Denis Norden obituary

Stephen Dixon
Denis Norden in 1998 with his trademark clipboard. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

There were three distinct strands to the career of Denis Norden, who has died aged 96, all extremely successful. With his partner, Frank Muir, he was among Britain’s top radio and television comedy scriptwriters in the years following the second world war.

As a broadcaster, he brought a hesitant, gentle charm to long-running BBC radio panel games such as My Word, ending with stories told by Norden and Muir (1956-88) and My Music (with Muir, Ian Wallace, John Amis and Steve Race as chairman, 1967-93, with some TV series along the way). And from 1977 until his retirement in 2006 he became a television star as the host of the hugely popular ITV “out-takes” series It’ll Be Alright on the Night.

In spite of his outstanding creative achievements, Norden was a master of the wry, self-deprecatory anecdote. He liked to tell the story of how, in 1968, feted as a leading expert on humour, and with several comedy writing awards to his credit, he was asked by a national newspaper to review the book Rationale of the Dirty Joke by the American social critic and folklorist Gershon Legman.

Jimmy Edwards as the headmaster in Whack-O! The series was written by Denis Norden and Frank Muir and first aired in 1956. Photograph: Harry Todd/Getty Images

Highly conscious of the honour (or so he claimed for the sake of the story), he worked for several days to produce the 600 words, and when the review was published he was inordinately proud. That night he went to visit his parents, who were Orthodox Jews, and found them sitting with the paper and rather bleak expressions on their faces. “So this is what it’s all come to,” said his mother bitterly. “My son – the expert on dirty jokes.”

His twinkling self-mockery perfectly complemented Muir’s languid diffidence and, though Norden typically played down his own considerable talents as a performer, the pair became a double-act as popular as the comedians for whom they had once written. The writing side of the partnership broke up amicably, partly because he said he was fed up with being “and Denis Norden”, but they remained close friends until Muir’s death in 1998.

Denis Norden, left, and Frank Muir in their office in the 1950s writing scripts for the radio show Take It from Here. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images

Born in Hackney, east London, Denis was the son of George Norden, a gown-maker, and his wife, Jenny (nee Lubell), and he was educated at Craven Park school and the City of London school. The very tall, gangling schoolboy – “all wrists and ankles and a pair of braces” – was poor at games but excelled at English essays. “Every form of writing I have done during the rest of my life,” he observed, “was done because I wanted to get nine out of ten, VG. This can mean insecurity, a seeking for reassurance and approval. You can rationalise it all you like, but it’s in there somewhere.”

When he left school in 1939 he worked for the Hyams brothers, who ran a chain of cinemas in north London, and three years later joined the RAF. He became a radio operator and also wrote stage shows to entertain the troops: one of them benefited from the talents of the servicemen Eric Sykes and Bill Fraser. While in northern Germany, Norden encountered the horrors of the recently liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

On demob in 1945 he started to write gags for variety comedians, including Nat Mills and Bobby and Issy Bonn. “In my time,” he said, “I’ve seen radio, variety, revue, pretty much all of it, and of all of them I have the greatest regard for variety as family entertainment. Comedians had to get on and establish themselves in seven minutes, which is quite different from today’s comedy clubs, where they do 30 minutes to a crowd of drunks.”

Norden met Muir in 1947, when both were working for a script-writing agency run by a top comedy writer of the day, Ted Kavanagh. Norden was providing material for a young Australian comic, Dick Bentley, and Muir was writing for handle-bar-moustached Jimmy Edwards. A BBC radio producer, Charles Maxwell, suggested that the two young writers team up to work on Take It from Here, starring Edwards, Bentley and Joy Nichols (later replaced by June Whitfield).

The show was slow getting off the ground in 1948. Norden said: “Take It from Here was due to run for six shows and we received a bit of a bashing. Everybody hated it at first, but as we hadn’t written all six shows before we began, we were able to adapt to audience reaction, and by the sixth show there was a generally favourable upswing. We ended up writing Take It from Here for 12 years.”

Norden and Muir moved into TV with several successful shows – Whack-O!, for example, also starring Edwards as the charlatan headmaster with a traditional faith in the value of caning (1956-60, with a colour TV revival in 1971-72) – and worked as joint consultants to the BBC TV light entertainment department (1960-64). “I loathed it and was very bad at it,” said Norden. “Frank loved it and was very good at it.”

The decision to sever their professional writing relationship was not taken lightly. “The partnership was like a marriage without the obvious advantages of a marriage,” Norden said. “We saw more of each other than we did of our wives. We wrote everything together. But how long can you go on doing that? How long can you go on being half an entity?”

With Muir happily ensconced in the executive side of television, Norden’s solo career on ITV blossomed. The nostalgia panel show Looks Familiar ran from 1973 to 1987, and It’ll Be Alright on the Night was a huge hit from the start. Actors featured often received more when their mistakes were on It’ll Be Alright on the Night than they had done for the original role. “It’s like a farm where the manure is worth more than the cattle,” said Norden. His own blunder – when filming an ad for Mintoes, a sweet fell out of his mouth and stuck to the crotch of his trousers – caused much hilarity when it was shown.

Denis Norden presenting It’ll Be Alright on the Night’s 50 Years of ITV in 2005. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

Norden was also a successful screenwriter, his credits including The Bliss of Mrs Blossom and The Best House in London (both 1968) and Every Home Should Have One (1970). His awards include Variety Club of Great Britain award for best radio personality (with Muir, 1978); male TV personality of the year (1980); and Writers Guild of Great Britain lifetime achievement award (1999).

In 1980 he was appointed CBE. When he eventually came to write a memoir, Clips from a Life (2008), failing eyesight compelled him to type it on a computer that read his words back to him.

His theory of comedy was deceptively simple: “The best over-generalisation is that in a majority of so-called jokes the laughter is generated by an unexpected withholding of sympathy. You’d be surprised how many jokes can be covered by this – most sex jokes, most relationship jokes, most jokes about authority – doctors, teachers, policemen. It happens when your sense of humanity demands that there should be sympathy – and sympathy is unexpectedly withdrawn.”

Right to the end, Norden continued to maintain that he was not a natural or successful performer, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. “I don’t want to perform, except there’s some stuff I can’t sell to anybody because nobody does that kind of stuff.”

As Amis recalled, he had the gift of leading listeners up the garden path: what was our favourite sound in all music? Norden: “The sound of the bagpipes (pause) fading away into the distance”. Slim and gentle-voiced, he was a consummate professional – one of the wittiest and most delightful men on radio or TV.

In 1943 he married Avril Rosen; she died earlier this year. He leaves their children, Nick and Maggie.

• Denis Mostyn Norden, writer, broadcaster and television presenter, born 6 February 1922; died 19 September 2018