Obituary: Denis Norden (1922-2018)

Denis Norden was a comedy giant, WGGB stalwart and former Chair, whose writing shaped British comedy for over 70 years. He is remembered here by WGGB Chair Gail Renard
Denis Norden

Denis Norden was a former WGGB Chair, award-winning comedy writer and performer, gentleman and scholar. His writing shaped British comedy for over 70 years.

Born in Hackney in 1922, Denis had a great love of Hollywood films. At the age of 17 he became the manager of a cinema in Watford and organised variety shows. Like so many of his generation, the war changed his life. Denis served in the RAF with Eric Sykes. They began to write and put on shows to entertain the troops to get off night duty. Looking for some lights for their show, they were sent to Bergen-Belsen just after it had been liberated. They went back to their own camp to gather all the food they could.

Denis was introduced to Frank Muir in 1947 and their great writing partnership began. Between them they wrote 300 episodes of Take It From Here starring Jimmy Edwards and June Whitfield. The series lasted 11 years and had its own spin-off series, The Glums. Frank and Denis also wrote for That Was The Week That Was, The Frost Report and countless other radio and comedy shows. Their spoof documentary Balham, Gateway To The South was recorded by Peter Sellers and is still as funny today as it was 50 years ago. Frank and Denis were also responsible for the immortal Carry On line, “Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me.”

Muir and Norden were given a three-year contract at the BBC as comedy writers and consultants. Denis left when his contract ended to go freelance, finding the BBC stifling. Though Frank and Denis didn’t write together anymore, they continued appearing on the TV and radio panel shows, My Word! and My Music. They remained best friends all their lives and rang each other every evening.

In 1977, Denis and Paul Smith, the future producer of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, were laughing over the famous Blue Peter clip where an elephant disgraced himself on set. They wondered if they could do a whole show based on funny outtakes. They called LWT director of programmes Michael Grade. In 30 minutes they had a commission. It’ll Be All Right On The Night ran for 29 years, Denis choosing all of the clips, writing the scripts and presenting every show.

Denis was a Writers’ Guild stalwart who was a member of the Television Committee along with Ray Galton, Alan Simpson and Jimmy Perry; a reminder of the comedy giants who gave up their valuable writing time to improve all writers’ pay, rights and working conditions – and what meetings those must have been.

Denis was also a Guild negotiator, Co-Chair from 1965-6 and instrumental in establishing the IAWG (International Affiliation of Writers Guilds). As Denis said at the fifth annual Writers’ Guild Awards in 1966: “We effected last October a series of international affiliations with writers’ organisations in other countries. So we now have what is called a ‘global standpoint’. We can watch writers being screwed in 16 different parts of the world…”

Denis won many awards and was honoured with a CBE in 1980. The one he said he cherished the most was the Lifetime Achievement Award presented by the WGGB in 1999 for his services to comedy and entertainment.

Former WGGB Chair, Mike Sharland, paid tribute: Denis was “a talented, nice, wise and very funny man – if you had lunch with Denis you were guaranteed plenty of laughter, lots of advice and you would leave feeling the comedy world of our time was a decent place to make a living.”

WGGB Comedy Chair Dave Cohen added: “In the early 2000s I worked with Denis, writing jokes with him for his It’ll Be Alright On Election Night shows. I’d turn up early at his office in Rathbone Place, a small, top floor flat in an old house barely converted to a place for writing. As I wheezed my way up the stairs I found Denis making a cup of tea. He’d already arrived earlier, gone for a quick constitutional round his old haunts, a walk that would take in Broadcasting House and the old Paris Theatre in Regent Street, where all the great post-war comedy shows were recorded, and come back in time to put the kettle on. Denis was in his late 70s then but had enough energy for both of us.”

Next year we will be celebrating our 60th anniversary at WGGB. We’re still here largely because of the hard work of Denis and many others.

A man of great warmth, wit with a constant love of comedy, Denis always kept up-to-date with all the latest comedy shows. Once when I didn’t appreciate a series, Denis told me, “Don’t be a fuddy-duddy about comedy, Gail.” He urged me to watch it again and embrace the new. Of course he was right.

Denis Norden was a unique writer and WGGB giant. Our condolences go out to his family and friends.

Photo: Gail Renard