Henry Normal to perform at the Ashbourne Festival
PUBLISHED: 15:08 06 June 2019
Jim Holden www.jimholden.co.uk 07590 683036
As a writer and producer of some of the nation's best loved comedy programmes, Henry Normal is well-versed in making audiences laugh, and now he's bringing his unique brand of performance poetry to Ashbourne Festival
It takes a leap of faith to stand up in front of an audience of punks waiting for a then little-known band called Pulp to take to the stage. Especially when dressed in your purple business suit. But that's exactly what a budding twenty-something poet from Chesterfield did back in the early 80s.
His name was Peter Carroll. Except on that night, and forever more, he'd be known as Henry Normal.
'I thought, if I say, "I'm Normal" before they do, then I'd beat them to the joke,' he recalls, adding: 'At the time, I was also working as an insurance broker and didn't want my boss to know I was doing these gigs.'
Born and brought up in nearby Nottingham, Henry - who like so many of his contemporaries, including Frank Skinner and Vic Reeves, chose a pseudonym from another generation - was one of five children.
'I was brought up on a council estate, and my mum died when I was 11. Until that point I'd been very gregarious, but then became very withdrawn. However, I happened upon a book of poems by Spike Milligan, whose comedy I was very into, called Small Dreams of a Scorpion. These poems actually made me cry, and I remember thinking how surprising it was that a man so funny could be so moving. It's what I've tried to emulate.'
With his dad and older brother employed at the Raleigh Bicycle Company, a school careers officer instead steered Henry towards a job as an insurance salesman with Chesterfield-based, ED Notcutt. Not perhaps the obvious stepping stone towards a glittering career as one of the country's top writers, producers and script editors on ground-breaking shows such as: Mrs Merton, Red Dwarf, The Royle Family, Gavin and Stacey, The Mighty Boosh and Alan Partridge, to name just a few. Yet moving to the Derbyshire town, he says, changed everything.
'It was mixing with a lot of creative people from the art college which got me into both the ideas and the business side of creativity. I also co-owned a shop called Planet X Records with a friend of mine called Didds and we'd put on monthly events at Gotham City, the local nightclub, where I'd be the doorman.
'I really did come out of my cocoon in Chesterfield. It gave me the confidence to give up insurance and to go on to Manchester to concentrate on performing poetry full-time; which is where I met Steve Coogan and Caroline Aherne.'
With the world of so-called alternative comedy still in its infancy, these young upstarts found themselves on the bill at some unusual venues.
'Manchester's famous Buzz Club started off as a folk club, but ended up becoming one of the best comedy clubs in the country. As unknowns we'd often perform together, so I'd organise a car and be the driver for Steve and Caroline, and John Thompson. There was a genuine community spirit among us, with everybody pitching in.'
Having Granada TV on their patch, he recalls, presented the opportunity to reach new and bigger audiences by pooling their talents. The multi-award-winning The Mrs Merton Show, for instance, saw Henry co-writing and script editing the first series, in collaboration with Caroline Aherne. And having co-founded Baby Cow Productions with Steve Coogan in 1999, this launched a phenomenal 17½ years of output, during which time they made over 400 TV programmes and the Oscar-nominated film, Philomena.
The resolve to remain true to one's roots is self-evident and never more than in the hit series, The Royle Family which, again, saw him joining forces with Aherne.
'We were all working class and so would draw very much on this, believing that it was incumbent upon us to write those sorts of stories. To start with the TV bosses couldn't understand what the characters were about and kept saying "But they don't like each other". And I kept saying, "No, they love each other, but it's not Dallas, they're Northern, so they're not going to say it." Gogglebox is The Royle Family but in another format,' Henry muses.
So, perhaps, it's of little surprise that the news he'd been awarded a BAFTA for Services to Television in 2017 received a typically understated reaction.
'The first thought I had, was: "Who's paying for all this?" The letter [from BAFTA] says I can have 150 guests along for a dinner, so I hope they're not going to charge me! It was, though, a glorious surprise and such a lovely evening because I was able to invite people that I'd worked with over the past 20 years, both from behind the scenes and in front of the cameras, as you do become a family.'
These days, and having 'retired' three years ago, he still enjoys watching on-screen comedy. 'Alan's made it into the mainstream,' he wryly observes of the latest Partridge show recently shown on BBC One.
Meanwhile, in a 'Normal week' things have come full-circle. Most days are spent writing poetry in the top floor office of the Brighton home that's shared with his wife, the screen writer Angela Pell, and their son Johnny. And, it seems, there's nothing else he'd rather be doing.
'My heart is and always has been in poetry. When you make a TV programme or a film it's a very big collaboration and try as you might to get an authentic vision of the world, you're pulled this way and that. The great thing with poetry is that it's just you communicating with the world.'
To date this creative output has resulted in five books of poetry, as well as 30-minute performances on BBC Radio 4.
'My early writing and up until this day has drawn upon my life. I think the great thing about your own life is that you're the expert on it. I'm doing one programme called A Normal Universe - that's a nice big subject - as was A Normal Nature. It's given me the excuse to investigate and write about things I'm interested in, and how they affect my daily life.
'Just as Spike Milligan did, I want to have that mix of comedy and something more substantial. You can do that on radio because people are listening and taking it all in.'
He's very much looking forward to bringing a live version of the latest show to Ashbourne this summer, and connecting with his audience on a personal level.
So, is there any advice for would-be performance poets out there? 'To start off with, it's very hard to make a living,' Henry says. 'Even John Cooper Clarke and Roger McGough do lots of different things. The fun and adventure of it though is glorious. In comedy you can become rich at a very young age, but poetry is more an act of love.
'For years my dad would say, "Don't give up your proper job."'
A Normal Universe is at Ashbourne Town Hall, 7.30pm on Thursday 4th July, and you can join Henry Normal for a night of poetry at Derby Book Festival on Saturday 8th June at QUAD in Derby.