Henry Normal: ‘Comedy’s like sugar. It makes things better but I wouldn’t eat it on its own’

The producer whose TV hits include The Royle Family and Gavin and Stacey on finding the poignancy in life’s little moments, and heading back to the comedy circuit with his poetry

Comedians become actors, pop stars become TV presenters … we’re used to artists switching lanes. Seldom travelled, though, is the road leading from performance poetry to TV producing – TV producers not being renowned for their poetic souls. It may be that Henry Normal is the only poet to make that journey, and he did it with spectacular success, co-running the production company Baby Cow with Steve Coogan, creating hit after hit (Gavin and Stacey, The Mighty Boosh, Nighty Night) across a 17-year run. But the siren call of spoken word proved impossible to resist: Normal quit producing five years ago and is now prepping a standup poetry tour.

“It’s the biggest tour I’ve ever done,” he tells me, Zooming from his native Nottingham. “I toured with Caroline Aherne and Steve back in the day. I’ve done over 1,000 gigs in my life. But an actual theatre tour, where it’s me doing a full show by myself? That’s very much a big deal for me.” The tour, called The Escape Plan, will feature work from his two lockdown-era collections, The Beauty Within Shadow and The Distance Between Clouds, as well as material from the BBC Radio 4 shows that began in 2016 with A Normal Family. “It’s a mixture of stories and comedy, jokes and poems,” he says. “It’s basically 64 years in the making, and I’m hoping to pack it all into just under two hours.”

“I always remember,” he adds, “when someone once said to me: never peak. But if I do peak, it’ll be on this tour.” That’s big talk, from a man garlanded with a Bafta special award for services to telly, who had a Nottingham City Transport bus named after him in 2019. A man who launched his career as part of a grassroots movement that included not only Coogan and Aherne but acts such as Frank Skinner, Lemn Sissay and the band Pulp, with whom Normal gigged. “Plus a lot of talent that never made it on television,” he says, “but who were often much funnier than the people that did. It was a glorious time.”

Steve Coogan and Henry Normal in 2003.
Steve Coogan and Henry Normal in 2003. Photograph: Graham Turner/The Guardian

And an improbable one, given his origins in “the slum district of Nottingham”, one of five “very poor” kids brought up by a Raleigh engineer dad after the death of Normal’s mum in a car crash when he was just 11. There were few books in the house, and “no poets on the streets. There were skinheads,” says Normal, “or grebos, as we called them in Nottingham. But those cultures didn’t lend themselves to poetry.” His route out came via his love of Monty Python and his discovery of Spike Milligan’s poetry volume Small Dreams of a Scorpion. “It made me cry, that somebody could be so funny and yet so moving. I thought: that’s the way to go.”

And so Normal (real name: Peter James Carroll) began staking out his own territory for poetry. He joined a writers’ group. He went to see Roger McGough and John Cooper Clarke. He started gigging. “I’d perform anywhere: factories, hospitals, libraries, on tops of buses. I’d tour with bands and just try to earn a living. I went on the enterprise allowance scheme, so Margaret Thatcher helped me along with £40 a week.” In an era before dedicated comedy clubs, with far fewer spaces for poetry, he shared bills with Johnny Dangerously (AKA John Bramwell of I Am Kloot) and Linda Smith, inspired by “the idea of performing poetry to a crowd, and it being about your life rather than this strange ethereal thing you were shown in books at school.”

And then, much to his surprise, “I was the first in that group to be given a TV show,” he recalls. “[Channel 4] asked me: what do you want to do? I said let’s do The Muppets with me as Kermit. And get Frank Skinner in as Gonzo …” The result was Packet of Three, starring Normal as the impresario of the fictional Crumpsall Pavilion theatre. Co-starring Skinner and Jenny Eclair, the series gave rookie TV turns to Coogan and Normal’s soon-to-be co-writer on The Mrs Merton Show, Dave Gorman. But it also spelled the end (or so it seemed) for Normal’s performing career. “Vic and Bob had made comedy very cool,” he remembers. “But I was never cool. I was more like Bernie Winters – or probably Schnorbitz, now I think about it. I was too friendly for the time. And I thought: I can’t be something I’m not.”

With his Packet of Three cheque, Normal founded the Manchester poetry festival with Sissay – it is still going, as the Manchester literature festival, 25 years later. He refocused his TV career, meanwhile, on writing and producing. He and Coogan set up Baby Cow in 1999 as a means of working from Brighton, where they both lived with their young families. “Probably the first comedy producers ever to be northern working-class,” he says, they opened the floodgates to a host of provincial comedy talent, including Julia Davis and Rob Brydon. “Rob brought us a tape of something he’d been working on,” Normal recalls. “We watched it, and then Steve looked out of one window and I looked out of the other, and we didn’t want to catch one another’s eye. Because we both had a tear in our eye. And that show was Marion and Geoff.”

Like many of the shows that followed, Marion and Geoff exemplified Normal’s belief in the affinities between comedy and tragedy. “Looking at the narratives we did over the years, there’s a lot of tenderness in everything from Paul Calf and The Royle Family [the first series of which Normal co-wrote] to Gavin and Stacey.”

“I’ve always thought about comedy as being like salt or sugar. It makes things better, but I wouldn’t eat it on its own. In our lives, we are sophisticated people that live between serious concerns and comedy. And I want to reflect that in my work. If I just did the serious poems in my books, people would be using the pages to slit their wrists.” But comic poetry is held in less high regard, isn’t it? “It happens in all creative forms, that the comic is thought of as being lesser. But that’s not going to change the way I work,” he says. For Normal, “we give ourselves over to people when we laugh, and there’s something very connecting about that. Once you’ve done that, you can have a proper discussion about anything.”

Ah, but can you? These days, there’s a perceived censoriousness around comedy, a concern about what funny people are – and aren’t – welcome to joke about. Is Normal glad to have left that world behind? “That’s always been an issue,” he says, airily dismissive. “I was of a generation that said: we’re not doing Irish jokes, we’re not doing racist jokes. That was a big movement when I started. But the object of the exercise to me has always been that you want everybody in the room to laugh, and everyone to feel included.”

That’s not always easy to achieve. He cites a moment from early in his own career when he told a joke about shell suits, only to encounter after the show a fiftysomething woman sheepishly emerging from the toilet, shell suit removed and stuffed into her bag. “I felt so bad that I’d made her that embarrassed. That taught me that there are a lot of subjects that people can be hurt by, and to be mindful of that.”

Henry Normal in 2010.
Henry Normal in 2010. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Normal’s work these days, by contrast, wouldn’t hurt a fly. His poetic impulse was rekindled by writing about his son Johnny, who is profoundly autistic. He found himself crying one day at photographs he’d taken of his family life. “Some of them were making me sad, some were making me joyful. And I wondered, what is it about this or that image that affects me? So I tried to explain it to myself. And the best way I know how to do that is by writing a poem.” Later, he and his wife, the screenwriter Angela Pell, co-wrote a book about parenting Johnny, out of which his Radio 4 series was born. Since returning to poetry, Normal has written seven-and-a-half books of verse, by his count, and also runs weekly poetry sessions, with special guests, on YouTube.

What unites this output is his eye for life’s minutiae and our shared humanity, which he parcels up in the most approachable terms. “Repenting the sin of gluttony,” he writes, “My cardigan now stretches / Near where it’s buttony.” “If I’d have died early,” says Normal, “I would certainly have been a Romantic poet, whereas I’m edging towards more pragmatic as I get older.” Maybe so: the verses can be poignant, or bittersweet. But warmth and optimism prevail. “What I’m trying to do with the Escape Plan tour, without prettying it up and making it something that it’s not, is find the humanity in us all.”

“I’ve always thought of poetry as being a community arts project,” says Normal, for whom – back in his Manchester pomp – it started as just that. “This idea of the tortured artist, high up on a stage, far apart from you – I never understood why that would hold an attraction. To me, it’s always been about the connection between people.”

Contributor

Brian Logan

The GuardianTramp

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