Denis Norden, writer and presenter

Denis Norden, who has died at 96, was the doyen of scriptwriters in the post-war flowering of British radio comedy.

Comedy script writing partners Denis Norden and Frank Muir with their CBEs at Buckingham Palace.
Comedy script writing partners Denis Norden and Frank Muir with their CBEs at Buckingham Palace.

With his late writing partner, Frank Muir, he shaped the mould for literate, intelligent humour which convulsed audiences without ever insulting their intelligence.

The success of Muir and Norden’s shows – particularly the Jimmy Edwards and Dick Bentley vehicle, Take It From Here – virtually invented the English sitcom and beat a path down which Galton and Simpson and others would follow.

The two of them also established a formidable double-act on radio shows such as My Word! and My Music. Their parody travel documentary, Balham – Gateway To The South, performed first on radio by Peter Sellers and Benny Hill as early as 1949, and recreated later on record by Sellers and his producer, George Martin, is remembered as a classic of its time.

In later life, Norden enjoyed an equally successful career as a presenter, inventing ITV’s still-current collection of out-takes, It’ll Be Alright On The Night, and hosting it, clipboard in hand, for three decades.

He also wrote for the big screen, co-scripting the 1968 American comedy, Buona Sera, Mrs Campbell, for Gina Lollobrigida. His description of his film career was characteristically modest, and witty. “I’ve written not milestones of cinema, but millstones,” he said.

Denis Mostyn Norden was born in Hackney, east London, in February 1922. He trained as a manager for the Hyams brothers, owners of impressive London picture palaces, but went off to the Second World War where he served in the RAF with such other future famous names as Eric Sykes and Bill Fraser, writing shows to entertain the troops and escape guard duty.

In 2015, he spoke about how he “accidentally” visited the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

He and Sykes had gone to the newly-liberated camp in northern Germany in search of lighting for a show they were putting on. They had no idea what the camp had been used for.

Norden said: “We were doing a show at this particular RAF camp nearby, we were short of lighting equipment, and somebody said, ‘There is a kind of camp near us, which had all sorts of lights for illuminating it at night, you can take those’, so we took this truck along. We didn’t know what to expect, we had not heard a word about it.”

Having seen inside, they went back to their own camp and gathered as much food as they could.

“We told everyone you’ve never seen anything like it, and everybody in the unit contributed whatever spare food they had, or had been sent from home, and we took it along there.

“I’ve always had this awful feeling that it was wrong for us to do that, people so emaciated to have this rich food poured upon them, what it did to them.”

The camp had been used to house prisoners of war, exchange prisoners and finally Jewish evacuees from concentration camps across Europe.

While it did not contain any gas chambers, about 70,000 prisoners died mainly through starvation and disease.

Norden, whose own family was Jewish, said he also fed the German children.

“What was notable, was that the Germans themselves were not receiving food at all really, and they were becoming very emaciated as well,” he said.

“The little German kids would hang around when you’re eating your food, eating your own rations, just looking at you, so everybody gave food to these kids.

“After seeing the camp, you could in theory hold it against the Germans, but you couldn’t hold it against these German kids.”

After demob, looking for a job in radio, he was introduced to Muir by Ted Kavanagh, writer of Tommy Handley’s wartime comedy, ITMA.

They went on to write 300 episodes of Take It From Here and created the domestic sitcom segment, The Glums, with Edwards, Bentley and June Whitfield.

In an interview in 2016, Norden was asked for his thoughts on modern comedy.

“I’m not a great fan of the modern style of personal agonising which crops up a bit too often for my liking,” he said.

“But I recognise the pure gold that runs in Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin’s work for Outnumbered on TV.

“But almost all comedy is of its time. You can’t expect audiences now to laugh at what amused people 60 years ago. But people do still enjoy Balham - Gateway To The South. So that’s an achievement.”

Norden retired from TV work in 2006, when his eyesight began to fail, and devoted his energy to raising awareness of macular disease, the degenerative eye condition from which he suffered, becoming, along with Sykes, a patron of the Macular Society.

He married Avril Rosen in 1943; they had a son and a daughter, Nick and Maggie.