Clips from the life of a com­edy king

De­nis Nor­den is best known as the host of a TV out-takes show. But he made his name as one of the best scriptwrit­ers of his gen­er­a­tion. He talks to Ger­ald Ja­cobs

The Jewish Chronicle - - Features -

SHORTLY AF­TER t he S e c ond World War, De­nis Nor­den was em­ployed by the Hy­man Zahl Va­ri­ety Agency. I n his new book, Clips from a Life, Nor­den re­calls the leg­endary war­time ex­ploits of one of Zahl’s artists, a co­me­dian called Harry, who gave many per­for­mances in danger­ous cir­cum­stances at Dover when it was un­der at­tack from Ger­man guns and air­craft. While shells and bombs rained down around the the­atre, Harry got the audiences in­side singing and laugh­ing. Af­ter the war, how­ever, it was Harry’s act that bombed. Dis­con­so­late, he came into the of­fice won­der­ing why the good­will he had amassed had van­ished so quickly. “What it amounts to, Harry,” Hymie Zahl told him, “is that you are an artist who is only at his best dur­ing heavy shelling.”

It is a story that, as a later breed of hu­morist would put it, is so De­nis Nor­den, demon­strat­ing his acute sen­si­tiv­ity to the com­edy, ab­sur­dity and vul­ner­a­bil­ity of the hu­man con­di­tion — not to men­tion the po­tency of lan­guage.

Sadly, for a man who has “al­ways been gov­erned and mo­ti­vated by books”, and for more than six decades earned a liv­ing from his ex­cep­tional ver­bal pow­ers, Nor­den is, at 86, suf­fer­ing from mac­u­lar de­gen­er­a­tion, an eye dis­ease as­so­ci­ated with age­ing.

“I can’t read any more,” he re­veals. “Af­ter all my life of never go­ing to sleep without a book.” This has not stopped him from com­ing in ev­ery day to his West End of­fice, or from com­pil­ing the rec­ol­lec­tions and anec­dotes that, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with his ed­i­tor Louise Haines, he has moulded into au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal shape in Clips from a Life.

On the other hand, it has stopped him from watch­ing tele­vi­sion. “I can’t see much of the screen,” he says, “but I don’t miss much. It’s as­ton­ish­ing how lit­tle of tele­vi­sion is ac­tu­ally vis­ual. I pre­fer ra­dio to tele­vi­sion. Ra­dio is a di­a­logue; tele­vi­sion is a mono­logue. In ra­dio, you have to in­ter­act — they put the words in your head, you build the pic­tures in your mind. To that ex­tent, it is more en­gag­ing than tele­vi­sion.”

In such mat­ters, Nor­den’s is an opin­ion to re­spect. He has writ­ten — and in­deed per­formed and com­mis­sioned — a wealth of com­edy in both medi­ums. Mem­o­rably, he forged with the late Frank Muir one of Bri­tish com­edy’s most creative teams, pro­duc­ing scripts for clas­sics like Take It From Here (ra­dio) and Whack-o! (TV) and ap­pear­ing with Muir on My Word and My Mu­sic (ra­dio and TV). On his own, of course, Nor­den fronted the pop­u­lar pa­rade of tele­vi­sual blips and boobs, It’ll Be Al­right On The Night, for al­most 30 years un­til 2006.

Nor­den has also writ­ten for the big screen, and the 1968 screen­play that he wrote with Melvin Frank and Shel­don Keller for the film Buona Sera, Mrs Camp­bell was nom­i­nated for an Os­car. This starred Gina Lol­lo­b­rigida as the mother of a daugh­ter with three pos­si­ble fathers (a plot echoed in the cur­rent movie mu­si­cal smash, Mamma Mia!). De­spite Buona Sera hav­ing “some bits that were funny”, Nor­den’s de­scrip­tion of his film ca­reer is char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally mod­est — and pun­ning. “I’ve writ­ten not mile­stones of cin­ema, but mill­stones.”

But long be­fore he worked in cin­ema, De­nis Nor­den worked in cin­e­mas. When he left City of Lon­don School (where au­thor Kings­ley Amis was a con­tem­po­rary), he trained as a man­ager for the Hyams broth­ers, own­ers of such fab­u­lous Lon­don pic­ture palaces as the Gau­mont State, Kil­burn, and the Tro­cadero, Ele­phant and Cas­tle, where dou­ble-fea­tures were aug­mented by live stage shows in stun­ningly op­u­lent sur­round­ings.

“The Hyams broth­ers — Mis­ter Phil, Mis­ter Mick and Mis­ter Sid — were great in­no­va­tors,” Nor­den re­calls. “In the war years, there was no tele­vi­sion, no com­put­ers; peo­ple sat in their front rooms in the dark­ness of the black­out, with the Blitz rag­ing out­side. They went to the cin­ema in a mood quite dif­fer­ent to to­day. At the time, the great ma­jor­ity of homes were not warm — it has be­come a cliché to re­call wak­ing up in the morn­ing to find the glass of wa­ter on your bed­side ta­ble frozen. But the cin­e­mas were warm. Even the loos were lux­u­ri­ous, and the wa­ter, when you washed your hands, was hot!

“And the Hyams broth­ers didn’t build their cin­e­mas in the cen­tre of town. I re­mem­ber when I was as­sis­tant man­ager at the Tro­cadero, there were two lo­cal gangs, the Ele­phant Boys and the Ele­phant Heads. I re­placed an as­sis­tant man­ager who’d had his face slashed. When I went to the Tube sta­tion to go home, I had an es­cort of com­mis­sion­aires car­ry­ing wooden rollers from in­side the roller tow­els. You can imag­ine what my par­ents thought of this…”

Home in those days for De­nis Nor­den was Gold­ers Green — as it is now. But he was born and brought up in Hack­ney.

“My fa­ther’s side had been here for gen­er­a­tions, in the East End,” he says. “My grand­par­ents on my mother’s side came from Poland. My fa­ther made bridal dresses, which he sold whole­sale, and al­ways wanted me to join him. He looked upon what I did as pre­car­i­ous and friv­o­lous — ex­cept that he loved it when my name was in the pa­pers.”

Not on ev­ery oc­ca­sion, though. When Nor­den was asked by the Evening Stan­dard’s lit­er­ary ed­i­tor to re­view Ger­shon Leg­man’s mas­sive vol­ume, The Ra­tio­nale of the Dirty Joke: An Anal­y­sis of Sex­ual Hu­mour, the ex­cited and proud re­viewer snapped up a dozen copies of the pa­per and took a few of them to his par­ents. While his mother just checked to see that her son’s name had been promi­nently printed be­fore re­turn­ing to her cook­ing, “my fa­ther… shook his head and, in­di­cat­ing the book’s ti­tle, sighed: ‘So this is what you’re now the big ex­pert on?’ ” Be­fore City of Lon­don, the young De­nis went to Craven Park School in Stam­ford Hill. “This was in the 1920s and ’30s, when it was quite a poverty-stricken area. Some boys didn’t come to school ev­ery day be­cause they shared boots. It was a very good school. Lots of boys got schol­ar­ships — which I did to City of Lon­don. We had reg­u­lar Jews-ver­sus-Chris­tians fights, without any an­i­mos­ity some­how. On Satur­days, I was dragged by my fa­ther to shul in the morn­ing and to watch Spurs in the af­ter­noon, nei­ther of which I did with great en­thu­si­asm.”

The school­boy Nor­den pre­ferred son­nets to soc­cer and learnt the whole of Hamlet by heart “as well as fully half of Pal­grave’s Golden Trea­sury”. But he was not des­tined to sharpen such lit­er­ary tastes by uni­ver­sity study. Nor­den was 17 and work­ing for the

De­nis Nor­den: mil­lions of TV view­ers tuned in to see him host of It’ll Be Al­right On The Night

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