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The Escape Plan at The Old Electric Henry Normal interview : Jazz Clubs, Pulp and Caroline Aherne

Beyond the lockdowns, Normal service resumes – in conversation with Henry Normal by Malcolm Wyatt. A man synonymous with Mrs Merton, Pulp and Jazz Clubs arrives at The Old Electric Friday 13th May 2022.

It’s fair to say Henry Normal kept himself busy over the 18 months when the world seemed to stand still, a spell that for this Nottingham-born BAFTA award-winner included publication of two new poetry collections.
After more than 30 years making acclaimed TV and film, writer and producer Henry – real name Peter Carroll – has returned to his love of poetry, new live tour The Escape Plan currently doing the rounds. 

Henry, who turned 65 last summer, draws on more than 40 years of work in his live show, sharing tales, jokes and poems from his Audio and Radio Industry Awards (ARIA) nominated BBC Radio 4 series, each episode exploring a different theme, the next – A Normal Ageing – airing in early November. And then there are those 10 poetry books, the latest of which, The Beauty Within Shadow and Distance Between Clouds, were written during the COVID-19 pandemic, covering many aspects of lockdown, life and love, with plenty of that distinctive humour.

Henry’s poetry renaissance was inspired by his experiences bringing up his autistic son Johnny, something central to the live show and his latest books, the result a funny and moving collection of work on the page and the stage, about life and family. 

There have also been weekly online poetry sessions via his New Poetry Society, Henry joined each week by guest poets for conversation and verse. Two poets, one hour, every week, live via Zoom, hosted by the Inspire library programme and a poetry festival he founded in his native Nottingham.
You’ll probably know most of this, but Henry received his special BAFTA for services to television in June 2017, his output including some of the nation’s best-loved programmes, co-writing and script-editing credits including, with Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash, The Royle Family, The Mrs Merton Show and spin-off Mrs Merton and Malcolm, and with Steve Coogan, Paul and Pauline Calf Video Diaries, Coogan’s Run, Tony Ferrino, Doctor Terrible, all three of Steve’s live tours and the film The Parole Officer. 

And as co-founder/MD of Baby Cow Productions, set up with Steve in 1999, he produced and script-edited among others Gavin and Stacey, Alan Partridge, Moone Boy, Uncle, The Mighty Boosh, Nighty Night, I Believe in Miracles, Marion and Geoff, Red Dwarf, Hunderby, Camping, and Oscar-nominated film Philomena, before stepping down in 2016. 

Prior to all that though, there was his performance poetry, touring with the likes of pre-fame Pulp, stand-up stars such as Linda Smith, and literary giants, including Seamus Heaney, travelling from Helsinki to New York via factories, schools, pop concerts, jazz clubs, folk clubs and festivals. And now it seems he’s returned to that world. 

Is that some masochistic tendency in him, I asked, for all his success in writing, to all intents and purposes staying out of the limelight while close friends and colleagues down the years like Steve Coogan and Caroline Aherne courted it, returning to the loneliness of the stage, cruising the UK in a new 90-minute live show? 

“Ah, well, I like a challenge! There’s no point in just doing the easy thing all your life. I started off as a poet. You can’t make a lot of money as a poet. You can just about scrape a living, but I got bamboozled by the bright lights of comedy and television. It’s akin to my 40 years in the desert.” 

You’re not just happy dusting down your BAFTA behind closed doors? 

“D’you know, that wanes after a couple of days. I’ve always been in the communication business, one way and another, and the great thing about poetry is that it’s a communication of perception, and the way I view the world gets communicated to another person. The great things is, with a film you may have 200 to 300 people working on it, so it gets pulled this way and that. But with a poem, it’s essentially just me and you, it’s the purest form of communication in a rhythm sense.” 

And not just one, but two new poetry collections out there. The Beauty Within Shadow (written between August 2019 and June 2020, its poetry concerned with ‘the balancing of darkness and light in our everyday lives, the search for an understanding of pain and sorrow, and the processing of other thoughts we’d usually avoid by filling our days with mindless distractions’) and follow-up The Distance Between Clouds (written between June 2020 and March 2021, ‘a collection of poetry about joy, positivity and optimism, before I die unloved and forgotten’) making it 10 poetry books in total. 

“I think so, yeah. I wrote one going into the lockdown because it was a strange, new adventure. We’d done so much running around that the idea of standing still and exploring your family, ourselves, your home and your space, well, what’s happened over the last year and a half is that we’ve explored that space deeper than before, and the first book I wrote was called The Beauty Within Shadow. Because we are within the shadow of this awful pandemic, but there’s still beauty to be found.” 

The first year or so of my features in that period often touched on interviewees asking, ‘what happens next?’, but now it seems to be more about reflecting back on that period. For a while we saw a collective responsibility, Spirit of the Blitz positivity, and acknowledgement of those who were truly important, from community and family to health and care workers. But then there was the ‘let the bodies pile high’ mentality, Dominic Cummings test-driving his eyesight, and so on, that belief seemingly compromised.   

“I think the trouble is we don’t know what the future is. We never know, but it seems our muscle memory has had a bit of a jolt, so even something like going to the post office, you’ve got to remember what the social norms are for that. All those little things you take for granted. 

“I always say to people who come to be me about writing, write what you know, and a good illustration of that is if you think of your local café. If you’re writing about my local café, you don’t know the details, but if you write about your own, you know if it’s waitress service, if you go to the counter, whether you tip, if you order your food and pay straight away or at the end. All those sorts of things. And in a way, we’re re-learning those things.  

“And the second book, Distance Between Clouds, if you think about clouds and rainfall, you can look at the negatives, such as, ‘Oh, it’s going to rain,’ but if you look at the distance between them, you’ll think, ‘Well, I’ve got that much sunshine’. So, again, what I’m trying to do is look for the optimism, and this new world we’re building and examining, we can see whether we like the old way of doing it or whether there’s a new way.” 

I guess that fits in with your weekly Zoom poetry sessions, The New Poetry Society. Is that your way of spreading the word and inspiring? 

“Well, yes, it helps me keep in touch. When Zoom first became a thing, I did a few meetings, then thought, it’s alright performing like you’re on stage, but really it’s a more intimate thing. You’re in your home, everyone’s n their home. What you really need is conversation. What we’re missing is sitting down with each other, having a conversation. 

“I started off getting Lemn Sissay, an old mate of mine, and he was great, and the thing is, when you start talking, I learn things about them that I didn’t know, and I’ve done 21 now, the last eight for the Manchester Libraries, and that was great. I’m a big fan of the libraries.” 

Head on the block here, but poetry was something I didn’t realise I liked until a realisation that Ray Davies, Chris Difford, Pete Shelley, John O’Neill, Paul Weller, and so on wrote poetry. They just happened to call it lyrics. Then there was John Cooper Clarke, in the scheme of things not far off from fellow Salfordian Mark E. Smith. 

Henry Normal is many ways a cult’ figure growing up through the late 80’s / early 90’s Hacienda and Manchester Factory scene. Working with classic and successful northern comedians  Catch the rest of the interview here Beyond the lockdowns, Normal service resumes – in conversation with Henry Normal | writewyattuk

Henry Normal: The Escape Plan is at The Old Electric, Blackpool, on Friday, May 13, 2022 (7pm)  

Tickets: https://theoldelectric.co.uk/event/henry-normal/ 

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