Life, love and literacy - A chat with Henry Normal
PUBLISHED: 00:00 30 September 2016
Welcome to a feast of literature as comedy writer Henry Normal talks about life and poetry and the Manchester Literature Festival
Henry Normal is a legend. He’s been a producer and writer on around 400 TV shows and 30 films including Mrs Merton, The Royle Family, Alan Partridge, Philomena and 24 Hour Party People. But now he’s taking a break from all that and heading to Manchester’s Literature Festival this month.
The return is poignant in more ways than one. The break comes following the death of his father and his brother.
‘My brother was 61 when he died and I’m now 60 and it’s those kind of things that affect you,’ he reveals.
‘My son is autistic and when he was 18 the council came in and made him a ward of court. That was really a kick in the stomach, so I’m trying to come to terms with all these things.’
Johnny was diagnosed as ‘mildly severe’ on the autistic spectrum. Henry was handed a leaflet with the word ‘incurable’ on it. So he’s returned to his first love, which is poetry. ‘Well, it’s my first love after my wife and children,’ he quips.
‘My mum died when I was 11 and I’d been quite gregarious until that point but I became quite withdrawn. Then I read Spike Milligan’s book Small Dreams of a Scorpion and it completely changed me. It was so personal and yet funny and it was that which made me want to write.’
His seventh collection, Staring Directly at the Eclipse, offers poems about death, human frailty and other classic conversation stoppers. The Scotsman referred to him as ‘the Alan Bennett of poetry.’
In one poem, he describes his feelings about his son: ‘It means he will always live at home, it means he will never have a job, never have a girlfriend, never be capable of taking care of himself …you worry what will happen to him when you die,’ he says.
Manchester actually has Henry to thank for the literature festival which is held around venues in the city throughout October as he helped establish it 20 years ago in a different guise as the Manchester Poetry festival.
‘I’d done Packet of Three on television and got a bit of money. I was a bit miserable and the money wasn’t making me any happier,’ reveals Henry.
‘So a few local people including Johnny Dangerously and Lemn Sissay thought we’d put on an urban poetry festival. I got Rik Michael, who was a rock and roll promotor in Manchester, and we paid him a bit of money to publicise it as you would if it was a music festival. The poet Tony Harrison was one of the first people we had at The Green Room but over the years we had everyone including Seamus Heaney, the night after he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. That was one of my best nights ever.’
Before he became Henry Normal he was Peter Carroll and he’d followed a girlfriend up to Manchester from Chesterfield where ran an indie record store called Planet X Records. The girlfriend went to London but he stayed - ‘I didn’t love her that much’ - and it was here he remained for around 15 years before quitting the north for Brighton.
He’d hang out with Steve Coogan and Caroline Aherne on the nascent comedy circuit but it wasn’t fame he dreamed of.
‘I had a dream of eating - that was the first thing!’ he laughs. ‘I didn’t really know what fame was. There was no endgame. At the time there were no such things as comedy clubs in the north. We played folk clubs, the Buzz (in Chorlton) was originally a folk club. I remember playing Stockport Town Hall and there were can-can dancers on before me.’
Of course the emotional impact of Caroline Aherne’s death in July is something that he has also been coming to terms with.
‘The last time I came to Manchester was for Caroline’s funeral,’ he says.
‘There must be 56 million people who die every year but every single one is important. It’ so definite when somebody dies and in a way things like religion and ritual are ways of getting you through it but they can also get in the way of the personality of the person and your relationship with them.
‘Caroline, had she been alive and at her own funeral would have been making jokes all the way through it. She was a beautiful, generous and complex person. I do feel privileged to have known her.’
Henry Normal will be at the Manchester Literature Festival which runs from October 7th-23rd at the Anthony Burgess Foundation, The Engine House, Chorlton Mill, 3 Cambridge Street Manchester M1 5BY on October 8th