PUBLISHED: 16:41 12 October 2009 | UPDATED: 16:17 20 February 2013
Denis Norden is one of Britain's wittiest writers. At 87, despite failing eyesight, he's still performing and this month he's in Colchester. Pat Parker went to meet him
DENIS Norden is probably best known as the man with the clipboard who wrote, compiled and presented the original outtakes show, It'll Be Alright on the Night, for nearly
But his career stretches much further back. During the 1950s and 60s, he and his writing partner, Frank Muir, were two of Britain's top comedy writers, responsible for numerous radio shows, including Take It From Here and Whack-o! with Jimmy Edwards. The pair also starred on radio panel games such as My Word and My Music, where they showcased their genius for puns and tall stories. Later, Denis wrote and presented the TV nostalgia quiz Looks Familiar and Denis Norden's Laughter File.
Today, Denis is a venerable 87. He retired from television three years ago because of his failing eyesight (he suffers from macular degeneration, an age-related eye condition), but he has lost none of his charm or wit. Last year, he completed his autobiography, Clips from a Life, and in October, he is appearing at Colchester's Mercury Theatre in An Audience With Denis Norden.
'I'm interviewed by Samantha Norman, Barry's daughter, and then we invite questions from the audience,' Denis explains. 'It's not a performance. I don't think of myself as a performer - I'm a writer who keeps getting wheeled out!'
For a man whose whole life has revolved around books, film and TV, losing his sight has been an enormous frustration. 'My eyesight has reached a state of wonkiness now that I'm registered partially sighted,' says Denis, 'and when that took hold, I had to give up It'll Be Alright on the Night, because I couldn't see a TV screen or read the autocue. I'd always been responsible for choosing the clips, and I couldn't do that any more, so I retired.'
He set about writing his autobiography - a compilation of anecdotes and amusing reminiscences from his long life - but his eyesight meant it was not easy. 'I had all sorts of technological aids, including extra large size keys on the keyboard and a software programme which allowed anything I typed in to be read back to me. But it was still very laborious. It took two years to do that slim volume.'
A voracious reader who as a child learnt the whole of Hamlet by heart, he now relies on audio books and Talking Newspapers - plus, of course, radio. 'Radio 4 is the last bastion of western civilisation,' he says.
Denis was born in Hackney, East London, the son of a Jewish bridalwear manufacturer. Academic and bookish, he won a scholarship to the City of London School, where Kingsley Amis was a fellow pupil. 'I was very tall, very skinny, and always had my nose in a book.'
He says he regrets not having gone to university, but at 16, he developed a burning ambition to become a journalist. Fluent in Spanish, he wrote off to the Daily Express's foreign correspondent and asked if he could accompany him to the Spanish Civil War. To his surprise, the journalist agreed. But his parents, unsurprisingly, refused to let him go, so he turned to his second ambition, to become a Hollywood screenwriter. 'I'd seen a photo in Life Magazine of two Hollywood screenwriters beside a swimming pool being served drinks by two blondes and I couldn't imagine a better life than that.'
In order to discover what cinema audiences liked, he quit school and became, at the age of 18, Britain's youngest cinema manager. 'In those days, people went to the cinema two or three times a week,' says Denis. 'They were warm, and immensely opulent. People often had tea there, left their kids there while they went shopping and even sat through a film twice, hence the phrase, "This is where we came in". For sixpence you got four hours of entertainment - cine-variety, stage show, organ interlude, newsreel, cartoon, all in rare luxury and comfort. The difficulty was getting them to leave.'
War intervened, however, and Denis became an RAF wireless operator. He soon began writing troop shows, palling up with fellow wireless operator Eric Sykes. After the war, he started writing for radio, and in 1947 teamed up with Frank Muir at the suggestion of ITMA producer Ted Kavanagh, who wanted them to script a new comedy called Take It From Here. 'He asked us whether we'd be averse to writing together and we both simultaneously replied, "Not a whit averse".' Denis remembers. The fact they both spontaneously used the same arcane phrase showed how closely their minds ran in parallel.
Thus was born one of the most successful comedy writing partnerships in British radio history. The pair wrote Take It From Here, starring Jimmy Edwards and later, June Whitfield, for 11 years, creating the famous Glums family. The series pioneered parody and pastiche, and some of its most memorable lines, such as, 'Trouble at t'mill' and, 'Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells' have entered everyday language. The pair were also responsible for one of the most famous Carry On lines, 'Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me' which was borrowed with their permission.
In the early 60s, the pair were given a three-year contract as BBC consultants and advisors. 'Frank was very good at it and loved it, and I wasn't much good and didn't like it,' says Denis. 'At the end, I just wanted to leave and be independent again, but he wanted to stay.'
Frank remained in BBC management, going on to become London Weekend's founding head of entertainment and Denis had to adjust to writing alone. It wasn't easy.
'You lack the reassurance of having that other person as a sounding board. I found myself taking a script along for the secretary to type and lurking outside her door to see if I could hear her chuckling.'
One day in 1977, Denis and Paul Smith, future executive producer of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, were sitting in the LWT canteen, chatting about the famous Blue Peter clip of the pooing elephant.
'One of us said, would it be possible to have a whole programme based on outtakes? We rang Michael Grade, LWT's director of programmes, and he invited us straight up. We said, "Do you fancy a programme devoted to outtakes?" And his reply was, "How soon can you let me have it?" Within half an hour, he'd commissioned it, given us a date and budget and even suggested the title, It'll Be Alright On The Night. We came down in the lift and thought, "Well, it's not the greatest title", but because he'd been so forthcoming, we'd go with it. And we went with it for 29 years.'
From the start, Denis was responsible for scripting the programme, choosing the clips, as well as presenting in that avuncular style.
'One of the necessities for a good clip is that you can't second-guess it. The trouble with a lot of blooper shows nowadays is that you can see what's coming,' says Denis.
News departments refused to release their bloopers at first, fearing their authority might be undermined. But they later relented. Actors and presenters quickly dropped any objections they might have had to their blunders being broadcast when they realised that they were paid every time their clip was shown, here or overseas.
'Certain actors made infinitely more money doing a thing wrong than they would have doing it correctly,' says Denis. 'It was rather like running a farm where the manure is worth more than the cattle.'
It was fairly common for deliberate cock-ups to be submitted. But Denis says it was always easy to tell the fakes. 'They stood out a mile every time.'
The show spawned countless copies abroad, but, due to the care with which Denis's clips were chosen, the British outtakes were regarded as the gold standard. 'We traded outtakes, but the British ones became a sort of hard currency. So you'd exchange one British blooper for five American ones.'
His favourite of all time is one where a hapless regional news reporter is offering a tray of delicacies to shoppers. 'He went up to one chap and said, "Excuse me, sir, are you feeling peckish?" To which the man replied, "No, I'm Turkish".' His choice reveals Denis's abiding love of word play.
Denis has lived through the golden age of cinema, radio and TV. What does he think of television's output today? 'I'm not the best judge, as I can't really see it any more. But there's a series called Outnumbered, by Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, which I think is as funny and as craftsmanlike as anything that's ever been shown.'
As for future ambitions, he says wryly: 'Well, I'd like to be hell-raiser of the year. But in the meantime, I'll just carry on with the male modelling.'
See Denis live
An Audience with Denis Norden is at Colchester's Mercury Theatre at 7.30pm on October 26. Call the box office on 01206 573948