“If you avoid serious subjects, comedy isn’t funny” Henry Normal talks to Northern Soul
He promises poems about “death, human frailty and other classic conversation stoppers”. As pitches go for a literature event hoping to put bums on seats, it’s not your run of the mill promotion. But Henry Normal isn’t your conventional fella.
With many strings to his creative bow, among them comedian, television producer, poet, writer and co-founder of Baby Cow Productions with Steve Coogan, Normal is a modern polymath; the kind of guy who, if he hadn’t created such glorious TV shows and poetry collections, might be a bit annoying.
Baby Cow’s many successes include Gavin & Stacey, Nighty Night and The Mighty Boosh. Normal also co-wrote series one of The Royle Family with Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash. It’s quite a CV.
Now Normal is returning to his first love: poetry. His past collections include The Dream Ticket, Is Love Science Fiction? and Nude Modelling for the Afterlife. Next month you can see him in action at the Manchester Literature Festival (formerly The Poetry Festival, which he founded) performing pieces from his most recent collection, Staring Directly At The Eclipse.
The Manchester Literature Festival is now in its 11th year. I was curious to find out how Normal came to be involved all those years ago.
“I started it because I’d done a TV programme and made a lot of money out of it,” he tells me. “But it didn’t make me happy so I thought I’d try and do something that would satisfy me more so I put £2,000 to one side and started the poetry festival with a lot of the local talent that was around. I’m thrilled that it’s grown into the literature event it is today and that it kept evolving long after I left Manchester.”
In the past, Normal (real name Pete Carroll) has been called the Alan Bennett of poetry. Staring Directly At The Eclipse promises poems about ‘death, human frailty and other classic conversation stoppers’. Does he see this as perhaps too downbeat a tagline?
“Not at all. It’s just a way of looking at it. Life is beautiful because it’s short. In all the stuff I do I try to be very optimistic. But I think the object of poetry is not to do the easy things but to dig a little bit deeper, and that’s what I set out my stall to do. I’ve got an autistic son so I do a little bit about that and I’ve also had two major bereavements recently. It all makes you question things and I try and put the whole of human life in there. Though I would hope that anyone who comes to see my show would have a laugh and maybe shed a little tear too. If you avoid the serious subjects, I don’t think the comedy aspect is as funny.”
He adds: “As you grow and change so does your view on life. Each of us on our own journey gets involved in lots of things. Everything affects you. My Mum died when I was 11 so I was very conscious of death from an early age.”
In August, Normal hit one of those ‘landmark’ birthdays when he turned 60. I wonder how this affected his work.
“Being older, you can see the landscape in a different way,” he reflects. “You become more confident but also more intolerant of having to do what other people want. I feel freer now to explore the things that I want and I think that going back to poetry is that new adventure for me and a chance to get it right this time. I was a poet in my 20s but I had all the distractions back then, sex, chasing fame when you don’t even know what fame is, needing to make a living to prove yourself and just trying to catch up with yourself in general.
“When I look at other people I still see them as grown-ups and me as an adolescent. I believe that if you’re involved in creativity, it keeps you younger and I’ve been very blessed to have been connected with people who are young at heart. Retaining curiosity is the key thing. Once you start closing your mind, I think that’s when age begins to show.
“For me, the opportunity of being able to return to poetry is great and I’m really looking forward to it. Just standing in front of an audience and it being a communication between just me and them is such a blessing. In TV and film you edit and produce with such fine margins – just a frame here and there – so the sense of freedom and anarchy of performing poetry is very exciting. You’re more in control of your creativity and output and you don’t need a team of people to sort it out.
“I’m still doing a bit of editing and scripting for a few projects at Baby Cow including the new Red Dwarf series and I’ve been asked to write a memoir. But for the future it’s essentially poetry for me. After being in an office for 16 years I want to get back to widening my curiosity about the world again and exploring what’s out there through poetry.”
Poetry may once again be the priority, but I couldn’t talk to Normal without referring to his incredible legacy of TV comedy. The Royle Family was a game changer in terms of situation comedy and Baby Cow Productions has won a number of major awards over the years.
Normal says: “I’m very proud of it all and I couldn’t have wished to have spent the last 16 years in a better environment. I’ve made some great friends and I’m sure the team will go on to do even better things.
“I lived in Manchester for 15 years before moving to Brighton and we were blessed when I was up there because the comedy circuit was fantastic. To have great venues like Cornerhouse, The Green Room and Bury Metro Arts was terrific because you were able to do your thing in a way that wasn’t restricted. They were all arts places as opposed to comedy factories so there was a great cross-over. Steve Coogan and Caroline Aherne were character actors able to flourish, and talent from further afield like Frank Skinner used to come up and do stuff too. There was a great buzz that I was very lucky to be part of.
“Brighton is home now and it’s more London-centric, almost an adjunct to the capital and a bit ‘Soho by the sea’. But there’s always been that North/South thing. Craig, Caroline and I used to cheer when we heard it was raining in London. There was that sense of competing but in a friendly way and we just wanted to do our own thing.”
In the 90s, ‘Madchester’ was known for its music scene but the city’s comedy circuit was also gathering pace. Normal references Aherne serveral times during the interview and it’s obvious that her death has been a huge loss, both to him and the world of entertainment.
“People know her for her comedy but she was always a very vulnerable person. She was a genius – not a word I use a lot – and she reinvented the sitcom. I co-wrote the first Royle Family series and was so lucky to be amidst these incredibly talented people. Even at just 20, Steve Coogan was already destined to be a world star. When I moved to Manchester from Nottingham one of the things I loved most about the city was that sense of self belief the place had. It was sure of its heritage and very honest about that red brick, working class confidence. I was so fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time.”
Bad Language featuring Henry Normal, Melissa Lee-Houghton, Mark Pajak & Genevieve Walsh is at the Manchester Literature Festival on October 8, 2016 at 7.30pm. The venue is the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, 3 Cambridge St, Manchester.
For more information about the Manchester Literature Festival, which runs from 7 – 23 October 7-23, 2016, click here.
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Supported by funding from @HeritageFundUK, Betty’s Back! will explore James’s life and works in the context of the 1920s, when the portrait was painted, and will also reveal artwork by Betty Durden Green for the first time.