Morgan slams cancel culture’. ‘Mr Bean’s Rowan Atkinson slams cancel culture’. 

These are all genuine headlines from recent months. It’s increasingly rare to read a celebrity interview in which a discussion of the star’s best-known work doesn’t feature them being asked ‘if you could still get away with that these days’. Any answer other than ‘Yeah, I don’t see it being an issue’ inevitably leads to a ‘Celebrity X on thing they’re best known for, project they’re promoting and the perils of cancel culture’ headline. 

Given the ubiquity of those articles, you might think ‘Actually, I’d prefer not to talk about cancel culture’ would be greeted as a refreshing change. And yet, Graham Norton has spent this week being slammed for not slamming cancel culture. 

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It wouldn’t be a massive stretch to call the 59-year-old British TV’s most beloved personality. An eight-time BAFTA TV award winner for his work as a chat show host, he has written three fiction books and two autobiographies as well as hosting radio shows, writing columns, appearing in films, judging on RuPaul’s Drag Race and providing wry commentary on the Eurovision Song Contest. 

UK audiences were first introduced to Norton in his role as Father Noel Furlong on the classic Channel 4 sitcom Father Ted. While his was a relatively minor role in three episodes, Norton’s performance was memorable as an excitable priest singing ‘Whole of the Moon’ in a cramped caravan and ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’ while trapped under rocks in a cave. 

Appearances as a presenter in the early days of Channel 5 led to his career-defining break as host of the So Graham Norton chat show on Channel 4 from 1998 to 2002. The programme won BAFTA and Royal Television Society awards thanks to its irreverent, innuendo-laden approach, and in February 2007 The Graham Norton Show made its BBC Two debut. 

Norton’s engaging personality and the laidback, convivial atmosphere ensure that guests are at their most relaxed, leaving other chat shows looking cold and stilted by comparison. Hollywood A-listers share a couch with British soap stars, and superstars reveal a more human side than they would typically show during relentless press junkets.

Since October 2009, The Graham Norton Show has been a fixture on BBC One, with the Daily Mail reporting that a 2019 episode attracted 2.6 million viewers in comparison to 1.2 million for ITV counterpart The Jonathan Ross Show. 

Those figures underline Norton’s position as the undisputed king of British chat shows, and combined with his other TV and radio work it means the 59-year-old is one of the country’s most high-profile figures. 

It’s notable, then, that his has been a career almost entirely devoid of scandal. While his humour - particularly in the Channel 4 days - could at times be risque, he has never courted controversy.

Although it’s his charisma that draws viewers in, the Irishman isn’t someone who insists upon being the centre of attention. 

Speaking on a recent episode of The Adam Buxton Podcast, he said: “I think the confusion with hosting a chat show is that the name of the person is normally in the title of the show, and you walk out at the beginning and there’s all the clapping. It’s quite high status, but the minute the guests appear it’s low status because you are s*** on their shoe, and you’ve got to be that. 

“No matter who they are, you’ve got to try and make them funnier than you, more famous than you, more interesting than you. That’s the gig”.

That idea of stepping aside and not making himself the talking point was in evidence during an interview at the Cheltenham Literature Festival earlier this month. 

Speaking to Mariella Frostrup of the Times, Norton said: “You read a lot of articles in papers by people complaining about cancel culture. You think ‘in what world are you cancelled?’. I’m reading your article in a newspaper, or you’re doing interviews about how terrible it is to be cancelled. 

“The word is the wrong word. The word should be accountability. John Cleese has been very public recently, complaining about what you can’t say, and it must be very hard to be a man of a certain age who’s been able to say whatever he liked for years, and now suddenly there’s some accountability. It’s free speech, but not consequence-free. I’m aware of the things I say”.

“That’s a very easy target, isn’t it, a sort of middle-aged man who’s used to saying what he wants, ruled the world, mansplains everywhere he goes etc etc” replied Frostrup, before bringing up JK Rowling. She said: “That’s harder to make a point with, isn’t it, when you look at someone expressing what may or may not be popular opinions, but to be deluged with the kind of anger, rage and attempts at censorship seems to be something more than just a middle-aged man not being able to say something he used to say in the days of Empire”. 

Norton responded: “Yeah, I mean what I feel weird about this is when I’m asked about it, I become part of this discussion, and all I’m painfully aware of is that my voice adds NOTHING to that discussion, and I’m sort of embarrassed that I’m somehow drawn into it. And if people want to shine a light on those issues - and I hope people do - then talk to trans people. Talk to the parents of trans kids, talk to doctors, talk to psychiatrists. Talk to someone who can illuminate this in some way.

“I’m very aware that as ‘bloke off the telly’, your voice can be artificially amplified, and once in a blue moon that can be good, but most of the time it’s just a distraction. It’s for clicks, it’s for whatever, you can put my name in a headline - ‘Graham Norton slams’, ‘Graham Norton defends’, ‘Graham Norton weighs in on’ - and actually, Graham Norton shouldn’t be in your headline. 

“If you want to talk about something, talk about the thing. You don’t need to attach a Kardashian or a whatever to a serious subject. The subject should be enough in itself. It’s the Michael Gove thing about ‘enough experts’. NO! Please can we have some experts? Can we rustle up some experts and talk to them, rather than man in shiny pink suit?”. 

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The video went viral on Twitter. Among those who shared it was musician Billy Bragg, who tweeted: “Norton really good here on John Cleese, telling him that ‘cancel culture’ is just accountability, and JK Rowling, suggesting that the media talk directly to trans teens and their parents rather than merely amplifying the takes of a celebrity”. 

Bragg was then quote-tweeted by Rowling, who said: “Very much enjoying the recent spate of bearded men stepping confidently onto their soapboxes to define what a woman is and throw their support behind rape and death threats to those who dare disagree”. She added: “You may mock, but takes real bravery to come out as an Old Testament prophet”. 

Norton, despite at no point in his comments attempting to define what a woman is, throwing his support behind rape and death threats, criticising JK Rowling or expressing any opinion other than ‘don’t ask me for my opinion because it doesn’t matter’, found himself in the middle of heated debate.

By Monday, anyone looking for his @grahnort Twitter account was met with the message ‘This account does not exist’. In the ‘culture wars’, explicitly saying ‘leave me out of it’ can still be taken as a controversial stance.

“It’s for clicks…Graham Norton shouldn’t be in your headline” said Graham Norton. A week later, typing ‘Graham Norton cancel culture’ into Google generates 129,000 results. 

And, since you’re reading this, you can make that 129,001.