Obituary: Denis Norden | From The Glums to It'll Be Alright On The Night

Obituary: Denis Norden

From The Glums to It'll Be Alright On The Night

He will be remembered as than the avuncular presenter of gaffes on It’ll Be Alright On The Night, but that image does a disservice to Denis Norden’s considerable contribution to comedy.

As a scriptwriter, Norden and his long-time professional partner Frank Muir, helped drag post-war British comedy out its cosy rut, injecting both realism and American-style revue spirit into their radio shows.

Norden was born into a Jewish family in Hackney, East London, on February 6, 192 and was  bitten by the showbiz bug at age 11, when he went on a theatre outing to see the Crazy Gang. 

And when he saw a photograph in a magazine of two Hollywood screenwriters beside a swimming pool, being served drinks by two blondes, he recalled: ‘I couldn't imagine a better life than that.’ So he  became a a variety theatre manager as a teenager, working there for three years before joining the RAF in 1942.

There he shared a tent with Eric Sykes, who encouraged his first scriptwriting attempts for troop shows.

But while the image of a military concert party is one of comradely jollity the truth of life in war could be very different. He, Sykes and another friend called Ron Rich were once on the lookout for some stage lights for their show, and went to raid a newly liberated German camp. But it turned out to be  Bergen-Belsen, where 70,000 people had died, mostly by starvation. ‘Appalled, aghast, repelled - it is difficult to find words to express how we felt as we looked upon the degradation of some of the inmates,’ he later said.

On demob, Norden set up a variety agency and wrote material for up to 160 acts, including Dick Bentley and Jimmy Edwards

Two years later, in 1947, he began his long comedy writing partnership with Frank Muir, one of the most successful ever.

Their first joint venture was the radio sketch show Take It From Here, writing more than 300 programmes over 12 years.  Its most famous creations were The Glums – the boorish Pa (Jimmy Edwards), the stupid Ron (Dick Bentley) and his dowdy fiancée Eth (June Whitfield). The scripts were adapted for TV in 1979.

Muir and Norden became something of a performance double act, and were regular participants in radio panel shows My Word! And it companion show My Music. Highlights of the show were the shaggy-dog stories which they invented as implausible origins for well-known phrases.

They went their separate ways in 1964, when Muir was made a BBC light entertainment executive.

In 1977, Denis had the idea of a programme made up of television outtakes, not being happy with the title It'll Be Alright On The Night but declaring that it would do until he thought of something better. Although originally planned as a one-off, it became a long-running franchise. Only this month, David Walliams presented the latest in the series.

He presented the show until failing eyesight forced him to quit in 2006.

In 1980, he and Frank Muir were given the CBE and they won Writers’ Guild lifetime achievement at the British Comedy Awards in 1998.

Published: 19 Sep 2018

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