Friday, December 02, 2022

Clips from a Life, by Denis Norden

It's been a busy few months running the First Novel Award for the Writers' Guild of Great Britain - the shortlist to be announced shortly. Now I'm back to reading stuff related to my forthcoming biography of David Whitaker, former chair of the Writers' Guild and first story editor of Doctor Who.

Before that, Whitaker was script editor for Light Entertainment at the BBC, at the same time that Denis Norden and Frank Muir were employed as advisers on comedy. Whitaker then succeeded Norden (and Hazel Adair) as chair of the guild. So I scoured this memoir for any telling detail.

As Norden admits, it's is a rather loose collection of memories, jotted down as they occurred to him and then assembled in rough chronological order. There's a lot on his love of puns and odd turns of phrase, and much of the history is given by anecdote. He doesn't mention Whitaker but provides some fun tales about people in the same orbit - Ted Ray, Eric Maschwitz, Ronnie Waldman, the sitcom Brothers in Law starring Richard Briers and June Barry (Whitaker's first wife), and the early days of the guild.

For example, there's the striking fact that Hazel Adair, co-creator of Compact and Crossroads, who was Norden's co-chair, “at the Guild’s first Awards Dinner opened the dancing with Lew Grade” (p. 281).

Norden's eye for comic detail means there's plenty of vivid, wry observations. I particularly liked this, on the cultures of cinema:

“During the early forties I did some RAF training in Blackpool, where I discovered the cinemas were in the habit of interrupting the main feature sharp at 4 pm every day, regardless of what point in the storyline had been reached, in order to serve afternoon tea. The houselights would go up and trays bearing cups of tea would be passed along the rows. After fifteen minutes, the lights would dim down again, the trays would be passed back and the film wold resume. Anyone unwise enough to be sitting at the end of a row at that point could be left holding stacks of trays and empty cups.” (p. 33)

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