Denis Norden

(Adapted from an article in Saga magazine (U.K.), Writer Edna Tromans Photographer David Steen. SAGA Publishing Ltd. SAGA Building, Middelburg Square, Folkestone, Kent. CT20 1AZ.)

Denis Norden, like his old writing partner Frank Muir, is a marvellous wit and raconteur. I have enjoyed listening to him on the radio for forty years, and hope he can go on producing laughs for a long, long time.


Denis Norden and Frank Muir met in 1947, at a time when Muir was providing material for an ex-airman named Jimmy Edwards and when Denis was working with a client called Dick Bentley. Under the tutelage of the great master of comedy, the late Ted Kavanagh, they produced more than 300 programmes for Take it From Here, one of the most successful series of its kind. It lasted 12 years and created such indelible characters as The Glums and Mavis of whom Dick Bentley would say, "How wonderful you look in that chiffon blouse with its tantalising glimpse of vest."

Muir and Norden were always in demand. Their comedy talent was as towering as their height: 6ft 6in in Muir's case while Denis Norden is 6ft 3in. They wrote for Bernard Braden and Peter Ustinov, and, again with Jimmy Edwards, had a hit TV series in Whacko.

Denis Norden and Frank Muir had a very easy relationship and talked perhaps two or three times a week after their working partnership ended. More often when Frank Muir, who was writing his autobiography (A Kentish Lad), had been regularly fact-checking with his old partner about so many events which they shared.

Not that it helped. (At the time of this interview, Frank was still alive so Denis refers to him in the present tense):

"Our recollections of events are quite different," says Denis. "It's like your children talking about holidays, you find they have a quite different memory of it from you. Perhaps everything is not how it is, but how it's remembered."

Their writing partnership came to an end when Frank Muir moved into a full-time executive role with BBC Light Entertainment.

"Frank liked administrative work and was good at it," says Denis. "I didn't enjoy it and was bad at it. Frank lifted BBC Light Entertainment comedy shows and made them pre-eminent, then he went on to become one of the founders of London Weekend Television. It was a supremely logical separation but the world treated it like a divorce."

People ignored his long years of marriage, his happy family life in north-west London with his wife Avril, a woman with as droll a sense of humour as his own; their two grown children, Nick, an architect and his strikingly attractive daughter Maggie (mother of granddaughter Katy) who has turned from a career in radio to a developing role in media education -- it was the breakup of his partnership with Frank that aroused the sad shaking of heads up and down the land. "It was almost like 'Who's doing your laundry now?' " Denis says.


Suddenly, working without a partner introduced a different discipline.

"Writing in tandem is one thing," he says. "There is an inarticulated rationale that if two of you think a line is funny then by the law of averages other people will. And when you're on your own there is that terrifying possibility that you may be the only person on the planet who thinks it's funny - and you have no way of finding out.

"Well, I did the most shameful things. In those days I used to have a secretary working in an office down the corridor from me and I would give the pages to her and then creep back and listen outside the door hoping to hear chuckles - even the sound of her lips curving upwards which of course was not easy," He smiles. "Then after that came word processors and it's hard to make those laugh."


Denis Norden grew up in London's Hackney of the Thirties. Thin, lanky and studious-looking, he became a cinema manager and also ran a variety theatre for a time. He still regards variety as the most successful form of family entertainment. "In my time," he says, "I've seen radio, variety, revue, pretty well all of it, and of all of them, I have the greatest regard for variety as family entertainment. Comedians had to get on and establish themselves in seven minutes, which is quite different from today's comedy clubs where they do 30 minutes to a crowd of drunks."

He started writing for troop shows when he was in the RAF. When he came out he set up a variety agency and supplied material for as many as 163 comedians, mainly for radio acts. "I used to like writing for comedians - I enjoyed the challenge of making other people funny. And when you actually did something with the material the comedian didn't think he could do - when you'd said 'Trust me' and he went on to get his laugh, then you felt you'd created a person.

"The comedians all finished their acts with a song. They would get a certain amount of money from the song publishers and would use that money to pay the writers. None of them paid very much for their comedy material, but it all added up."

It was an arduous learning period but one that did a great deal to prepare him for his eventual successful writing partnership with Frank Muir.


Time was when an actor preferred to forget his embarrassing fluffs or lapses of memory on a film set. It was enough that the outtakes of the day were junked, never to be seen again. But that was before Denis Norden launched his successful, 20-year-long reign of error with It'll be Alright On The Night since when those catastrophic clips have come to gain a certain cachet all of their own.

Not only that. For actors who are still travelling blindfolded along that long rocky path to screen stardom, with no sign of an audition, yet alone another pay cheque in sight, it's cheerful news that they stand to make as much again from the TV show as they did from the original movie.

It gives a whole new meaning to the practice of profiting from your mistakes.

"Everyone who appears in a scene gets paid," says Denis who, within a few months, will be stepping forward in that charming, diffident way of his to host the 21st anniversary of It'll Be Alright On The Night. "The only people excluded from this are politicians and royal figures who place themselves at risk by being in the public eye - but if an actor makes a mistake and it gets into an outtake he will get paid wherever it is shown throughout the world. There can be repeat fees. With the paradoxical result that he will get paid more for not doing it right than he would if he had done it right.

"In fact," he says, expanding on the theme, "it's like running a farm where the manure is worth more than the cattle."

He masterminds the show from a flat-cum-office in the centre of Soho - 35 steps up from a narrow front doorway with an unmarked bell - an anonymous doorbell that seems to arouse the curiosity of the odd passer-by who occasionally wheezes through the intercom into Denis's ear: "Is the young lady in?"

Since its original inception in 1977 It'll Be Alright has been adapted for many different markets throughout the world. America, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy - even Russia - have all picked it up and put their own spin on it.

And with all the trading of outtakes that goes on between them, the show has given rise to a new kind of currency. "As we are the Daddy of them all," he says, "we have established a hard currency of trading so we can say, 'You can have one of our clips for four of yours -- ' so we have now established this kind of hard and soft currency in outtakes. You could say it's the only real hard currency left in the world."

It was while he and production executive Paul Smith were kicking around ideas over a cup of tea in London Weekend's canteen one day that Denis first came up with the notion of making a show out of outtakes. A quick phone call to Michael Grade, then Head of Programmes and in no time they were in his office. Grade listened thoughtfully, scribbled a few notes on a pad and said without hesitation, "How quickly can I have it?"

Before the afternoon was done - things could really move in those days - a handshake had sealed the bargain and the show was in the schedules. "I defy anyone to get a decision that quickly these days," says Denis Norden. "Now it would have to go through layers of accountants, then to Network Centre, then you might be given a date 18 months ahead if you were lucky."

They were on air as soon as they could get it get it together. And getting it together in those early days of the show meant convincing famous figures of TV and movies that they were not losing credibility if they were seen to be fallible and could behave like mere mortals, blowing their lines.

"In those early planning stages we did have a proviso," says Denis. "If the laughter of the audience was malicious we wouldn't show it. I felt particularly strongly about that because one of the first clips we showed was of Peter Sellers in scenes from his Pink Panther films. The outtakes were very funny but the producers wouldn't allow us to show them. Since Peter was a very old friend - we'd often worked together over the years - I rang him up and asked him if there was anything we could do to persuade them. He said, 'I'm not even going to try. You put them out and I'll carry the can.' But knowing that, I was worried how they would be received."

He needn't have been concerned. From the start it was clear that audiences found it endearing to see the fallible side of the famous. Their laughter was affectionate and without malice. And more than once Denis's own blunders have been exposed on the show, the most celebrated one perhaps being his Mintoes ad. During filming the sweet popped out of Denis's mouth and stuck to the crotch of his trousers. As long as there's a laugh at the end of it, he gets as much satisfaction from being the butt of the joke as being the choreographer of other people's mishaps. He chooses every outtake that goes into the show, shapes it, writes it and knits it together. And although he finds it harder all the time to come up with fresh material, he is not growing tired of it. "I have a sense people get a laugh out of it and there's no shame in helping people forget the gloom," he says.

Unlike many people in the comedy business who often prove to be morose and melancholy in company, Denis is as quick to laugh at another's humour as he is to provoke laughter. He claims not to be an overly sociable human being - preferring the ease and relaxation of his close family circle to more formal occasions - and shares the same pleasure for word games as his lively 10-year old granddaughter Katy, with whom he spends a great deal of his spare time. Perhaps it's in the genes: Katy is showing the same sense of appreciation for the rhythm and humour in words as he did himself when he was growing up.

He still derives great amusement from the oddity of certain words and pores over such questions as why some words are funny and others are not. Why does one day of the week raise a laugh and another not? Once when praising a fellow comedy writer Denis wrote, "It's customary to say, when pressured, 'Do you want it good or want it Tuesday?' With Barry Cryer you got it good, and you got it Tuesday." For some reason," says Denis, "they changed that line to read... 'and you got it Monday.' I don't know why it doesn't work, but it doesn't. Tuesday is funny, Monday isn't. And if you can offer an explanation as to why it doesn't work then you've got to the whole root of comedy."

Frank Muir