Denis Norden's clip art is a bit of all right
Denis Norden s new book explains that comedy must not only be funny, it should also be fun, writes Katie Masters There are 59 steep, narrow, steps up to Denis Norden s fourth-floor Soho office. He might be 86 but he s fit – he goes up and down those st
Denis Norden's new book explains that comedy must not only be funny,
it should also be fun, writes Katie Masters
There are 59 steep, narrow, steps up to Denis Norden's fourth-floor Soho office. He might be 86 but he's fit - he goes up and down those stairs several times a day when he's there, as he has been regularly over the last year, writing his memoirs - Clips from a Life.
As the title suggests, the book isn't a conventional autobiography, complete with a sustained narrative that takes you from Norden the schoolboy to Norden the man. It's a collection of stand-alone memories, almost exclusively from his working life, ordered, in a loose way, chronologically.
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It's very easy to read and - as you'd expect from the man dubbed The Prince of Gentle Wit - gently funny.
"Am I called that?!" Norden says, when I ask him what he thinks of his soubriquet. "Oh dear! Who's the Princess?"
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He's chuckling as he says it. It's a sound that's never far away when talking to Norden. He's 6'3 (give a quarter of an inch), broad-shouldered in his brown, tweedy jacket and could easily seem imposing. But he doesn't. He seems avuncular. He spends most of the interview leaning back in his chair, often closing his eyes, in a pose reminiscent of the old British Rail "relax" adverts, when the Penguin on the logo of a passenger's book slides down for a restful kip.
He says he wanted to make the book about his working life for two reasons. One, he feels it's the most interesting thing about him. Two, after fourteen years interviewing stars with autobiographies to promote (on the Thames Television series Looks Familiar) he says he's had "a surfeit of warm and oozing chronicles of funny uncles and loveable kids".
So there's barely a mention of his wife Avril, who he married in 1943: "We met through her brother. We were at school together and I was a prefect. I gave him a hard time. I can't remember the details but I was pretty strict. And I must have run into her later...maybe at a school dance. Golly, I shall get into trouble if you reveal that I can't remember how we met. I rescued her from a runaway horse."
There's little on their two children, three grandchildren or two great-grandchildren, although the book is dedicated to the latter. And there's nothing on his home in Hampstead or what he does outside work. ("I read. All my life my only, only hobby has been reading".)
"What I wanted to avoid," Norden says, returning to his memoirs, "was becoming one of those people who say things like, 'I like to feel that during the course of my life I have progressed as a performer, but more importantly, as a human being. All I want to do is make a difference.' That's never been an ambition at all, to make a difference."
Neither did he ever have a burning ambition to be famous. Norden's teen dream was to become a foreign correspondent (a desire fuelled solely by a belief that, as such, he could don a glamorous belted raincoat, complete with epaulettes).
'It was the glamour," Norden nods. "I can't claim any idealistic feelings."
So in 1938, aged 16, he hatched a plan to head to Spain and report on the course of the Civil War. His parents put the kibosh on that. They wanted their son to go on from his scholarship to the City of London School, where he was a friend of Kingsley Amis - "I kick myself that I never realised that here was one of England's greatest novelists in the making. To me he was just a veal-faced young guy who tried to wriggle out of playing games, like I did" - to university, and then into his father's bridalwear business.
"But in a fit of pique I left school and decided to write screenplays instead. I think I was going through a Hemingway period."
His first entry into the glitzy world of entertainment wasn't, however, courtesy of Hollywood. It was at Kilburn's Gaumont State Cinema, where he was instructed to look after the boilers. By 1940, before he was packed off into the RAF and World War II, he'd become Assistant Manager at the Trocadero, Elephant & Castle.
In those days cinema provided not only the feature films, but also additional entertainment. One variety of that was a series of stills, with accompanying captions. Norden started writing the captions, and they made the audience laugh.
A future path was being laid.
"That feeling I got from realising that hundreds of people were laughing at something I'd made up was so enjoyable, I sort of assumed that life."
After the war Norden went on to write scripts for comedians, then to write shows alongside Frank Muir and finally, to write and present his own shows.
"In those days comedy had only one purpose. That was to make people who listened more cheerful at the end of the half-hour than they were at the beginning of it. To me it was summed up by [American entertainer] Sammy Davis. He was an eyeopener the first time I saw him perform at the Pigalle in Jermyn Street. I suddenly realised that here was somebody who would cut his jugular in front of you if that would put you in a better frame of mind and give you a sense of exaltation. But nowadays the desire to amuse isn't always enough. You're driven to things like offering insights on the human condition and satirising politics and so on. I won't say that never occurred to us, but we didn't feel it was part of our job."
He says it's not the level of skill that has changed, citing Paul Whitehouse and Paul Merton as comedians who are as adept as anyone he's ever known, and saying Andy Hamilton's writing is an object lesson in comedy. But...
"I watch today's shows, The Office, Green Wing, The Fast Show, and I find them all immensely skilful, but there's a little part of me that says they're funny, but not fun."
Then he stops.
"It's a terrible thing," he says. "When you talk about comedy you can feel yourself getting pompous."
Norden says it's impossible to articulate just what the shift in comedic values is, but he seems to be feeling his way towards the idea that today's humour is sharper, perhaps crueller, than it used to be.
His gift has always been for sharing a sense of fallibility - for laughing with, rather than laughing at.
Even as the presenter of It'll Be Alright on the Night he was insistent on showing clips of his own cock-ups, including the famous one where a sticky mint fell accidentally out of his mouth, and adhered, unnoticed, to his groin.
"I never wanted to be a presenter," he says. "I always think of myself as a writer. But I slid into television via appearing on what were, in the main, rather inane panel games.
"I was always introverted. Being in front of the camera or in front of the public left my stomach knotted up to the extent that at the end of the show I could never remember how it had gone. I always had to ask the producer, 'Did it work?'
"Some of them had the bad grace to be truthful."
Denis Norden, Clips from a Life is published by Harper Collins, £18.99