Broadcaster and humourist known for It’ll Be Alright on the Night

Born: February 6, 1922;

Died: September 19, 2018

DENIS Norden, who has died aged 96, was a humourist, writer and broadcaster famous for his genial style, love of puns and his long-lasting collaboration with fellow writer and friend Frank Muir.

The pair – Norden straight-faced and lanky, Muir ebullient and bow-tied – worked together for around 50 years, most notably on radio comedy, writing shows such as Take It From Here (affectionately known as TIFH) and The Glums which featured the never-ending engagement between Ron Glum and his fiancee Eth. The shows, and others like it, revolutionised comedy in the post-war years by using comic ideas – improvisation, for example, or parodies of popular shows – that are now taken for granted.

On television, Norden also became famous for devising, writing and presenting It’ll Be Alright on the Night, a long-running show in which, clutching a clipboard for no apparent reason, he would introduce behind-the scene bloopers from TV shows around the world. The idea was inspired by the famous episode of Blue Peter featuring the incontinent elephant although Norden never imagined it would last for 29 years. “I didn’t think television would last 29 years,” he once joked.

He was born in Hackney, London, within the sound of Bow Bells, making him a Jewish Cockney. His father’s family had been in the East End for generations; his mother’s family was originally from Poland. The family business was bridalwear and Norden’s father had hoped his son would follow him into the firm.

However, Norden decided his future lay in cinemas and he began training as a manager with the Hyams brothers, who were responsible for some of Britain’s most spectacular picture houses in the days when going to the pictures was about much more than the film. As well as the main event, the evening’s entertainment at a Hyams cinema would also often include variety acts, a newsreel, an organ solo and a cartoon.

Norden worked at a number of the brothers’ cinemas including the Gaumont State and the Trocadero, although things could occasionally get out of hand. “When I was assistant manager at the Trocadero, there were two local gangs, the Elephant Boys and the Elephant Heads,” he said. “I replaced an assistant manager who’d had his face slashed. When I went to the Tube station to go home, I had an escort of commissionaires carrying wooden rollers from inside the roller towels. You can imagine what my parents thought of this.”

Norden’s time working in cinemas led to his first experience of broadcasting when he approached the BBC with an idea for a radio programme about the history of the Holburn Empire. It was broadcast in 1942 but does not survive in the archives.

His career was then interrupted by service in the RAF, although he began to write revues to entertain the troops and they performed all over Europe and featured, among others, Eric Sykes and Bill Fraser

After the war, he joined Hyman Zahl Variety Agency as a trainee agent and writer in residence, writing scripts for the agency’s comedians. He then began contributing to radio and was first introduced to Muir by the producer of a programme they had both worked on. Like Norden, Muir was ex-RAF and they clicked right away. When the producer asked them if they would be averse to writing a script for a new show together, they allegedly replied in perfect unison “not a whit averse” and Norden said later that the fact they had both used the same outmoded phrase suggested to him right away that they might think alike.

And they did, although they had quite different personalities. Muir would laugh like a drain at readings of their scripts, while Norden would sit scowling and worrying about how they could make it better.

One of their first joint projects was Take if From Here, which starred Jimmy Edwards, and ran from 1948 until 1959 when Muir and Norden left to devote themselves to writing for television. Edwards later starred in Norden and Muir’s TV series Whack-O! as the cane-swishing, drink-loving headmaster of Chiselbury public school. There was also a film version in 1960 called Bottoms Up!

Take if From Here also inspired a spin-off, The Glums, about a young couple Ron and Eth who never seem to get married and also never get round to “doing it” despite Ron’s best efforts. At some point every week, Eth (played by June Whitfield) would bemoan her lot in life and say “Oh Ron!” which became the show’s catchphrase.

Norden and Muir had now become the leading comedy writers of the time and were taken on by BBC’s Light Entertainment Department as rather grandly-titled Consultants and Advisers on Comedy. In 1952 they devised In All Directions, the first radio comedy series to be aired without a script; Peter Ustinov and Peter Jones played all the characters and did most of the sound effects.

By the 1960s, they were writing mainly for television and film. They wrote the sitcom Brothers in Law, which featured Richard Briers in his first starring role, and in 1968, Norden wrote the screenplay for The Bliss of Mrs Blossom, a comedy film starring Shirley MacLaine and Richard Attenborough; it won him an Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay.

As a broadcaster, Norden also played a curious role in the coverage of the moon landings in 1969. On the night, David Frost hosted a programme for Associated Rediffusion and asked Norden to contribute three minutes. Looking around for an idea, he noticed that next door to the studio in which they were working was a locked room guarded by security and in his broadcast, he suggested that inside that room there could be a mock up of the moon and it would be those pictures that would be beamed around the world. In doing so, Norden may have played an unwitting role in inspiring the conspiracy theories which still surround the moon landings.

However, Norden will always be best remembered for his association with It’ll Be Alright on the Night, which ran with him as presenter from 1977 until 2006. He dreamed up the idea with Paul Smith, a producer at London Weekend Television. They were talking about the Blue Peter elephant incident when one of them – Norden could never remember which – said: “I wonder if it would be possible to string together a whole programme from outtakes?”

Realising it was a great idea, they immediately put it to Michael Grade, then head of entertainment for LWT. Half an hour later, they left his office with a recording date and a budget (because that’s how television was made in those days). It was Grade who suggested the title.

For the next 29 years, the show was a popular regular in the schedules with Norden occasionally finding himself a target of the kind of parody he helped pioneer. Sometimes during breaks in the recording, he would invite questions from the audience and one of the most common was “why are you always clutching a clipboard?” His answer was “because I never know what to do with my hands”. “On one occasion,” he said, someone at the back shouted ‘Have you ever thought of putting them over your mouth?’”

His other well-known television show was Looks Familiar, a panel game dealing in 1930s and 40s nostalgia which ran for 195 episodes from 1970 until 1987. The show featured many of the stars which Norden had seen on the big screen when he was a cinema manager in the 1930s and it was a great delight for him. “I liked the notion of presenting nostalgia without regret,” he said. “Not as an era that was better – simply different.”

In 2006, he made a farewell programme called All the Best, which was an anthology of favourite clips from the various ITV shows he had presented over the years. Looking back on his career, he always considered himself lucky that he had been present at the birth of many of the forms of popular entertainment and enjoyed their heyday – everything from variety theatres to west end revues and from super cinemas to MGM musicals.

He was awarded CBE in 1980, was pre-deceased by his wife Avril, and is survived by his daughter Maggie and son Nick.