Henry Normal says “ayup” with poetry and comedy

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It’s not normal for anyone to have a beer and a bus named after them in their home city. But not everyone can be like Henry Normal.

He was the man behind hundreds of comedy programmes as a writer and producer, being honoured with a special BAFTA for services to television. He then went into semi-retirement and returned to his first love – poetry.

Henry will perform his new show, Collected Poems and Other Landfill, in both Nottingham and Buxton this month.

He took time off from preparing for the show to talk about being brought up in Nottingham, moving to Manchester where he set up a production company with Steve Coogan, the bereavement that encouraged him to spend more time with his family and why he can’t disguise his accent, even when he appears on BBC Radio 4.

He’ll be going on the road at various times this year and explained that all the shows will be slightly different.

“I like to experiment and enjoy meself. The trouble is if you do exactly the same thing all the time it becomes a bit like karaoke or you become a tribute band to yourself!

“I’m doing bits from all my poems which I’ve written since I was about 14. I’ve written over 1,200 poems, I would say. There’ll be a few jokes, a few stories and a few poems – a mixture.”

So as a performer what does he get out of doing live dates?

“Lots of things. Just to be in the moment, to be with people and enjoy people’s company. I’m always exploring, so that brings new things and I have a laugh. I get to express myself.

“For me, doing the gigs is great fun. Luckily they pay me. It’s lovely to be paid for something you enjoy doing. Usually I learn something and I try to apply that for the next gig.”

When I ask him how he defines his poetry, he laughs. “To me it’s all about communicating my perception of the world. And that’s all it is really.

“Essentially what you’re trying to communicate is that I see this particular part of the world and the universe in this way and I’m trying to say does that resonate with you or does that give you a different way of looking at it.

“Very often people laugh because you’re telling them something they know – we’ve either forgotten it or we didn’t know we knew it.”

Henry James Carroll was born on 15 August 1956 in St Ann’s, Nottingham. When he was 11 his mum died in a car crash.

“There were lots of skinheads around at the time and disenfranchised youth. And for me getting into books was my escape.

“I went to the library and I got out lots of comedy books, the Goon Show books and Monty Python. Then I saw a book by Spike Milligan called Small Dreams of a Scorpion. I thought it was a comedy book but it was a book of serious poems and they made me cry. I thought it was magical that somebody that’s so funny can touch me in such a way. I thought that’s what I want to do.”

Henry, his dad and his four siblings moved to Bilborough, with Henry pursuing his interest in books by visiting Bracebridge Drive library and also going to the Angel Row library in Nottingham city centre.

“I went to a writers’ group when I was about 19. That made me take myself seriously as a writer because I saw other working-class writers and I thought it’s not just for posh people in tweed jackets and (smoking) pipes – it’s something I can be involved in.

“Luckily by doing that I’ve built a career and bought a house and made a living as a writer and a TV producer.”

Henry moved to Hull and Chesterfield before settling in Manchester where he met comedy greats including Steve Coogan, Caroline Aherne, Frank Skinner and Linda Smith.

“It was quite a hotbed and a brilliant place to be. A lot of bands used to do acoustic sets alongside poets. It was a fun time to be there.”

Henry was the first of the Manchester crowd to get a television series. In 1991 he appeared in Channel 4’s late-night comedy series Packet of Three. He tried to get all his mates involved – and when they got their own shows, they asked Henry to help.

He wrote the Mrs Merton Show and the first series of The Royle Family with Caroline Aherne as well as the Paul and Pauline Calf Video Diaries and Coogan’s Run for Steve Coogan. Writing took over from performing.

That led to Henry and Coogan setting up the company Baby Cow. Among their successes were Red Dwarf as well as programmes by Coogan’s alter ego Alan Partridge.

Henry said the company always looked for quality: “I would ‘ope that when you look at all the shows I’ve been involved with either as a writer or a producer, not only are they funny but there’s a certain poetry to them, a certain truth in there and a certain authenticity.

“It was fun doing it but I was working very hard. We made 450 television programmes and a dozen films in 17-and-a-half years and I thought that was probably enough.

“My dad gave me a very big work ethic so I was trying to obtain security as well as express myself.”

Henry with his wife Angela and son Johnny [credit: Mark Harrison]

When his brother died of cancer Henry decided to step back and enjoy himself more at his current home in Fairlight, East Sussex.

“I get to enjoy the seaside and the countryside and I get to ‘ave fun with people doing gigs, so it’s not bad.”

So what was the highlight of his time with Baby Cow? Henry cites a film he made with his wife, screenwriter Angela Pell, called Snow Cake. The romantic comedy starred Sigourney Weaver and Alan Rickman.

“It’s based a little bit on my son Johnny who’s severely autistic and paints the covers for all my books. It’s a great film. But I did bring Gavin and Stacey and The Mighty Boosh and lots of other things to the screen.

“I was a producer on Philomena (a film featuring Coogan and Judi Dench) which got three Oscar nominations, so I’ve ‘ad quite a varied career. I’m in a very lucky position and I ‘ave been all my life in that I’m able to work with great people, have fun and pay the rent.”

“I feel very at home in Nottingham. I don’t know whether it’s just me but I find it’s a very friendly place.”

Now, though, the man who founded the Manchester Poetry Festival and was co-founder of the Nottingham Poetry Festival is concentrating on the art form in which he started his writing career.

Performing in Nottingham will mean he can meet up with his three sisters and friends he’s known since his school days.

“The thing about Nottingham is that I know every nook and cranny. I feel very at home in Nottingham. I don’t know whether it’s just me but I find it’s a very friendly place. People always talk to me. They don’t know who I am most of the time but if you sit on a bus or a tram, people talk to you. For its size it’s quite a big village!”

Henry is also working on his 11th half-hour programme for Radio 4 which will be called A Normal Story. Previous ones have been about love, family, nature, the environment and other subjects.

“I think I’m the most prominent Nottingham accent on Radio 4, aren’t I? I like that. I can’t disguise it – it’s just me. I can’t put on airs and graces. I can’t keep it up – I forget. You just ‘ave to be yourself.

“I like the Nottingham accent. I like saying ‘ayup’. It’s got a significance that says ‘I know you and you know me. I’ll see you tomorrow and let’s not make a fuss about it.’ There’s nothing grand about it.

“There’s a lot of love going on but you wouldn’t call it love. Me dad wouldn’t say ‘I love you’ but he’d get up at six in the morning and mek me sandwiches.”

Does the 66-year-old have any ambition?

“That would be foolhardy. I like what I’m doing. When I was younger I wanted to be the best poet in the entire world ever and I had these romantic notions. But as you get older you realise you’re part of a huge jigsaw of things and a kaleidoscope of colours for people to enjoy. That’s good enough, isn’t it?”

  • Henry Normal will be at Lakeside Arts, Nottingham on Thursday 11 May (sold out) and Friday 12 May, and also at the Pavilion Arts Centre, Buxton on Thursday 8 June.
  • His latest book The Fire Hills which reflects on the first year of his move to Fairlight is available from the publishers Flapjack Press and from bookshops.
  • Ten episodes of Henry Normal’s Radio 4 show are available on BBC Sounds.

* This article originally appeared in Country Images magazine

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