Jon Magnusson, series producer of The Graham Norton Show.
"The stakes have got higher with a show like The Graham Norton Show. It is now the flagship show for Hollywood guests. It is almost like you have moved into the luxury hotel business. Suddenly there are lots of people who need to be treated really well. You need a very strong and experienced staff to look after that side of things.
The show is really now about storytelling. Essentially what you are trying to do with the guests is to get them to tell stories and to interact together. So we spend most of our time before the show on research, getting a sense of how they are going to work together and interact with Graham.
The game is up with talk shows. No one is going to get a huge scoop out of a really famous person. They are not going to come on to a big talk show, be put under a spotlight and made to sweat.
We have had Tom Cruise on for three or four times now. People always say, ‘Why don’t you ask him about scientology?’ To which the answer is, ‘Well we can ask him about scientology.’ And Tom Cruise would smile very sweetly and just bat the question away and then you would never see him again. There would be no hard feelings, but Tom Cruise would no longer be a guest on your show.
As a talk show we have developed it over the years, from a very knockabout comedy show with sketches and stunts, into a much more straight down the line talk show where what is most important is for guests to relax, talk, and reveal themselves through interaction and play.
We’re not trying to surprise people by saying, ‘We found your yearbook picture which you thought you would never see again’. We have gone down the route of trying to get maximum embarrassment, but what we are trying to get now is maximum happiness.
One of my perks now I have worked my way up is that I have producers who tend to brief the guests beforehand. I know how mortifying that can be – having to go into a dressing room where there is a retinue of people just sort of staring at you while you try tell the famous man all the stupid questions that will be coming up. Often they will say, no – you are not saying that to them. And sneer at you and make you feel small. But that is all the fun of the fair and those ritual humiliations are something that we all have to go through as a production team to get famous people on the show.
We very rarely have physical access to the guests during the actual day in the studio before we get to the evening itself, but we have already rehearsed through everything – including possible anecdotes, conversations, digressions and bits of business – with the researchers or producers sitting in for the guests.
You have got to rehearse the hell out of things because there are so many people involved in the studio that everyone needs to know what is going on. Even though we have been doing a version of show for 18 years, we still rehearse it every week. Graham still walks through every show, and we rehearse all the camera moves.
The guests may have said hello in the green room before they sit on the sofa. But because of the level of people that we deal with now, they tend to be in their dressing room until they come down.
We have a brilliant booker, Tony Jordan, whose ship has really come in after years of slog. We have plugged away at this for a long time and now we are enjoying being the show that people want to come on first. It has the biggest ratings in the UK and a huge reach wordwide.
The best shows are often the ones where people go, ‘You have got who sitting next to who?’ That could involve Judy Dench and Lady Gaga or, say, Miriam Margolyes and anybody else you can think of.
The truth is it is very much a show for business now. People come on to plug their films. I have to be unapologetic about the fact that the show is clearly a show for doing business. And it very important to me that studios and managers see that business is done and it is done well.
When you have a group of people sitting together, the business side is quite a useful format device for moving things along. If people come on and they don’t have something to sell, it can feel a little weird because you think, ‘Why are we turning to you now, what are we going to talk to you about now?’
During the show, I am in the gallery with our brilliant director Steve Smith and I try and run as fast a show as possible. One of the things I have a horror of is making studio audiences wait too long and watch too much material. I try and be as sparing as possible and get everything down to as close to an hour or hour and a quarter as I can.
The biggest danger is once you start losing the audience and the energy in the room. The audience is this really, really mercurial and vital extra element in the studio that you can’t forget about.
As a series producer, you need to be able to create an atmosphere of a certain amount of calm and confidence in everyone, and that what you are doing has a purpose and that people aren’t just wasting their time.
The great thing about having a long running, high volume show is that there is always another one along next week. We don’t sweat it too much and it is important not to throw the toys out of the pram if a publicist or manager says no, my client isn’t going to do that. You just have to roll with it and be quite calm and be prepared to come up with other jokes.
I don’t get really stressed about it, and one of the reasons is because I edit the show as well. I edit with a brilliant editor, Perry Widdowson, who has been working with us for about 18 years. I begin cutting the show on Final Cut on the night the show has recorded and we get it finished in the course of the next day. I find that really enjoyable and therapeutic. I can still make decisions about the content, and allow the show to run a little more smoothly.
My background, like a lot of comedy producers in the indie world, is creative and in script writing. I am one of those show running comedy producers who really need to have a shit hot and disciplined line producer working alongside me –Catherine Strauss has worked with me on the show since we started at the BBC.
Graham and I started doing talk shows together in 1998, with our executive producer Graham Stuart – a great friend and boss. I have such a very good team around me and Graham is just exceptional. I feel I have the best job in the world. I love doing it."
This interview is taken from the April edition of Televisual, from a feature on the art of series producing.
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