The observation that Norma Farnes deserved a medal for managing the famously difficult and mercurial Spike Milligan was made numerous times.She didn’t get one and nor did she expect one but perhaps her considerable, behind-the-scenes contribution to British comedy should be recognised with a plaque on her much-loved Yorkshire home?Oak House in Egton Bridge is for sale with Hendersons for £650,000 following Norma’s death, aged 84, in February this year. The period property in the village near Whitby was her haven and one that played host to her show business friends. She bought it in the early 1980s and stayed there almost every weekend.Her great nephew Niki Charlton says: “She lived and worked in London but every Friday afternoon she would catch the train to York to spend the weekend at Oak House with her partner, Jack Clarke.“She always referred to it as ‘coming home’. The north was always home to her.”
Oak House, which is now for sale
The happy house
Her well-known friends also loved to visit Oak House, which overlooks the Esk Valley. They found it peaceful and relaxing. Spike and Eric Sykes, who she also managed, were regulars.The interior of the beautiful four-bedroom home reflects Norma’s great sense of style and attention to detail.
The dining room in Regency style
“She was always very well turned out, even if she was just popping to the shop and her house was the same. Always immaculate. She designed all the interiors herself in Regency style and loved it so much that she redecorated her 1950s flat in London exactly the same way,” says Niki, who wrote the eulogy for her funeral.He paid tribute to a remarkable woman. Norma Farnes was born in Thornaby-on-Tees in 1934 and grew up in a small terraced houseShe studied secretarial skills and excelled, quickly working her way up to join the typing pool at ICI’s HQ, near Stockton, before taking a break to attend the Lucie Clayton school of modelling in London.Then it was back to the North East to become secretary and researcher for Jack Clarke, a journalist who many years later would become the love of her life and her “Champagne Charlie”.
Bright lights, big city
Norma, right, with Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
In 1962, Norma headed back to London to pursue her career and, bored of her job with the Civil Service, in 1966 she responded to an advert: “Show business personality requires personal assistant.”The personality was Spike Millgan, who had hired and lost five secretaries over the previous 18 months. His first words to her were “You’ve got legs just like Olive Oyl. Who’d want to make love to an elastic band?”Quick as ever, she replied “another elastic band”. Read more:> of Spike's wittiest one linersSpike smiled and said, “You’ll do for me” and she spent the next 36 years dealing with his famously black and erratic moods fuelled by bipolar disorder.She coped with his tantrums, phone calls at ungodly hours, swearing, obsessive tidiness, bizarre behaviour - including walking naked across the office landing - and bouts of excessive spending when he would send taxis to Harrods for toilet paper.
Ups and downs with Spike Milligan
The incomparable Spike Milligan who died in 2002 from liver failure at the age of 83. Photo: Getty Images
He called her “Norm” and she was unflappable even when confronted with him clutching a revolver and begging her to shoot him. She has been described as “his secretary, manager, agent, psychologist and confidant.”Norma was promoted to manager when BP approached Spike to do a TV advert and there was no one else to negotiate the fee. They offered £10,000 and with a combination of steel and charm she got them to £18,000 plus perks.Her HQ was Associated London Scripts at Orme Court in Bayswater, which was a hub for comedy greats. Frank Muir, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, Denis Norden and Till Death do us Part writer Johnny Speight all worked there, as did Eric Sykes.
Norma managed and adored Eric Sykes
“Norma would always speak so lovingly of Eric Sykes. She talked of his genius and comedic timing. She described him as ‘bright, incredibly bright’ and would often tell of how he didn’t let being blind or deaf stand in his way. He was word perfect on day one of rehearsals,” says Niki.
Three cheers for Norma
When Eric collected a lifetime achievement award, presented by Spike, he said to his friend: “We’ve shared the same offices, the same job, the same laughs and we’ve also shared the same manager. Thank you Norma, Norma Farnes, a round of applause for Norma Farnes.”When reciting a funny story she would often say: “Eric Sykes was a master of delivery, so I’ve got to get this right” and when she was having a bad day at the office, she would say: “Well darling, you know what Spike would say, ‘F**k ‘em’.”She also acted as agent for Spike’s books and after her employer’s death in 2002, Norma took up writing herself. Her most successful book was Spike: An Intimate Memoir, published by Fourth Estate.She also turned Spike’s drawings into greetings cards and publishers Woodmanstern sold over 3.5million of them.
Working until the end
One of Norma's favourite places to sit - overlooking her garden at Oak House
“Norma didn’t stop there. She turned her hand to scriptwriting, a challenge accepted at the age of 83. Most of us would be sat with our feet up in a dressing gown at 83, but not Aunty Norma, she was always busy, always working on the next idea,” says Niki.“She was kind and loving, generous and giving, assertive and firm, hilarious and charming. ruthless and cut throat. She was bold, carefree and incredibly thoughtful. She lived life to its most full and found magic in everything.”*Norma Farnes books about Spike Milligan are still available and published by Fourth Estate. Read our interview with Norma speaking about her last book
For sale: Oak House
Oak Tree House, Egton Bridge, is on the market with Hendersons for £650,000.The detached property has a sitting room, conservatory, kitchen, dining room, cloakroom, laundry and store rooms. The upper floors have a bathroom and dressing area, master bedroom with en-suite and three further bedrooms.There are outbuildings with potential for conversion and a garden.Contact Hendersons, tel: 01947 602626, www.myhendersons.co.uk