DENIS NORDEN, CREATOR OF THE OUTTAKES BLOOPER SHOW
(Adapted from an article in Saga magazine (U.K.), Writer Edna Tromans
Photographer David Steen. SAGA Publishing Ltd. SAGA Building, Middelburg Square, Folkestone, Kent.
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.
HIS PARTNERSHIP WITH FRANK MUIR
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
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
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
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
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.
HIS CREATION OF THE OUTTAKES SHOW
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
"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
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