Obituary: Denis Norden – ‘Witty, clipboard-clutching host of It’ll Be Alright on the Night’
Though he became nationally known in the 1980s as the witty, clipboard-clutching host of It’ll Be Alright on the Night, Denis Norden’s illustrious career stretched back to the early days of radio and TV comedy.
With his writing partner Frank Muir, Norden created the long-running radio show Take It from Here in 1947, followed by one of TV’s earliest sitcoms, Whack-O!, starring Jimmy Edwards as the whisky-swigging, cane-wielding headmaster of a boys’ prep school.
Norden began his working life as a starstruck cinema manager in the 1940s when a trip to the flicks included a top-notch variety bill. It gave him an opportunity to watch and work with a host of variety stars while writing parodies of popular songs that were projected on to the screen accompanied by a Wurlitzer organ.
Years later, this early training in parody and pastiche would hold him in good stead for the radio shows My Word! (34 years’ duration) and My Music (24 years), which depended on quick wit and wordplay. In both shows he was matched against Muir, their mock-rivalry a benchmark of talk radio for three decades.
A running joke in My Music was Norden’s inability to sing in tune. While the other three contestants boasted varying degrees of vocal accomplishment, Norden very obviously couldn’t sing to save his life, Muir famously describing his partner’s voice as “an unreliable baritone with vegetable connections”.
In his autobiography, Kentish Lad, Muir described his first impressions of Norden, “alarmingly intelligent, his mind a fascinating mixture of intellectual rigour and showbiz flair”. For Norden’s part, he said their partnership was “like a conspiracy, closer than any intimacy you could achieve with anybody else”.
When they ceased writing together in 1964 – Muir to become a TV executive, Norden to go solo as writer and presenter – others seemed amazed their parting was so amicable. Norden went on to write film scripts for the big screen, as well as presenting the ITV daytime show Looks Familiar, which ran for 14 years.
But it was It’ll Be Alright on the Night, the top-rating blooper show, that catapulted Norden to front-of-camera celebrity status in the late 1970s. Never without his clipboard, which he insisted was merely a prop to occupy his hands, Norden’s dry commentary on a carnival of cock-ups was as witty as it was succinct.
Until he retired from the show in 2006, aged 84, Norden personally viewed and assessed every clip on every tape submitted to the show. He continued working a five-day week for several years after his retirement.
Denis Mostyn Norden was born on February 6, 1922, and died on September 19, aged 96.