Comedy writer and presenter passes away aged 96.
Best known in recent years as the host of ITV’s It’ll Be Alright on the Night, Norden was a pioneer of British comedy writing with a host of solo scripts as well as a partnership with fellow writer Frank Muir (1920-1998). Together they reinvented radio comedy in a post-war UK.
Denis’ first script was sent to BBC Radio, which in those days was the most popular media, in August 1941 when he, as a 19-year-old awaiting his RAF call-up, submitted a six-part production entitled Let’s Go to the Holborn, which revolved around variety theatre the Holborn Empire. It was the first of 100s of scripts he would write for radio and later television. With increased work demands Muir and Norden were brought together by the writer Ted Kavanagh.
“He’d [Ted] written It’s That Man Again, the big radio hit of the war years. Later he set up a settlement of writers and he decided Frank and I would work well together. Frank Muir and I had things in common – such as our shared RAF background – but we were also very different. Frank was a performer to his fingertips and would have made a wonderful light comedian.” – Denis Norden speaking to BBC News in 2016
In 1948 Muir and Norden had their biggest radio hit with Take It From Here, which ran for a decade on the wireless. Other productions included Third Division, which starred future comedy names such as Peter Sellers, Michael Bentine, Harry Secombe and Benny Hill, and spoof travelogue Balham – Gateway To The South which became even more popular when it was recorded for Peter Sellers album The Best of Sellers. The post-war British comedy scene was changing, and partly thanks to new writers having experienced American comedians during the Second World War.
“In the forces we had access to high-powered radios which got the American Forces Network. The people who became writers and performers after 1945 had often spent the back half of the war listening to Bob Hope and Jack Benny. Ideas on comedy changed.” – Denis Norden speaking to BBC News in 2016
As well as writing, in the 1950s, Denis moved to the other side of the microphone appearing on long-running radio panel games such as My Word and My Music. His hesitant, gentle charm and wry, self-deprecatory wit making him a popular voice with listeners. In 1953 he was seen on BBC Television on the panel show The Name’s The Same with many other appearances following on shows such as Juke Box Jury, What’s My Line? and The Celebrity Game.
Writing for television included on programmes such as sitcom And so to Bentley, The Seven Faces of Jim and Brothers In Law. Sketch material was provided to programmes such as satirical offering That Was The Week That Was, variety slot The Vera Lynn Show and content for Bernard Braden and David Frost programmes. Star names performing his material included Ronnie Barker, June Whitfield, Richard Briers and Jimmy Edwards to name only a few.
“In the name London Weekend Television, the words ‘London’ and ‘Television’ mean exactly what you’d expect. But the word ‘Weekend’ carries the same meaning as ‘dirty weekend’, in otherwords its two days, but three nights.” – Denis Norden speaking on LWT in 1978
In 1969 former writing partner Frank Muir joined new ITV production company and broadcaster London Weekend Television as Head of Entertainment, it opened doors at LWT for Denis who would become one of their biggest stars and contributors for the following four decades. In 1978 he hosted 10 Years of LWT; a series that not only celebrated but noted the low times of the ITV company – in a style only Norden could get away with – and he revived sitcom The Glums with the company in the same year. It was however as host of clip show It’ll Be Alright on the Night from 1977 through to 2006 (and various spin-offs) that Norden is best remembered by television audiences.
He also hosted several other shows for the Independent Television network, including Looks Familiar and With Hilarious Consequences for Thames Television, ITV50 marking fifty years of the broadcaster and his own special farewell programme in 2007 simply entitled All The Best From Denis Norden. Guest spots included on shows such as Channel 4’s Countdown, including being its Dictionary Corner star for the 1500th episode and was the subject of This Is Your Life in 1976.
“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.” – Denis Norden speaking to BBC News two years ago
Denis died earlier today a family statement noted (Wednesday 19th September) after spending his final weeks in the Royal Free Hospital London. Norden’s children Nick and Maggie thanked the staff of the hospital who had looked after him with devotion.
In a change to ITV’s schedules, the broadcaster is airing All the Best from Denis Norden tonight at 10.45pm as a tribute to their former personality.
“A wonderful dad, a loving grandfather and great great-grandfather – he gave his laughter-mongering to so many. He will be in our hearts forever.” – Norden family statement