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Henry Normal: rhyme and reason

He’s perhaps best known now for producing The Royle Family and Gavin and Stacey but Henry Normal is returning to his first love, poetry, for his next venture. He performs Collected Poems and other landfill at Bootleg on 10th May. Richard Smirke writes

When Henry Normal first moved to Manchester in the early 1980s, leaving behind the relative quiet of Chesterfield in Derbyshire, he found himself standing on a bustling Oxford Road, looking up at the imposing red brick buildings that surrounded him.

“I was breathless for a second,” he recalls. “I remember thinking, this is too big. I can’t live here. I’m too small. I can’t survive.”

As any student of British comedy will know, not only did Normal survive in his adopted home of 15 years, he thrived – irrevocably changing the cultural make-up of the city in the process and laying the foundations for a glittering career in film and television.

“There was and still is a great sense of community in Manchester,” Normal enthuses, speaking over Zoom from Brighton, where he now lives with his wife, screenwriter Angela Pell, and their son Johnny. “It’s a great creative bed in the North West and there’s always new people coming through.”

Just under 40 years ago, Normal was himself one of those young ambitious people, trying to make a name for themselves.

Born Peter Carroll in 1956 and raised on a tough council estate in the St Ann’s district of Nottingham, he developed a deep love of comedy and poetic verse at school, inspired by Monty Python, Spike Milligan and a supportive teacher. On leaving education, he moved to Hull and then Chesterfield, where he worked as an insurance broker before cashing in his savings to open a record shop.

All the time, he was writing comic sketches and poetry, initially for his own amusement and then for others to enjoy. Performing under the stage name Henry Normal, he became a fixture on the live music scene, opening for local bands including a pre-fame Pulp. Other gigs took place in factories, prisons, schools, libraries, on the top of buses – anywhere that would let him perform to a crowd. He moved to Manchester to follow his then girlfriend, who he was in love with, he says.

“She moved to London later. I wasn’t that much in love,” he deadpans.

Arriving in the city, Normal signed up to the Enterprise Allowance scheme, which gave him £40 a week to survive on, and immersed himself in Manchester’s grassroots creative scene. At the time, there were no dedicated venues for poets to perform in, so he would share bills with stand-up comedians, jugglers, dancers and songwriters. It was here that Normal met fellow poet Lemn Sissay and aspiring comics Linda Smith, Frank Skinner and a then 19-year-old Steve Coogan. Soon Caroline Aherne, Craig Cash, Dave Gorman and John Thompson joined their tight-knit circle.

“We were all young at the time, so we were all trying to do something new, but nobody knew whether or not it would work. It was quite an adventurous spirit amongst people, and everyone helped each other. There was a great sense of community,” he remembers.

I’m a little bit older than Steve Coogan and Caroline Aherne, so I was seen as the responsible one. I would get the script in on time.

Following a hit run at the Edinburgh Festival, Normal became the first out of the group to be offered a big break by TV bosses, much to his own surprise.
“Channel 4 said to me: ‘Would you like your own television show?’ And I said: ‘Yeah. Why not? I’m only on 40 quid a week. I could do with it.’”

The result was Packet of Three, a six-part comedy series that starred Normal alongside Skinner and Jenny Éclair.

“We got 3.4 million viewers, which you would kill for these days. I got all my mates on: Dave Gorman, who was just starting out then; Lemn Sissay, Steve [Coogan]. Steve’s first ever role as a character comedian was on Packet of Three. It did well.”

Sadly, not well enough for Channel 4 bosses and after only one series Normal found himself in the humiliating position of being fired from his own TV show.

“Unfortunately, there was a thing in comedy at the time where you had to be a bit cool. I think I was a little bit old fashioned. I still am. I’m probably a bit too friendly and not cool at all. I think I came over a bit like Bernie Winters. Or worse still, Mike Winters. I wasn’t very comfortable doing it and they sacked me.”

Determined for some good to come out of it, Normal spent half the money he got from Channel 4 – around £6,000 in total – on setting up the Manchester Poetry Festival with Sissay. The event is still going today, rebranded as Manchester Literature Festival. Normal and Sissay reunited onstage at the event in 2019 to mark its 25th anniversary, although it was an appearance by Irish poet Seamus Heaney in 1995, the day after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, that Normal says is his favourite festival memory.

“Everyone stood up as he entered and gave him a standing ovation. For me, that was a bit of history and I love the fact that from a daft TV show we managed to make a bit of history.”

In the early to mid-1990s Normal also revived his television career by focusing on writing rather than performing. Teaming up with his friends from the Manchester comedy scene, he co-wrote The Mrs Merton Show with Aherne and Cash, as well as Paul and Pauline Calf’s Video Diaries, Coogan’s Run and The Tony Ferrino Phenomenon, with Coogan.

“I was the only one out of our little community with a computer, so I script-edited everything as well,” he recalls. “I’d type up the script and jiggle them around a bit to make sure it all worked. I’m a little bit older than Steve and Caroline, so I was seen as the responsible one. I would get the script in on time.”

Working alongside Aherne and Cash, Normal created and co-wrote the first series of The Royle Family, which was broadcast in 1998 and became an immediate audience and critical hit. The opening scene of the first episode, where Jim Royle studies an itemised phone bill and quizzes his family on who’s been calling Aberdeen, is a direct reference to Normal’s own father.

The writer says he loved working on the show, but when the opportunity came up to make a feature film with Coogan, who was living in Brighton at the time, he made the difficult decision to move to the south coast and break ties with The Royle Family. The movie was The Parole Officer, a light and frothy caper starring Coogan, released to mixed reviews in 2001.

“The Parole Officer is not going to be remembered as much as The Royle Family,” he concedes. “Caroline and Craig went on to do some brilliant work with that show and sometimes I think to myself, I could have been involved in all of those extra ones, but the film led us on to setting up Baby Cow.”

Founded by Normal and Coogan in 1999 and run out of offices in London and Manchester, Baby Cow went on to become one of Britain’s most successful production companies, with Alan Partridge, Gavin & Stacey, The Trip, The Mighty Boosh, Marion and Geoff, Nighty Night and Ideal some of the TV shows it has produced.

I thought, I’ve probably peaked. I’m probably not going to do anything that good again.

In 2013, Baby Cow released comedy drama film Philomena, based on the true story of a mother’s 50-year search for her adopted son. The film, which starred Coogan as journalist Martin Sixsmith and Judi Dench as Philomena Lee, was a massive critical and commercial hit, receiving four Oscar nominations. For its executive producer, Philomena’s success represented an unassailable highpoint in the company’s history.

“I thought, I’ve probably peaked. I’m probably not going to do anything that good again,” says Normal. In 2016, he gave up his job as managing director of Baby Cow and retired from television. “I’d made 450 programmes and over a dozen films and I thought, if I make 451 TV shows, nobody will know the difference.’ So it was about time I looked at new challenges.”

Chief among them was a return to his first love: poetry. “If I make a TV show there might be 200 people pulling it in different directions and it becomes a group picture. Whereas with poetry, it’s just you. There’s something quite pure about that, which I love.”

Since leaving Baby Cow, Normal has had 11 poetry collections published, including his most recent Collected Poem Vol.2. He’s also a regular presence on BBC Radio 4, combining jokes, poetry and stories about bringing up his autistic son, Johnny, with his distinctive down-to-earth humour and light-hearted gravitas. A touching memoir, A Normal Family: Everyday Adventures With Our Autistic Son, co-written with his wife, was published in 2018.

Normal head to Blackpool on 10th May as part of a series of Fringe Theatre events presented by Enjoy The Show. Audiences can expect Normal’s signature blend of observational comedy, spoken word and poetry in an entertaining and moving one-man show.

Reflecting on what drives his creative impulses, Normal looks back to a traumatic moment in his childhood.

“My mum died when I was 11 and I think I’ve spent all the years since trying to work out how I fit into the world,” says the 66 year old, who was honoured with a special Bafta for services to television in 2017. Founding the Nottingham Poetry Festival is also among his long list of accomplishments.

“Sometimes you just get your head down and get on with it, which is what I did at Baby Cow when I had a proper job, as my dad would say. But it’s getting back to that creative thing of trying to work out how we all relate to each other that I find key to understanding what you should actually be doing in life.

“I’ve loved working with all the people I’ve worked with and to be paid to be sat in a room with funny people is a great privilege. And I love writing the poems. When we look at poets of the past, we probably only remember one or two poems. So if one of my poems has a life beyond me that would be lovely. If it doesn’t, well, at least I’ve given it a go.”

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