Denis Norden walked onstage in London Weekend’s Studio Two and looked the camera squarely in the eye. “Hello,” he said. “Or for those of you who fast forward through me to get to the funny bits – goodbye.”
It was a classic bon mot from a writer and presenter whose understated charm and genius for wordplay made him an inspiration to generations of fellow comics.
His death yesterday, at 96, brought down the curtain on a career that had defined popular entertainment in Britain from the end of the Second World War to the present day.
The end had come, 20 years after that of his writing partner, Frank Muir, after “many weeks” at the Royal Free Hospital in north London, his children, Nick and Maggie, said.
“A wonderful dad, a loving grandfather and great great-grandfather – he gave his laughter-mongering to so many,” they added.
To the current generation of viewers and the one before, Norden was famous for inventing, compiling and presenting ITV’s enduring outtakes collection, It’ll Be Alright on the Night.
But he had already been at the top of his profession for 30 years when the first episode aired in 1977. He and Muir had virtually invented the British sitcom, with their vignettes of the dysfunctional family life of The Glums, with Jimmy Edwards, Dick Bentley and June Whitfield.
They wrote 300 radio episodes of Take It From Here, the sketch show from which the family evolved, and provided material for Bernard Braden and almost every other star of the medium. They were writing TV shows as early as 1951 – the year of the first transmissions to the North of England, and their opening script served as an introduction to the very idea of viewing at home. Here’s Television was a sketch show starring Sid James and the Hull actor and comedian, Ian Carmichael.
In the mid-1960s, with Muir decamped to an executive position, Norden found his wise counsel welcomed by comedians who had grown up listening to his scripts. John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Tim Brooke-Taylor brought him in as rehearsal “referee” to edit the sketches they had written for their pre-Python vehicle, At Last the 1948 Show, on Rediffusion.
Such was his formidable reputation as an after dinner speaker that when at the 1991 Writers’ Guild Awards the fugitive Salman Rushdie made a surprise appearance, to ecstatic applause, Cleese, who was next on stage, took a deep breath and said: “Well, thank God for that. I thought I was going to have to follow Denis Norden.”
Originally a cinema manager in London, Norden had got a taste for comedy in the RAF, staging shows for the forces. He never forgot he day he and his fellow airman Eric Sykes stumbled upon a newly-liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and collected food from their unit for the inmates.
In his later years, having retired from the screen in 2006, he spent time raising awareness of macular disease, the degenerative eye condition from which he suffered.
Cathy Yelf, chief executive of the Macular Society, of which he was a patron, said: “He was an inspiration to many of us as he coped with his deteriorating sight for many years, before it became public knowledge.”
Norden and Muir were responsible for some of comedy’s greatest one-liners.
Kenneth Williams’ cry, in Carry On Cleo, of “Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me”, was written originally by them for Jimmy Edwards – for whose conniving head teacher character they also devised a famous line in which the school accounts book is found to include an entry for “50 crates”.
“It’s just the handwriting,” Edwards tells the auditor. “It’s not 50 crates – it’s Socrates.”
On radio’s My Music, Norden observed that the harp was “an oversized cheese slicer with cultural pretensions”.