Formats Unpacked: The Graham Norton Show

How a really small tweak to a format changed a show in a huge way

Hi All,

Thanks for joining us. If you’re new to Formats Unpacked dive into the archive and enjoy some of our previous unpackings of some classic and lesser-known formats. But not before you read Nimi Raja’s take on why Britain’s most famous chat show works so well.

Nimi is freelance strategy director who has worked for Google, Glue Isobar, and Sunshine to name a few. She’s also co-founded her own fashion brand, Rani by Raja, which marries both her British and Indian heritage.

Over to you Nimi…


What’s it called?

The Graham Norton Show (now coined ‘Hollywood’s favourite Brit TV talk show’)

What’s the format?

Graham welcomes three or four of the world’s biggest stars of film, music, and TV to his sofa in a weekly primetime Friday night slot. There’s a live music performance followed by a visit to the slightly awkward Red Chair where a member of the audience is invited to share one of their most embarrassing moments. If Graham or the stars find the story too boring they can pull a lever that flips the storyteller backward and out of the chair. This is provided against the backdrop of a live and thoroughly entertained audience whose presence the viewer can always feel.

What’s the magic that makes is special?

Unequivocally, bringing out the guests to the infamous sofa all at the same time.

Simple, powerful, differentiated;  a prime anthropological move that is the great leveller, creating an alchemy that can’t be scripted or predicted. This trick has given us seminal television moments for over a decade. 

Most talk shows bring out their guests one at a time, generally to a hierarchy of most famous first. The Graham Norton Show broke that convention from day one. In doing so it found the perfect formula of giving an eclectic mix of people enough time and space to work off each other.

This creates magical moments of serendipity that make for brilliant entertainment. A touch of booze also helps. Who’d have thunk Dot Cotton (June Brown) and Lady Gaga would hit it off so stupendously? Unlike similar formats it feels much less “publicity tour” and much more “dinner party chat”.

It isn’t always a love-in either. There are moments of tension that make for just as powerfully entertaining viewing. Remember Jamie Lee Curtis and Jeff Goldblum’s trade of thinly-veiled barbs at each other? Awkward. Or Tamsin Greig telling David Schwimmer that she had to Google Matt LeBlanc before she worked with him on Episodes as she’d never watched Friends? Blasphemous, but utterly compelling. 

Graham knows how to do just enough to get his guests going; innuendo, internet mining that yields embarrassing photos of the guests, mockery, sarcasm, but always inclusive and warm. He’s also happy not to be centre of attention and lets the stories unfold freely. 

The host seems to have the right questions to break down the proverbial barriers between guests who might not know each other. This means viewers get to watch the stars behave as fans, and friends, of their co-guests (who can forget Emilia Clarke giggling and totally star-struck at Matt LeBlanc). You really do get the feeling they really want to be there. 

The return of the studio format last week was a welcome ray of light in these dark times.

Favourite episode?

I think it needs to be looked at in terms of favourite ‘moments’ rather than episodes. Will Smith & Alfonso Riberio re-enacting ‘The Carlton Dance’ is high up there. Ian McKellen greeting Hugh Jackman with a little pat on the booty, Chris O’Dowd drinking a fly in his water by accident, and of course, Rihanna telling Helena Bonham Carter to her face that her dress is likely the reason why she’s never been invited to the Met Gala. There are way too many to choose a single one. Check out the show’s YouTube channel, which is a brilliant repository of seminal moments and season round-ups.

Lady Gaga asked EastEnders June Brown to go clubbing but she was busy |  Metro News

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Thanks Nimi,

I’m a big fan of the show and have always loved the ‘guests coming out at once’ thing. Such a simple tweak to one of TV’s oldest formats. Even though a hierarchy still exists in the form of who sits where on the sofa, it’s still a thrill to see the first-time guests trying to find their voice whilst sharing the stage with such stars.

If you’re enjoying Formats Unpacked please tell your friends, or if you’d like to write one just drop me a line. Finally, if you’re looking for a freelance strategist who is obsessed with behaviour change then hire Nimi.

Thanks for reading. More unpacking next week.

Hugh