Henry Normal: What Manchester Gave Me
I moved to Manchester for love. A beautiful girl I was dating started at Manchester University and I came up to share a flat with her in Crumpsall. After she’d finished her course, she moved to London. I stayed in Manchester. You can ask too much of love.
Back in the 80s, I used to dye my hair black and dressed to match. My head looked like a goth pineapple. In the first few years everyone in Manchester seemed to look like Smiths’ fans so I certainly stuck out. I dyed my hair myself in a very small sink and my entire face would end up stained like some sort of army camouflage. I seemed to go down well with the audience of Smiths’ devotees although I used to joke that “they don’t laugh, they empathise”.
I was lucky to meet four Manchester legends: Darren Poyzer, Chris Coup, Ric Michael and John Marshall, alias Agra-man (the human anagram). All were Manchester promoters.
Darren Poyzer ran Stand and Deliver, a performance poetry and cabaret night at the Tameside Theatre bar. There I met Martin Coogan, a singer with the band The Mock Turtles who often performed solo acoustic sets, and John Bramwell, then going under the name of Johnny Dangerously. This is before John became lead singer with the band I Am Kloot. Martin had a younger brother, ten years my junior, who did impressions and a character called Duncan Thicket. Duncan was a parody of a bad comic and you needed to be a good comic to pull this off. This was Steve Coogan around the age of 19 and already making money on voiceover work. His encore was a news report on the bombing of Trumpton which still makes me laugh to think about it today.
There wasn’t much of an audience, perhaps 20 people on a good night, and we didn’t get paid much, if at all. But Stand and Deliver was a place to meet up and try out new material, get drunk and have a laugh with fellow dreamers. Darren was a performer himself, and often compered the evening creating a friendly atmosphere. He went on to run a night at the Witchwood in Ashton, and still performs as a singer-songwriter to this day. My abiding memory of Darren is at a particularly hostile gig he stood on a chair and sang Fireball XL5, completely disarming the audience.
Chris Coup ran a number of events under the name Fun Box, usually with a line-up that had a singer-songwriter, a poet and a comic. He also organised the Legendary Manchester Busker, an extravaganza of local talent which often presented more than 20 acts on the same night. It featured everyone from John Thomson to Bryan Glancy, from Lemn Sissay to George Borowski. Chris, always enthusiastic, was constantly running into debt so one time all the acts did a benefit for his phone bill. The next day he rang everyone to thank them.
Ric Michael also ran comedy and music nights – a dapper young Jewish boy with a stocky Eastern-European frame, often he dressed in a white glittery suit with flares and a hood. He later helped me put on the very first Manchester Poetry Festival which has now become the Manchester Literature Festival. My favourite night was when we had Seamus Heaney two days after he’d been given the Nobel Prize. He arrived at Manchester Airport with a cheque in his pocket for nearly a million pounds, which is what you got in those days along with the prize. We explained that we’d got him a cheque for £600. “I couldn’t have it in cash, could I?” he asked. He had no cash on him, only this huge cheque. So, we went to a cash point and got the money out. When he arrived at the Whitworth Art Gallery all 300 in the audience gave him a standing ovation.
Agra-man ran the Buzz Club for many years, the very best place in Manchester to see live comedy. He would compere the evening with a torrent of the most excruciating puns that served to bond the audience into a community through communal suffering. A lovely man who helped launch many a comic’s career, he would support the local scene with acts like Caroline Aherne’s Sister Mary Immaculate, and bring national names to Manchester, Frank Skinner, Jack Dee, Lee Evans and Tim Vine among them.
Manchester was a thriving hotbed of creativity at this time. Places like the Cornerhouse and the Green Room were teaming with up-and-coming stars from every corner of the arts. I even saw Eric Cantona having a coffee in the Cornerhouse once. Steve and I filmed the first Paul Calf TV show there, and it’s where we held the first event at the Manchester Poetry Festival.
Manchester had something I hadn’t seen before in Nottingham, Hull, Liverpool or Sheffield. It had a sense of self, and confidence in its future. It was a heady vibe. It spurred me on to get my own Channel 4 TV show, Packet of Three, which naturally I set in Crumpsall.
Alongside Jon Ronson, I wrote a column for Manchester’s What’s On magazine City Life for a couple of years. My column was entitled Postcard from Crumpsall. It forced me to look beyond my little corner of the arts and witness the magnitude of what was happening in the North West.
When Mad-chester got into swing, and Anthony Wilson proved himself a catalyst many times over, it was the only place to be. A few years later – and being an exec producer by then – I sat next to Tony as he watched an early edit of 24-hour Party People for the first time. His comment on the film was consistent – “when forced to pick between the truth and the legend, print the legend”.
The last time I saw him was in the Atlas bar in Manchester. He was trying to set up a scheme for young local film-makers. After listening for 40 minutes I asked, “where are we going to get the money, Tony?”. “Oh Henry,” he said. “You are so London.” He wasn’t interested in the money. He just wanted the creativity. I love him for that.
Not only did I get to meet some brilliant people in Manchester, the city gave me the confidence to be myself. I’d always been a little intimidated by London, but Manchester wasn’t intimidating and it wasn’t intimidated by London. When I was writing the first series of The Royle Family with Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash, Caroline would stop occasionally and say as an in-joke, “it’s raining in London” and we’d laugh and cheer.
I’ve got so much to thank Manchester for – good friends, my career – but perhaps most of all for being the place I met my wife, Angela. When she moved to Brighton we tried having a long-distance romance for a few months. I’d travel down to see her and tell people I’d got a big sex drive. Eventually I relented and moved to Brighton, so maybe love won through in the end. Thank God she didn’t move to London.
Photographs by Chris Payne, Northern Soul‘s Head Photographer
To read Henry’s first column for Northern Soul, click here.
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