Henry Normal: 'We are doing very exciting things with Alan Partridge'
Forget the self-effacing pseudonym, Henry Normal is behind our best screen comedy – and now the new Alan Partridge film. Alice Jones meets him.
Back when Mrs Merton was a young slip of a thing, Alan Partridge was just a twinkle in the eye and Gavin and Stacey weren't even born, Henry Normal wrote a poem ahead of his show at the Edinburgh Fringe. It was called "The Performer's Prayer" and it began, "God, let there be an audience, please let there be an audience/ Let me not have to lie about the attendance figures when asked." "Let me", it continued, "be nominated and given whatever awards are going or let awards be made up specially..."
Someone must have been listening. Twenty years later, Normal (whose real name is Peter Carroll – he changed it when he started in comedy so that the insurance company where he worked didn't find out about his night job) doesn't need to pray for good audience figures or trophies. As the co-writer of The Mrs Merton Show, The Royle Family and Coogan's Run and the CEO and co-founder of Baby Cow Productions with Steve Coogan, he is responsible for bringing many of the finest – and most watched – comedy shows of the past decade to the screen. Nighty Night, The Mighty Boosh, Gavin & Stacey and The Trip, to name but a few, all began life here, in a tiny, third-floor office just off Oxford Street in London.
A modest shelf on the wall by the door buckles with Baftas, Comedy Awards and RTS gongs. "We're quite a small team here – 14 people – but we've made about 200 hours of television in the last 13 years," says Normal, taking a satisfied slurp of tea. "It's like a small family firm." It certainly feels that way. Armando Iannucci, who recently joined the firm as creative director, sits in a corner, hunched over scripts for the new Alan Partridge film. "And there's Ali," says Normal, waving cheerfully at Alison MacPhail, senior producer. "We all get involved in everything..."
It is Normal, though, who is the neatly dressed engine of the operation – the money man, the decision-maker and the fine tuner, who combines funny bones with financial savvy. Ten years older than his comedy partner, at 55, he is the brains behind Coogan's bravado, the sensible Gavin to his impulsive Smithy; the avuncular Rob to his limelight-hogging Steve; the, dare one say it, Lynn to his Alan. "I run the company," he says. "Steve comes in and out." Coogan, he tells me, calls him the roundhead to his cavalier. "Which I think probably sums up it up."
The happy family ethos is key to Baby Cow. Since its beginnings in 1999, it has not just spotted new talent but nurtured it. Ruth Jones, Rob Brydon and Julia Davis cut their teeth with minor roles in its shows before becoming stars of their own. "In this country we don't build things like the Americans, in a factory," says Normal in his cosy, Nottingham brogue. "It is very much 'and-crafted. So you need craftsmen."
Master craftsman Coogan is now set to return to the fold. An Alan Partridge film will begin shooting this summer, after five years in development. Normal had no qualms about exhuming the Norfolk DJ – whose last tv series was in 2002 – first for a internet serial, Mid Morning Matters, last year, and now on film. "And Steve didn't either. We're doing very exciting things with Alan. In a movie you're looking at a different 90-minute world. The worst thing, especially when you've done something as good as I'm Alan Partridge, is to try to emulate it in the exact same way. That can be very difficult. There's a sense you're competing against yourself."
It could also give Coogan, currently shooting a biopic of the porn baron Paul Raymond around the corner in Soho. the big-screen hit that has eluded him so far. "One of these days", says Normal. "He's going to make a really brilliant film that earns lots of box office".
Before that, the next "hand-crafted" show to emerge from the stable is Starlings, written by Matt King (aka Peep Show's Super Hans) and Steve Edge (aka Phoenix Nights' Alan). A hybrid of The Royle Family and Gavin & Stacey, with more hedgerows and gentler laughs, it follows multiple generations of the Starlings, all living together in one Tardis-like family home in rural Derbyshire. Lesley Sharp and Brendan Coyle play the heads of house, responsible not only for their teenage children, but also for granddad, his long-lost son, a divorced nephew, a moping ex-boyfriend and a wailing new arrival who gives the first episode its cockle-warming centre.
"Like Gavin & Stacey, when I first saw the script it had the absolute truth of a working-class experience. But not exaggerated in the way of something like Shameless," says Normal.
Meanwhile, he's busy editing the scripts for Hebburn, a new six-parter for BBC2 starring the stand-up Jason Cook and Vic Reeves. Also coming soon are Hunderby, a new black comedy set in the 1800s from queen of comic noir Julia Davis, and Moone Boy, in which Chris O'Dowd plays an imaginary friend to a younger version of himself.
The latter two will join Starlings on Sky. In its early days, Baby Cow had a "first look" deal with the BBC, but financial times have changed. Sky has pledged £600m to original programming, poaching comedy commissioners Lucy Lumsden and Stuart Murphy (who greenlit Gavin & Stacey) from the BBC to oversee it. "Sky's investment has more or less saved our business," says Normal. "There was a long period when the BBC were the only people doing scripted comedy. Thank goodness they did, but they need to look to the ambition that Sky has got."
The self-styled "raggedy-arse kid from a council estate" has come a long way. He grew up in the Nottingham suburb of Bilborough, the son of a Raleigh factory worker. His mother died when he was 12 years old, which he says set him on the path to comedy. At college, he began writing "Spike Milligan-ish" jokes, pasting them up anonymously in the corridors under the typically self-effacing heading, "Please do not read".
Aged 17 he went to work in insurance and was a manager in Hull by the time he was 20. Then one day he went to see Animal House. "And I handed in my notice the next day." Henry Normal was born. He moved in with his sister, Linda, and began to write, firing off poems, short stories, cartoon strips and novels to anyone with an address.
Seeing the punk poet John Cooper Clarke at Sheffield's Leadmill inspired him to tour his own bittersweet poems around the clubs of Chesterfield. He soon became a quirky warm-up act for local bands, including Pulp. "I remember Jarvis broke both his legs falling out of Russell's window and I had to wheel him on stage in a wheelchair. It's one of my fondest memories..." In 1991, he landed a television series, Packet of Three, with Jenny Eclair and Frank Skinner ("John Hegley didn't want to do it"), but missed the intimacy of his early gigs and moved into writing.
Around the same time, he moved to Manchester and met Coogan, then doing his impersonations on the circuit. "I knew he was going to be a star from the moment I met him," says Normal. "He had more ambition than anyone else." They played the clubs of Ashton-under-Lyne together – "If we got £30, it was a good night" – and as Normal finished The Mrs Merton Show, Coogan asked him to team up on a script. "So we sat down in a cafe and wrote Paul Calf."
They've worked together ever since. While Coogan flits from LA to the Leveson Inquiry, Normal lives contentedly in Hove with his wife, Angela Pell (who wrote the Sigourney Weaver film Snow Cake) and their teenage son, Johnny. Despite superficial differences, he and Coogan share a "working-class sensibility", he says. When it comes to programme-making they need only one rule. "If we wouldn't watch it, then we don't put it on."
It's served them well so far, making them one of the most fruitful, and long-lasting, double acts in comedy history. "There's no antagonism. We're going on the same journey, in the same direction," says Normal. "I've got more in common with Steve than I have with most people. Apart from the fact that he probably goes out of a night whereas I stay in."
'Starlings' starts on 13 May , Sky 1, 8pm
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