Interview: Denis Norden

By Gerald Jacobs, October 3, 2008

Denis Norden is best known as the host of a TV out-takes show. But he made his name as one of the best scriptwriters of his generation.

Shortly after the Second World War, Denis Norden was employed by the Hyman Zahl Variety Agency. In his new book, Clips from a Life, Norden recalls the legendary wartime exploits of one of Zahl's artists, a comedian called Harry, who gave many performances in dangerous circumstances at Dover when it was under attack from German guns and aircraft.

While shells and bombs rained down around the theatre, Harry got the audiences inside singing and laughing. After the war, however, it was Harry's act that bombed. Disconsolate, he came into the office wondering why the goodwill he had amassed had vanished so quickly. "What it amounts to, Harry," Hymie Zahl told him, "is that you are an artist who is only at his best during heavy shelling."

It is a story that, as a later breed of humorist would put it, is so Denis Norden, demonstrating his acute sensitivity to the comedy, absurdity and vulnerability of the human condition - not to mention the potency of language.

Sadly, for a man who has "always been governed and motivated by books", and for more than six decades earned a living from his exceptional verbal powers, Norden is, at 86, suffering from macular degeneration, an eye disease associated with ageing.

"I can't read any more," he reveals. "After all my life of never going to sleep without a book." This has not stopped him from coming in every day to his West End office, or from compiling the recollections and anecdotes that, in collaboration with his editor Louise Haines, he has moulded into autobiographical shape in Clips from a Life.

On the other hand, it has stopped him from watching television. "I can't see much of the screen," he says, "but I don't miss much. It's astonishing how little of television is actually visual. I prefer radio to television. Radio is a dialogue; television is a monologue. In radio, you have to interact - they put the words in your head, you build the pictures in your mind. To that extent, it is more engaging than television."

In such matters, Norden's is an opinion to respect. He has written - and indeed performed and commissioned - a wealth of comedy in both mediums. Memorably, he forged with the late Frank Muir one of British comedy's most creative teams, producing scripts for classics like Take It From Here (radio) and Whack-o! (TV) and appearing with Muir on My Word and My Music (radio and TV). On his own, of course, Norden fronted the popular parade of televisual blips and boobs, It'll Be Alright On The Night, for almost 30 years until 2006.

Norden has also written for the big screen, and the 1968 screenplay that he wrote with Melvin Frank and Sheldon Keller for the film Buona Sera, Mrs Campbell was nominated for an Oscar. This starred Gina Lollobrigida as the mother of a daughter with three possible fathers (a plot echoed in the current movie musical smash, Mamma Mia!). Despite Buona Sera having "some bits that were funny", Norden's
description of his film career is characteristically modest - and punning. "I've written not milestones of cinema, but millstones."

But long before he worked in cinema, Denis Norden worked in cinemas. When he left City of London School (where author Kingsley Amis was a contemporary), he trained as a manager for the Hyams brothers, owners of such fabulous London picture palaces as the Gaumont State, Kilburn, and the Trocadero, Elephant and Castle, where double-features were augmented by live stage shows in stunningly opulent surroundings.

"The Hyams brothers - Mister Phil, Mister Mick and Mister Sid - were great innovators," Norden recalls. "In the war years, there was no television, no computers; people sat in their front rooms in the darkness of the blackout, with the Blitz raging outside. They went to the cinema in a mood quite different to today. At the time, the great majority of homes were not warm - it has become a cliché to recall waking up in the morning to find the glass of water on your bedside table frozen. But the cinemas were warm. Even the loos were luxurious, and the water, when you washed your hands, was hot!

"And the Hyams brothers didn't build their cinemas in the centre of town. I remember when I was assistant manager at the Trocadero, there were two local gangs, the Elephant Boys and the Elephant Heads. I replaced an assistant manager who'd had his face slashed. When I went to the Tube station to go home, I had an escort of commissionaires carrying wooden rollers from inside the roller towels. You can imagine what my parents thought of this..."

Home in those days for Denis Norden was Golders Green - as it is now. But he was born and brought up in Hackney.

"My father's side had been here for generations, in the East End," he says. "My grandparents on my mother's side came from Poland. My father made bridal dresses, which he sold wholesale, and always wanted me to join him. He looked upon what I did as precarious and frivolous - except that he loved it when my name was in the papers."

Not on every occasion, though. When Norden was asked by the Evening Standard's literary editor to review Gershon Legman's massive volume, The Rationale of the Dirty Joke: An Analysis of Sexual Humour, the excited and proud reviewer snapped up a dozen copies of the paper and took a few of them to his parents. While his mother just checked to see that her son's name had been prominently printed before returning to her cooking, "my father... shook his head and, indicating the book's title, sighed: ‘So this is what you're now the big expert on?'"

Before City of London, the young Denis went to Craven Park School in Stamford Hill. "This was in the 1920s and '30s, when it was quite a poverty-stricken area. Some boys didn't come to school every day because they shared boots. It was a very good school. Lots of boys got scholarships - which I did to City of London. We had regular Jews-versus-Christians fights, without any animosity somehow. On Saturdays, I was dragged by my father to shul in the morning and to watch Spurs in the afternoon, neither of which I did with great enthusiasm."

The schoolboy Norden preferred sonnets to soccer and learnt the whole of Hamlet by heart "as well as fully half of Palgrave's Golden Treasury". But he was not destined to sharpen such literary tastes by university study. Norden was 17 and working for the Hyams brothers when war broke out. In three years, he would serve abroad in the RAF with the likes of Eric Sykes and Bill Fraser, write shows to entertain the troops, and become consumed with comedy.

"Radio comedy came into its own during the war, through Ted Kavanagh, writer of It's That Man Again, starring Tommy Handley. There wasn't a person in Britain who didn't listen to Itma. But if you listen to the programmes today, they sound terribly weak. They are a supreme example of comedy fitting its time. It really did look as though we were going to lose the war. There was no good news on any front. Itma cheered people up. And in the RAF we used to listen to the Jack Benny Show and the Bob Hope Show broadcast through American Forces Network speakers on the drill ground.

"So when a lot of us - people like Bob Monkhouse and Dickie Murdoch - came out of the forces, this was something we knew and we wanted to have a go at it. Frank Muir had been in the RAF in Iceland, where he too had written for the servicemen. Bob Monkhouse, Galton and Simpson, Spike Milligan and I all started around the same time with an enormous advantage: working to an audience all of whom had shared an awful, common experience - the war.

"This encompassed bombing, people dying, service life, military drill and so on. They had the same points of reference, shared allusions. It was the very opposite of a multicultural society. The purpose of our comedy was not to offer human insights, satire, character, but just to make people feel better."

Muir and Norden were introduced by Charles Maxwell, the producer of Take It From Here. It was a perfect partnership. The two, tall (Muir was six-foot-four, Norden only slightly shorter) men had cut their writing teeth in similar wartime circumstances, had a fairly identical sense of humour, and shared a love of - and facility with - words.

The one difference was that, while Denis was very Jewish, Frank was decidedly not. Indeed, he epitomised middle-class Englishness. This became most apparent when the pair went to America to work with Jack Benny and other great names. Mel Brooks captured the general sense of incongruity when he said to Muir: "You're six-feet-four, not Jewish, and you're a comedy writer?"

Norden has a particularly fond memory of the contrast from the occasion when he and another Jewish writer, Sid Colin, took Frank Muir to a Jewish restaurant in the West End.

"It had what was then a typical Jewish waiter, rude and with half the menu all over the lapels of his jacket. Sid and I both said we would start with chopped liver. Frank asked, ‘What's chopped liver?' and Sid explained that it was a form of chicken-liver paté. The waiter comes back and Frank says, ‘I'll have the chicken-liver paté'. And the waiter says: ‘With schmaltz?' "

There is a Jewish connection, too, to the emergence of It'll Be Alright On The Night, in the shape of Michael Grade, at the time head of entertainment at London Weekend Television. Norden and a producer named Paul Smith came up with the idea for the programme over a cup of tea in the LWT canteen and, there and then, phoned Grade to make an appointment to suggest it as a possibility. "Come up now," Grade told them. Norden relates the subsequent exchange in Grade's office in Clips from a Life. Norden: "What do you think about an entire programme of out-takes?" Grade: "How soon can you let me have it?"

"We left his office half-an-hour later with a recording date and a budget. Michael had even suggested a title which, Paul and I agreed on the way down, wasn't that hot, but seeing he had been so accommodating, it might be best to go with it. We went with it for 29 years."

Clips from a Life will be published on October 6 by Fourth Estate at £18.99


Born: February 6 1922, Hackney, East London

Family: Wife Avril; two children

Career highlights: Long-running ITV show It'll be Alright on the Night, and his writing partnership with Frank Muir

Favourite of his own shows: The TV programme, Looks Familiar. "I met so many of the Hollywood stars I knew from my days working in cinemas. I liked the notion of presenting nostalgia without regret: not as an era that was better - simply different"

On It'll Be Alright On The Night: (Now back on TV presented by Griff Rhys-Jones). "Since I stopped, YouTube has happened. We could not show any clip without it being passed for copyright, paying the actor, sometimes the writer or director, and we often had very good clips we couldn't show. No such worries now"

On his Jewishness: "I am non-observant, though the stomach will be the last thing to go"

Last updated: 2:59pm, August 28 2014