‘I love drag. It's dangerous’: Graham Norton and Alan Carr on desire, camp and ‘cancel culture’

As RuPaul’s Drag Race comes to the UK, two of its judges discuss homophobia, the celebrity they first fancied – and why today’s comedy audiences want more kindness

How do you think you would do if you were contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race?
Graham Norton: Poorly.
Alan Carr: Before I started dressing up as women in sketches, I thought: “I bet because I’m not a looker as a man, I’m one of those ones that, when you put on the make up, I am quite something – quite stunning.” And no. It just doesn’t translate.

I’ve seen the first episode of your show and it is a lot more messy and anarchic than the US version.
Alan: Drag queens in the UK, they survive it all – there’s a hen party, a stag party, people throwing beer bottles. They work not on their heels, but on their wits.
Graham: Even the ones that aren’t funny are funny. Suddenly, you realise how unfunny some of the American ones are.

Do you think the UK version might get lost in translation?
Graham: Funny is funny, I think.
Alan: I sort of hope it does get a little bit lost. I had to go in and tell RuPaul who Kim Woodburn [the TV personality and cleaner] is. How can you explain to Americans who Kim Woodburn is? It’s just nice, for once in my life, to not be the campest one in the room.

Do you ever find that you check yourselves in public any more – that you worry about people recognising that you’re gay?
Alan: I give up with all that. I give up.
Graham: But I understand it. I mean, sometimes you do, because if you feel like someone’s gonna punch you, then yes, you do. Still, now, you know. It’s funny when people talk about coming out, because you want to say to them: it never ends. You think you come out and that’s the end of it. No. Because then it’s the first nice day of the year and the cab driver says something about “Oh, I love the summer, you know, they’ve all got their tits out,” and you’re like: is this a moment? Is this worth my time? Do I reveal myself?

Do you still encounter a loathing of camp among some “straight-acting” gay men?
Graham: I think you do in that, still, straight acting is an ideal. And that’s just part of our sexuality. We’re all prone to that. I remember seeing a BBC Three thing about young gays down in Brighton, and my name came up, and the idea of being me was just horrific to them. And it broke my heart, because they were me. I just thought: “But you are little mes, you are the fey, camp ones.”
Alan: I say to Graham, do you remember when we used to get slagged off by the snooty gays, you know: “Oh, camp – is that really how gay men should be portrayed?’ I mean, look at what’s come since, love. We’re like Vin Diesel and Sylvester Stallone, compared with that. Camp is different things to different people. Did you ever watch Dynasty? What about when the son came out as gay and had a fight? That, to me, was the stirring.
Graham: No, my stirring was Alain Delon in The Yellow Rolls-Royce. He took his shirt off. And I remember trying to discuss with a boy at school how lovely his back was.

How did he respond?
Graham: “Well, it was a nice car!”

Alan Carr, Michelle Visage, Graham Norton, judges of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK season one, with contestants.

Bring it on … Alan Carr, Michelle Visage, Graham Norton, judges of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK season one, with contestants.
Photograph: James Spawforth/BBC

You’re both known as chat show hosts. Who have been your worst and best guests?
Alan: I’m not going down that road. I mean, booking for a chat show is – when you are on Channel 4 and you’re not Graham Norton – it is pulling teeth. [Turns to Graham] One time you had David Beckham on, just as an amuse-bouche. He just came out for 10 minutes and then went away! And I’m like: “Oh no, which reality star am I talking to today?”
Graham: But at Channel 4 when we started we had exactly the same thing. For that audience you have to push things further and it’s ruder and I think publicists get really nervous. So actually on BBC One where it’s nice, everything’s lovely, it’s much easier to welcome people on.
Alan: Towards the end of Chatty Man I just found that they wanted more vitriol. Then the monologue at the end was becoming a nightmare. I mean, you would go to a function and you would be like: “Oh my God, Simon Cowell is coming along in his built-up shoes.” You can’t keep pushing the envelope, because socially you become a pariah. And the people you slag off in the monologues, when you meet them, they’re actually quite lovely. And it’s the people you like who are the complete arseholes.

Do you think comedians should be worried about cancel culture [where someone is called out or boycotted online]?
Alan: It’s a nightmare. I just feel that if standup comedy disappears, where do you go ... I don’t know. Let me have a think about this. It does wind me up.
Graham: I’m in two minds about it. On the one hand, I think it’s annoying that you’re being told what to say … But funny continues – you just have to be slightly cleverer about what you’re funny about. When alternative comedy began, it was saying, OK, Bernard Manning’s act: that doesn’t exist any more. And I think we have started to drift back to Bernard Manning. People are using really lazy targets in a kind of “look at us, we can say anything” way. I think there’s nothing fearless about soft targets. It’s actually the opposite of fearless. You’re picking on people who don’t have a defence, who don’t have a voice.

Graham, do you ever miss the camp smuttiness of your old Channel 4 show, So Graham Norton?
Graham: I don’t. Because [that kind of thing is] still on the telly, if you want that. It’s there. But happily, it’s not being presented by a 56-year-old man. Because I think that it was already getting quite dodgy by the time I stopped doing it, in my 40s. And it just becomes unseemly.

Alan Carr and Graham Norton. London. Photograph by David Levene 18/9/19
‘You’ve already broken so many rules just to get on stage. It gives you a freedom and there’s something dangerous about drag still, and I enjoy that’ … Alan Carr and Graham Norton. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

What do you mean by dodgy?
Graham: I think it’s unseemly for someone of a certain age to be doing all of that. I still find it funny, but not as funny as I did. Things shock me now that wouldn’t have shocked me when I was 25. I’m a bit like [sharp intake of breath] he said “cunt” – twice! Maybe I have become more sensitive.
I always think it’s weird when people talk about jokes and what you can do, or “you can’t say anything now”. And it’s like, the only people stopping you are your audience. They decide what’s funny and what’s not funny. There isn’t some weird comedy police. If I came out in front of my audience on a Thursday night and did some of those jokes we did [on So Graham Norton], the audience would just look ashen. And they wouldn’t like it. It is partly, I think, because of Twitter and things now, where there’s so much bile and viciousness out there that people don’t want that in their entertainment.

Did you see the online backlash against drag queen Baga Chipz when she was announced as a contestant on UK Drag Race? It was because of an old article in which she said it was OK for gay people to vote Tory in the 2017 general election.
Alan: Well, that’s her opinion, isn’t it? It’s an opinion. It’s dangerous when you start telling people they can’t have an opinion on something. And, you know, you don’t cancel someone, you engage with someone. That’s the problem. I think that’s why I was struggling with the cancelling thing. Because it doesn’t actually cancel – if anything it gives people more column inches. Doesn’t anyone make any mistakes any more?
Graham: Apparently, they do.
Alan: It sounds like I work at Hallmark, but every day is a journey and you get better and that’s the whole point of life.
Graham: Try working at the BBC. Easy for you to say, Mr ITV over there. Going back to the comedy, I think there is something about drag that gives performers licence to do stuff. Every performer that gets on stage has a persona, you’re never truly yourself – it doesn’t matter who you are. You’re putting something on, but I think, because in drag you are hidden, you can say and do things and an audience will allow you to do them. Like [US drag queen] Bianca Del Rio does material that no one else is doing – Joan Rivers type stuff. A proper insult comic. And that isn’t that popular right now. But she’s getting away with it.

It does seem that with drag queens the bar for what is deemed acceptable is slightly lower.
Alan: Because you’re otherworldly: your rules don’t apply to this world.
Graham: You’ve already broken so many rules just to get on stage. It gives you a freedom and there’s something dangerous about drag still, and I enjoy that.

Do you think things are getting worse for LGBT people in Britain?
Graham: Well, they’re certainly repetitive. Why does anyone study history? Why do we bother?
Alan: The one thing you do learn from history is that you don’t learn from history. It’s becoming a bit of a minefield – just the semantics and the language. I feel as if we can’t really get to the problems, because we have to tiptoe through this minefield of language. It would be nice just to get it all out on the table and discuss, but I think sometimes social media can blur all that.
Graham: Twitter, I think, must destroy some young gays. If you stick your head above the parapet and you retweet the wrong thing, or you comment on the wrong thing, suddenly you must think the world is so ugly, and so horrible. And I think that’s properly dangerous. Because when you’re a kid, the one thing you don’t know is that this is just going to blow over. And even though people are saying they want to rip your head off and shit down your throat, they’re never going to say boo to you if they see you in the street.

Alan, I read somewhere that you live on a farm with Julian Clary and Paul O’Grady. Is that true?
Alan: No! I mean it sounds like the most amazing sitcom, but yeah, it’s been said that I live on a farm with Paul O’Grady and Julian Clary, and I would love it to be true, but it’s not. I don’t know where that came from.
Graham: But you do farm, don’t you?
Alan: Well, I just mince around in some wellies [on his husband, Paul’s farm]. I am so crap down there, because it’s all shit and death. You see an animal on it’s side and you’re like: “Please be a narcoleptic, please don’t be dying, please be having a kip.” I can’t bear it.

So there’s no chance of you doing a farming show on telly?
Alan: No. Listen, I’ve had the phone calls. I know how they want me – they want me pulling a cow’s teat, screaming “Ah! Ah!” [mimes milking a cow]. They want another Rebecca Loos.

So, just to bring it back to drag
Graham: Speaking of death and shit.

Do you think drag is here to stay in mainstream culture or is it just having a moment?
Graham: When Drag Race started, drag was nobody’s first choice. Something had happened in your life. You failed at something else. Or you were hiding from something or there was some story before you got to the moment where you were dressed as a woman, lip syncing. I think that’s changed. There are now children growing up thinking: “I want to be a drag queen.”
Alan: It will never go away. I mean, listen, you know, in the Bible – obviously I haven’t read it for ages …
Graham: Well, we didn’t expect this, did we! We did not see this coming.
Alan: Wasn’t there something in the Bible about how [men] should never wear women’s clothes or the other sex’s clothes, what was that all about? There’s something about transvestism and drag in the Bible, I swear it. So it’s been around for ages. I think it will be around for ever because it is a state of mind. There’s a male energy and a female energy and I think you get it in performers like Prince, Michael Jackson, George Michael, David Bowie – there is something magnetic in that fight between male and female going on before your eyes. And I feel in good drag you can’t take your eyes off of it.
Graham: That is really true.
Alan: That’s actually deep. But cut out the Bible bit. I think we all knew I was out of my depth.
Graham: I hope drag is here to stay because I really enjoy it. Instagram drag may go away – the idea of boys sitting in their bedrooms painting their faces. But actual drag performers – ‘It’s midnight ladies and gentlemen, please welcome …” – that’s going to go on for ever.

RuPaul’s Drag Race UK starts on BBC Three on 3 October at 8pm and will be exclusively available on BBC iPlayer


Chris Godfrey

The GuardianTramp

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