Beyond the lockdowns, Normal service resumes – in conversation with Henry Normal

It’s fair to say Henry Normal kept himself busy over the 18 months when the world seemed to stand still, a spell that for this Nottingham-born BAFTA award-winner included publication of two new poetry collections.

After more than 30 years making acclaimed TV and film, writer and producer Henry – real name Peter Carroll – has returned to his love of poetry, new live tour The Escape Plan currently doing the rounds.

Recently turned 65, Henry draws on more than 40 years of work in his live show, sharing tales, jokes and poems from his Audio and Radio Industry Awards (ARIA) nominated BBC Radio 4 series, each episode exploring a different theme, the next – A Normal Ageing – airing in early November. And then there are those 10 poetry books, the latest of which, The Beauty Within Shadow and Distance Between Clouds, were written during the COVID-19 pandemic, covering many aspects of lockdown, life and love, with plenty of that distinctive humour.

Henry’s poetry renaissance was inspired by his experiences bringing up his autistic son Johnny, something central to the live show and his latest books, the result a funny and moving collection of work on the page and the stage, about life and family.

There have also been weekly online poetry sessions via his New Poetry Society, Henry joined each week by guest poets for conversation and verse. Two poets, one hour, every week, live via Zoom, hosted by the Inspire library programme and a poetry festival he founded in his native Nottingham.

You’ll probably know most of this, but Henry received his special BAFTA for services to television in June 2017, his output including some of the nation’s best-loved programmes, co-writing and script-editing credits including, with Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash, The Royle Family, The Mrs Merton Show and spin-off Mrs Merton and Malcolm, and with Steve Coogan, Paul and Pauline Calf Video Diaries, Coogan’s Run, Tony Ferrino, Doctor Terrible, all three of Steve’s live tours and the film The Parole Officer.

And as co-founder/MD of Baby Cow Productions, set up with Steve in 1999, he produced and script-edited among others Gavin and Stacey, Alan Partridge, Moone Boy, Uncle, The Mighty Boosh, Nighty Night, I Believe in Miracles, Marion and Geoff, Red Dwarf, Hunderby, Camping,and Oscar-nominated film Philomena, before stepping down in 2016.

Prior to all that though, there was his performance poetry, touring with the likes of pre-fame Pulp, stand-up stars such as Linda Smith, and literary giants, including Seamus Heaney, travelling from Helsinki to New York via factories, schools, pop concerts, jazz clubs, folk clubs and festivals. And now it seems he’s returned to that world.

Is that some masochistic tendency in him, I asked, for all his success in writing, to all intents and purposes staying out of the limelight while close friends and colleagues down the years like Steve Coogan and Caroline Aherne courted it, returning to the loneliness of the stage, cruising the UK in a new 90-minute live show?

“Ah, well, I like a challenge! There’s no point in just doing the easy thing all your life. I started off as a poet. You can’t make a lot of money as a poet. You can just about scrape a living, but I got bamboozled by the bright lights of comedy and television. It’s akin to my 40 years in the desert.”

You’re not just happy dusting down your BAFTA behind closed doors?

“D’you know, that wanes after a couple of days. I’ve always been in the communication business, one way and another, and the great thing about poetry is that it’s a communication of perception, and the way I view the world gets communicated to another person. The great things is, with a film you may have 200 to 300 people working on it, so it gets pulled this way and that. But with a poem, it’s essentially just me and you, it’s the purest form of communication in a rhythm sense.”

And not just one, but two new poetry collections out there. The Beauty Within Shadow (written between August 2019 and June 2020, its poetry concerned with ‘the balancing of darkness and light in our everyday lives, the search for an understanding of pain and sorrow, and the processing of other thoughts we’d usually avoid by filling our days with mindless distractions’) and follow-up The Distance Between Clouds (written between June 2020 and March 2021, ‘a collection of poetry about joy, positivity and optimism, before I die unloved and forgotten’) making it 10 poetry books in total.

“I think so, yeah. I wrote one going into the lockdown because it was a strange, new adventure. We’d done so much running around that the idea of standing still and exploring your family, ourselves, your home and your space, well, what’s happened over the last year and a half is that we’ve explored that space deeper than before, and the first book I wrote was called The Beauty Within Shadow. Because we are within the shadow of this awful pandemic, but there’s still beauty to be found.”

The first year or so of my features in that period often touched on interviewees asking, ‘what happens next?’, but now it seems to be more about reflecting back on that period. For a while we saw a collective responsibility, Spirit of the Blitz positivity, and acknowledgement of those who were truly important, from community and family to health and care workers. But then there was the ‘let the bodies pile high’ mentality, Dominic Cummings test-driving his eyesight, and so on, that belief seemingly compromised.  

“I think the trouble is we don’t know what the future is. We never know, but it seems our muscle memory has had a bit of a jolt, so even something like going to the post office, you’ve got to remember what the social norms are for that. All those little things you take for granted.

“I always say to people who come to be me about writing, write what you know, and a good illustration of that is if you think of your local café. If you’re writing about my local café, you don’t know the details, but if you write about your own, you know if it’s waitress service, if you go to the counter, whether you tip, if you order your food and pay straight away or at the end. All those sorts of things. And in a way, we’re re-learning those things. 

“And the second book, Distance Between Clouds, if you think about clouds and rainfall, you can look at the negatives, such as, ‘Oh, it’s going to rain,’ but if you look at the distance between them, you’ll think, ‘Well, I’ve got that much sunshine’. So, again, what I’m trying to do is look for the optimism, and this new world we’re building and examining, we can see whether we like the old way of doing it or whether there’s a new way.”

I guess that fits in with your weekly Zoom poetry sessions, The New Poetry Society. Is that your way of spreading the word and inspiring?

“Well, yes, it helps me keep in touch. When Zoom first became a thing, I did a few meetings, then thought, it’s alright performing like you’re on stage, but really it’s a more intimate thing. You’re in your home, everyone’s n their home. What you really need is conversation. What we’re missing is sitting down with each other, having a conversation.

“I started off getting Lemn Sissay, an old mate of mine, and he was great, and the thing is, when you start talking, I learn things about them that I didn’t know, and I’ve done 21 now, the last eight for the Manchester Libraries, and that was great. I’m a big fan of the libraries, and I’ll be coming to Darwen Library on this tour.”

Ah, Darwen Library Theatre. A great venue. I’ve seen Blancmange there a couple of times, Neil Arthur having gone to school next door, sharing some stories about his youth each night.

“I always thought Blancmange was the best name for a pop band. There’s no way you can become the big ‘I am’ with a name like Blancmange!”.

True, although Neil Arthur’s local sensibilities were already kept in check on that front. He tells a lovely tale about a woman across the road from where he grew up calling him over while he was back home, probably gloating about his new success in that there London, her deriding him in true down-to-earth Lancastrian style for his performance on Top of the Pops, picking up on that line from ‘Living on the Ceiling’, taking exception to him being ‘Up the wall, I’m up the bloody tree’, as if to say, ‘Y’daft bugger, what’re you on about?’.

“Ha! Yeah, ‘Have a word wi’ y’self!’”

Head on the block here, but poetry was something I didn’t realise I liked until a realisation that Ray Davies, Chris Difford, Pete Shelley, John O’Neill, Paul Weller, and so on wrote poetry. They just happened to call it lyrics. Then there was John Cooper Clarke, in the scheme of things not far off from fellow Salfordian Mark E. Smith.

“Exactly, and the thing is, there’s a million different flavours of poetry. No one would ever say, ‘Do you know, I don’t like music,’ and you’d never say, ‘I don’t like paintings, they’re not for me’. Yet with poetry, people will, as though they’ve seen every poet and read every poem and decided that’s not for them.

“If you think about music, the difference between classical and jazz and blues, there’s all those variations in poetry, even to the extent that … I’m a big Nick Cave fan, so within the genre of rock or pop or whatever, I could say I like that and say I like a particular artist. There are artists I don’t like in rock and pop – being from Nottingham, I was never a big fan of Paper Lace. And talking about Nick Cave, there are certain albums I like and certain albums I don’t, like Nocturne or something like that, and then of those albums, there will be certain tracks I’ll play more than others.

“But you don’t think of that in terms of poetry, saying, ‘I like some of his books, and some of his poems’. It’s always a sort of carte blanche ‘you do like poetry, or you don’t’.”

In my case, I became aware of certain First World war poets, then maybe Dylan Thomas, then there was begrudging acceptance that despite my teenage self’s Dad loving him, I had to admit I enjoyed John Betjeman’s verse, and in more recent years the likes of Luke Wright, Mike Garry, and so on. It gradually gets you.

“It does, and very often we don’t really know that much of it. Were taught a little at school, but that’s not necessarily the flavours we’re going to like throughout life. I remember when I started, thinking, ‘This poetry lark is not passionate enough’. I’m talking the early ‘70s. The First World War poets, some of them, but I hadn’t read them. I think a lot of people’s misgivings about poetry is borne out of ignorance, for want of a better word … in the same way you might say, ‘I don’t like jazz’. But there’s a million flavours of jazz.”

I gather your journey into performance poetry started alongside the likes of Pulp and emerging new wave bands.

“When I started, there were really no poetry events to go to, certainly not for the sort of poetry I was doing. Only what I’d call dry poetry events. I did some of those, but in order to reach an audience, I had to do things like prisons – a very captive audience there! – and hospitals, schools and pop concerts. I lived in Chesterfield for a while, so I’d tour with some of the Sheffield bands, as they seemed to be doing well. Pulp had released a few albums but still hadn’t made it, and we’d turn up at some gigs there’d very often be no one there, or just an ‘andful.

“There were no Nottingham bands at that time, and a lot of the Sheffield bands you won’t have heard of, because they never made it. Dig Vis Drill was one of my favourites, a sort of electronic and guitar band. I loved them to bits. There was Mr Morality, Screaming Trees, a goth band, and some Chesterfield bands like Le Bland and Criminal Sex, a punk band. I drove their van a couple of times – they were too young to hire a van …”

Perhaps too young to be in a band of that name too.

“Yes, I was never involved, apart from driving the van – I was just the getaway driver! Then there was Body Factory, a few who never quite made it. Then I came to Manchester, where there were a lot of singer-songwriters, Martin Coogan I met early on, and went on to some success with The Mock Turtles. And of course, I met his brother. But probably my favourite of the Manchester lot was someone who used to be called Johnny Dangerously, now better known as John Bramwell, or I Am Kloot. Lemn Sissay and I toured with him, must have done around 30 gigs, and those are probably my favourite gigs of all time, touring with Lemn and John.”

John was the second last live act I saw before the shutters came down with the virus, playing in the intimate surroundings of The Venue, Penwortham. A great night it was too.

“D’you know, for me he’s always got the heart of a poet, so he got on very well with us. We toured together in a little car, and he has a great sense of humour.”

In Penwortham he was giggling much of the night.

“Yes … he’s probably better as he drinks! I’ve seen him drunk on stage a few times, and he actually gets funnier the more he’s pissed off! We’d do a gig, then play pitch and putt, go-kart riding, on a beach, or something. They were more than just gigs. They were days out, really.”

We talked about your latest books trying to make sense and cope with all the strangeness and sadness around us, with the pandemic. How do you reckon you coped? Was it just you, Angela (Pell, a screenwriter, the pair publishing best-seller A Normal Family in 2018, drawing on their family experience), and your son?

“Yes, and with Johnny being autistic, to be honest I think he prefers the lockdown. It’s quieter, the sequences of our life are quite rigid, and he likes that routine. For him, less planes in the sky and less cars on the road means less noise, and there’s less people coming round, so he’s very happy.”

I see he’s an artist ‘in his own write’, as John Lennon would put it, responsible for the cover art of the latest two poetry books (and given his own month-long art exhibition in April 2018 at Phoenix Arts Centre, Brighton, Art By Johnny proving an acclaimed success and breaking attendance records).

“Very much so. He paints every day and he’s been doing Zoom classes, exploring different types of painting and forms of creativity, and he’s enjoyed those. They’ve been brilliant. We’ve coped very well, and I’m looking forward now to going out, being a social animal, meeting crowds, having a laugh. To have a laugh with a couple of hundred in a room, you can’t beat it. I don’t do drugs, I don’t drink to excess, anything like that, but the adrenaline and the way your blood surges when you’re having a laugh with a crowd is a big draw, a big high.” 

Of course, I never really believed that you’d retired.

“Ha! Well, I’ve retired from television and film, but I had to put that because people kept sending me scripts and saying, ‘Can you get this on the telly?’. I made more than 450 television programmes, so to a lot of people it’s what I’m known as. But if I made 451 programmes, nobody would know the difference. And once we’d made Philomena, a massive hit all over the world, I’d probably peaked in terms of film and TV production. I think it’s worth recognising that was quite a huge event.

“Doing Gavin and Stacey was great, but you don’t want to compete with yourself all the time, trying to top that. To actually top The Royle Family was quite a hard thing, and in a way I don’t think I ever could, so rather than carry on writing I moved into production, getting things like The Mighty Boosh off and Julia Davis’ work off was sort of investing in the next generation. And I loved helping their careers and dreams.

“But now, as I reach pensionable age … well, I say that, but they keep moving it back, don’t they …  as I keep chasing the pension, I’m thinking there are things I’d like to say, and fun to be had in doing what I’m very passionate about, and I hope what I do best. I don’t know if you’ve heard any of the Radio 4 shows …”

I was going to ask more about A Normal Ageing and The Escape Plan.

A Normal Ageing is the one I’m researching at the moment. I think it’s my 10th show. What I do is pick a subject, go on to Wikipedia, put the word ‘ageing’ or whatever it is in, read the definition and what it’s about, so I know what I’m talking about, then just read as much as I can. With ageing, there are creatures that don’t age, like jellyfish and various worms. And do you know lobsters don’t really age? But they do pee through their faces, so it’s not an ideal existence.

“Finding facts like that is very interesting, and then I talk to lots of people, get their views on the subject. It’s only a half-hour show but I try to do an hour’s worth of material then reach some sort of conclusion. And it’s worked well on all the others. And the shows I do live are very similar to the radio shows – you’ve got stories, jokes and poems as I explore these subjects. And with The Escape Plan, it’s escape through creativity. Richard Lovelace said, ‘Stone walls do not a prison make,’ and we’ve all been in lockdown but we’re all in us ‘eads, so we can escape any time we want.”

I thought there might also be a nod to your Brighton surroundings, and The Escape Club.

“Well, I do live in Brighton, although I’ve got to say my heart’s still in the north. It’s quite funny, I’m bringing up a southerner, but strangely enough, because he only speaks to me and his mum, he’s got a northern accent.”

It’s the other way with me, trying to give my girls a southern identity, having moved to Lancashire from Guildford in late ‘93.

“Oh, I see. You’re part of that movement! But I think you can safely say you’re a northerner now.”  

I’m not quite sure what to make of that, but maybe that’s acceptance from Henry, so I’ll take it on that level. With such an amazing CV as a writer and producer, and all those shows we mentioned and many more, I wondered what you loved watching, growing up.

“Well … (Sgt.) Bilko. I loved Bilko. The weird thing is, when BBC Three started, they said, ‘We need more teenagers on, as teenagers will watch teenagers,’ but I watched Bilko, and it never occurred to me he was a 50-year-old American bloke. He was just a great character.”

Do you remember early ‘80s post-punk outfit Serious Drinking? They had a great song, Countdown to Bilko, about how dull Sunday television was in those days … until The Phil Silvers Show came on later that evening.

“That’s brilliant! Yes, Bilko was my favourite television programme, and my favourite comedian, one that really inspired me, was Jack Benny. There was something beautiful about him, he was such a lovely man and always able to take the mick out of himself. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the original To Be or Not to Be, he did a great version during the war, and it’s his stillness that’s brilliant. He’s got this lovely way of milking the scene for more than it’s there for.

“And the moment I realised I wanted to be either a writer or a performer was when Jack Benny was on the Dean Martin Show. Dean Martin would pretend to be at home, and was on the phone when Jack Benny walked in, and they’re both in tuxedos.

“Now, I’m a raggedy-arse kid in Bilborough, Nottingham, about 12 years old, my Mum’s died, there’s five kids and a Dad who works at Raleigh, we’ve no money, and I’m watching these two blokes in tuxedos. But they nod at each other while he’s on the phone, Jack walks around the settee but doesn’t sit on it, he gets on the floor, starts throwing dice. This is a grown-up man. I’d never seen a grown-up having fun like this. I looked at that, and thought, ‘That’s the world I want to be in!’.”

We all had our ways of getting through the lockdowns, and for many of us part of that involved binge-watching TV shows we’d missed for some reason or other. In my case that included a late conversion to the wonders of Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Fishing, The Detectorists, and The A-Word, and returning to old favourites on the BBC iPlayer, including – for the first time since they first went out – The Royle Family. And that’s certainly stood the test of time, not least the early series. Does catching those clips take Henry back to working with Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash?

“Oh, yeah. The lovely thing is I was paid to sit in a room with funny people. Caroline beyond the television was a funny person anyway. When the bosses used to come up from London, we worked on the sixth floor at Granada, they’d have a chat with us, then when they left, Caroline would open the window and shout down to them, these big top brass, ‘Do a funny walk!’. And because she was so cheeky and charming, they would do a funny walk across the road.

“I love that she wasn’t over-awed by authority. She had that little devilment. If she didn’t feel like writing, we’d go on a Granada tour, go shopping, or go for a bite to eat. Most days we’d probably only write for a couple of hours.”

Were you the one saying, ‘Come on, we best get back’?

“Oh, I was definitely the responsible one. I’d write it all down then type it all up. Even when we were doing Mrs Merton, when we had Dave Gorman writing with us. There’d be four of us, but I’d be the one writing it down. I got paid as a script editor as well as a writer, which was quite nice. I was the only one with a computer. But it was such good fun, and nobody ever worried if you told a bad joke. You’ve got to be able to fail in creativity as well and push the boundaries. And you don’t know where the boundaries are, until you’ve crossed them.”  

There are some impressive stop-offs on this forthcoming tour, not least Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, where I last saw John Cooper Clarke, supporting Squeeze.

“And of course, Ricky Tomlinson and Sue Johnston are from Liverpool. People often forget the mum and dad in The Royle Family are from Liverpool. And they were always in the frame for that, from day one.

“And the Liverpool poets were a big influence on my career. I’ve worked with Roger McGough {in 2018 Henry recorded an episode of Poetry Please which he curated and co-presented with Roger} and Brian Patten, and when I started Manchester Poetry Festival {now Manchester Literature Festival}, I put him on there, and when I started Nottingham Poetry Festival, I put him on there. I’m a big fan. In a way, I like to think I’m a composite of all three {I’m guessing the third referred to is Adrian Henri}. They had three distinct areas in poetry, and I like to dabble in all three. And of course, Spike Milligan was the other big influence.”

That’s someone I meant to mention, having known him from radio and telly but also from a young age for Puckoon and his war memoirs before that great body of poetry.

“Well, I read all his comedy books, then bought Small Dreams of a Scorpion, and it made me cry. He’s so funny, and yet … Back to the tour though, there’s the Sale gig, right near Wythenshawe, where The Royle Family was based, and Wigan, where Lemn’s from. In fact, he sent me a text and it just said, ‘I’ve made it, Henry – a full house at Wigan!’”

You’ve reminded me of a conversation with John Bramwell, talking about the Liverpool and Manchester scenes in music and how he didn’t really fit in either. There’s something of that with you, and The Royle Family had feet in both camps.

“Well, I’m from Nottingham originally, lived in Hull for a while, lived in Chesterfield, lived in Manchester for about 15 years. I think I’ve general northern. I’m probably Doncaster station. Somebody once billed me as ‘local boy everywhere north of Derby’.”

With not only an honorary doctorate of letters from Nottingham Trent University and another by Nottingham University, but also a beer and a bus named after you in your home city.  

“Yes, that’s very nice. That bus has been touring more than I have, of course. But I’m really looking forward to going to the north west. I’ve got such fond memories, and there have been many great poets. Going over to Preston I’m going to be thinking about Hovis Presley. Every corner, as it were, brings back good memories.”

I could have sworn you said Elvis Presley for a moment.

“Hovis Presley! He had a show called Poetic Off Licence. Unfortunately, he died too young. I did manage to film him for television. I got around 60 poets for a programme, Whine Gums, including some who’d never been filmed before, which I’m quite proud of.”

In fact, Hovis was from Bolton, but that’s not far off. As for Henry, how about that tag, ‘the Alan Bennett of poetry’, as The Scotsman put it?

“Well, I love Alan Bennett. I always remember that documentary he did, in a Harrogate hotel {Dinner at Noon, 1988}. He’s on camera talking about the hotel, goes into the bathroom, and he’s shouting at the cameraman, ‘There’s oodles of towels in here!’. He’s got such a lovely way with everyday language.”

“Anyway, I realise you’re going to have to condense this all down to 100 words. Did you know, when we started The Mrs Merton Show, we used to have about five guests? Then it went down to four, then three, then two, because we always complained you never really get a proper conversation going otherwise.”

Well, the word-count stretched to considerably more than 100 words, and I should acknowledge here my thanks to Henry, not least for not mentioning my namesake, Mrs Merton’s lad Malcolm during our conversation (particularly after suffering at school for all those ‘Course you can, Malcolm’ comments for Vicks Sinex adverts from 1972 onwards … not to be confused with a later Tunes advert where the fella asks for a ‘second class return to Dottingham, please’), having half-expected a prompt to get back to my boxroom at some stage.

The Escape Plan tour opened on Dylan Thomas’ old patch in Laugharne, Carmarthenshire, on October 1st, moving on this weekend to Sale Waterside – 8th October, a Morecambe Playhouse sell-out on October 9th and The Library Theatre, Darwen – 10th October, then King’s Place, London – 27th October. Then there’s Square Chapel, Halifax – 3rd November, Barnsley Old School House – 4th November, Retford St Saviours – 13th November, plus a Collingham sell-out – 15th November, a hometown date at Metronome, Nottingham – 16th November, The Met, Bury – 17th November,, Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool – 19th November, Garret Theatre, Chester (part of the Chester Literature Festival) – 20th November, The Ferret, Preston – 21st November, King’s Hall, Ilkley – 23rd November, and a sell-out at Brighton Komedia – 1st December. Henry’s live outings then resume next year at The Quay Theatre, Sudbury – 10th February, Bristol Folk House, Bristol – 12th February, The Old Courts, Wigan – 13th February, Knutsford Little Theatre – 14th February, Wylam Brewery, Newcastle – 15th February, The Leadmill, Sheffield – 16th February, Stamford Corn Exchange – 17th February, The Pound Arts, Corsham – 24th February, Plough Arts Centre, Great Torrington – 25th February, before a finale at The Acorn, Penzance – 26th February.

And for all the latest from Henry Normal, head here. You can also keep tabs via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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