Henry Normal on rediscovering a more personal way of communicating
PUBLISHED: 09:41 29 November 2016 | UPDATED: 09:45 29 November 2016
Jim Holden www.jimholden.co.uk 07590 683036
Screenwriter, producer and Steve Coogan’s former business partner Henry Normal hadn’t written any poetry in two decades. Then a combination of family circumstances drove him to rediscover an intimate way of communicating. He spoke to Jenny Mark-Bell
“I’m 60 now so I’ve had a bit of pain, I’ve had a bit of joy and I hope the book has an array of all those things,” says Henry Normal in a Brighton coffee shop. The comedy writer and producer is explaining how it is that he recently came to publish a new volume of poetry. Best known for his work running Baby Cow Productions with his business partner Steve Coogan, Henry has had a hand in some of the biggest comedy successes of the past few decades, from The Royle Family – he co-wrote the first series – to Gavin and Stacey (as the executive producer).
Henry left Baby Cow Productions this April after 16-and-a-half years to focus on more personal projects. After the film Philomena, for which he acted as producer, got four Oscar nominations it felt like the right time to leave: “The chances are I’m not going to be involved in anything [else] that prestigious, so now seemed to be the time for me to concentrate on a more personal and intimate way of communicating than through the mass media.”
His book, Staring Directly at the Eclipse, is the result. It is an intensely moving volume, a hymn of devotion to family love. In it he is continuing his first passion, writing verse – which he took up again about two years ago, 22 years after the publication of his last published anthology, A Map of Heaven.
The Nottingham-born Brighton resident first started writing poetry at about 14. “My mum died when I was 11 and I was very gregarious before then. I became quite introvert and I started writing poems after reading Small Dreams of a Scorpion by Spike Milligan. I wrote poetry right up until about 39, and then I got involved with television, so some of the poems – about 12 – are from then.”
The rest of them were written over the past two years, in response to a series of life-altering personal events and born out of the poet’s wish to communicate experience. “When my son Johnny, who is autistic, turned 16 we had a visit from the local council and they said that because he’s mentally incapacitated he would be a ward of court. My wife Angela and I weren’t fully in control, we would have to ask permission if he went into surgery or anything that like that. I was quite devastated.”
Johnny is now 18 and “in a practical sense it’s not meant anything, in that we can carry on and we’ve never had a problem with it, but it made me think about how I communicate what our life is like to other people”.
With the recent losses of his father and brother he found himself wanting to “communicate something about what I’ve learnt in life and, in some way, to tell myself what I’ve learnt in life”.
To that end he got out the family photos and found there were thousands of Johnny. “Looking at them, I remembered the journey we’d been on and they helped to focus me. What I found was, out of all those photographs, only a small number of them made me feel something and I picked those out and started writing as a reaction to those photos. This was a communication I could read to my son, I could read to my wife and it said something about us.”
One of five children, with a dad and a brother who worked at Raleigh in Nottingham, Henry was destined for similar things but, being studious, ended up working in an office. “I was very lucky in that I saw Roger McGough reading Summer With Monika when I was about 18 and an insurance broker. One lunch break he was on at Nottingham Playhouse and he was so personable and so near to, as a young man, the romance of my life, that I thought ‘That’s a great way to communicate.’”
Henry became a successful performance poet, touring with Sheffield band Pulp and staging poetry events in the north of England, particularly Manchester where he was living at the time. But he realised he wasn’t going to be able to support a family on the income of a poet. It was underlined 21 years ago when he booked Seamus Heaney to perform at the Manchester Literature Festival – which Henry started as the Manchester Poetry Festival. “I saw Seamus Heaney the day after he won his Nobel prize. He came to Manchester Airport with a cheque in his pocket for about £1m. I said to him, ‘I’ve got you about £650’, and he said ‘You haven’t got it in cash, have you?’ So I went to a cash machine and gave it to him.”
The Manchester gig scene led to a television job, Packet of Three, in which Henry starred alongside Frank Skinner and Jenny Eclair. It’s a world he has successfully inhabited for 30 years, again driven by the need to communicate.
On his own world, he says: “I was very struck when I was a teenager by Alan Sillitoe’s work: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. It was a representation of Nottingham, and a representation of working class life.”
Some of his work has reflected his roots: “When I wrote the first series of The Royle Family with Caroline [Aherne] and Craig [Cash], we were experts on writing about that family, because that family was our family. Stephen Fry, for all his intelligence and for all his drive couldn’t write a family living on a council estate because he’s not lived it. I was very drawn to this idea of putting out the stories that are true because they’re from you. The more general you get, it loses something as well as gains something.”
He has much to be proud of – mentioning the return of Red Dwarf as a recent highlight, alongside The Royle Family and Coogan’s Run, The Mighty Boosh and BBC3 series Uncle. He’s still helping to edit the latter, but “It’s a bit like being a grandparent, in that I can play with the kids but I can give them back. I don’t have to do all the hard work.”
Comedy has changed seismically since Henry’s early days but he thinks there is still work to be done: “When I started in comedy our big task really was to get rid of all the racist and sexist humour. I’m of the generation that fought to give respect to an audience and to people’s intelligence. I’m very proud of that.
“There’s still a way to go: there are still people doing jokes that are what I call ‘new targets’: poor people, fat people, old people. You know, it’s just the same. It’s the same mentality of us and them. If my book’s about anything, it’s about that.
“Certainly the work I’ve been involved in, I like to think it’s got a lot of heart to it, from Gavin and Stacey through to Starlings: even [Alan] Partridge has got heart in it. We sort of love him because he’s wrong, like a daft uncle who hasn’t quite come to turns with the world.”
One of the poems in the new book, The Frame of the Mona Lisa Dreams, could be interpreted as a reflection on his public image:
“…in all the borrowed light shined upon me
From my vantage at the edge of the glare”.
The return to poetry and public performance has thrust Henry into the spotlight again after years of working behind the scenes and he says “It feels very exciting, because I’ve sort of been helping a lot of other people with their dreams and I love that. I’ve worked with some brilliant people and they are mostly younger than me, they keep me very youthful in outlook and they’re excited and passionate about what they’re doing. That’s been great but I’ve had to sacrifice my own journey and interests, my own dream, if you like, by doing that. As small as it is, I’m enjoying my own little world.”
Henry and his wife Angela Pell (a screenwriter whose credits include Snowcake with Alan Rickman and Sigourney Weaver), support Amaze – a local charity for families of children and young people with special needs. Find our more about Amaze at amazebrighton.org.uk.
Staring Directly into the Eclipse is published by Five Leaves Publications, RRP £9.60