BAFTA writer behind The Royle Family launches live tour, 'The Escape Plan'
WITH over 30 years of critically-acclaimed television and film under his belt, BAFTA award-winning writer and producer Henry Normal has led anything but a hum-drum life.
I don't mind if people wear masks. I don't have to see the smiles, I just have to hear the laughs.
From his early days touring as a performance poet with Pulp, to working with Seamus Heaney, Roger McGough and John Cooper Clarke, to co-writing hit TV shows like The Royle Family, Mrs Merton, and Coogan’s Run - Henry’s even had a beer and a bus named after him in his hometown of Nottingham.
Now, Henry Normal is returning to his first love of poetry and a tour of the UK with a live show called The Escape Plan. If you’ve listened to his series of shows on BBC Radio 4 (A Normal…) then you’ll already know that his style is a combination of laugh out loud comedy fused with quite poignant poetry.
His two latest collections, The Beauty Within Shadow and The Distance Between Clouds are a reflection of many aspects of life, with Henry’s distinctive humour and light-hearted gravitas. The PR tells me they were both written during the COVID-19 pandemic. Erm, that doesn’t sound very entertaining, does it?
On the other end of the phone, Henry laughs.
“If you think about it, we've been on an adventure," he says.
"When you can't travel, then you have to escape in different ways, so what we've done is we've explored family a bit more, haven't we? It depends on your family, but for me that's been quite a nice adventure because I have a lovely wife and son. And we've had some fun, but I've got to spend time with them and live with them in a different way.”
Born in Nottingham in 1956, Henry - real name Peter James Carroll - now lives in Brighton with his wife, the screenwriter Angela Pell. Henry’s poetry renaissance was inspired by his experiences bringing up their autistic son Johnny, something which is central to Henry’s latest books.
“The first book, The Beauty Within Shadow, is the fact that we're in the shadow of this pandemic, but it's finding the beauty within that,” says Henry.
“The second book [The Distance Between Clouds] is where we're coming out of it now. That’s really about setting a new future, because we don't quite know how the future is going to unfold.
"You could look at the rain clouds, or you could look at the bits in between them and think, well, we've got a bit of sunshine there. That's me trying to look at the positive rather than the negative.”
Part of Henry’s charm is his ability to make the ordinary things in life very, very funny - something which he put to great use as co-creator and co-writer of The Royle Family with Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash.
Set in Wythenshawe in Manchester, with two of the main leads from Liverpool - Ricky Tomlinson and Sue Johnston - the sitcom was about a relatable Northern family going through everyday life.
“Caroline came in and said, ‘We're going to write a new thing today’ and we sat down, me, Caroline and Craig.
“Caroline said, ‘What does your dad say?’ And so we started off writing down just what our parents said. One of the most memorable lines at the start is Ricky Tomlinson saying, ‘Who’s been phoning Aberdeen?’, because all our dads were a little bit careful with money, shall we say.
“The bosses from London didn't understand it at all. They said, ‘Can we not be a bit more friendly?’ We said, well they are friendly. It’s not Dallas. We're not going to say, I love you all the time - that’s not how it works in the north. If you like somebody you take the mick out of them.
The Royle Family was groundbreaking and I put that down to Caroline’s vision.
“We had two episodes and we sat on them for about a year and a half, because the bosses couldn't understand it. They couldn't understand that there was no plot, and they couldn't understand that it was just half an hour in the life of somebody.
“And if you think about it, it's the first time you've ever seen people watch television. But that's what we all do, that's very much a lot of people's lives.
“If you made a cup of tea in the show, it would take as long as it does to make a cup of tea. That was the rule, and nobody would say anything.
“It was groundbreaking and I put that down to Caroline’s vision. Once I understood what she wanted, then I was very much into it. I loved doing it, it was great.”
After the first series of The Royle Family, Henry had the choice of either writing a second series or working on a film with Steve Coogan.
He chose to write The Parole Officer, and went on to form Baby Cow Productions with Coogan, making hit programmes including Gavin & Stacey, Ideal, Alan Partridge, The Mighty Boosh, Marion & Geoff, Nighty Night, and the Oscar-nominated film Philomena.
Even with all those hit productions, Henry says the BAFTA was unexpected.
“When they rang me they said, ‘We're going to give you a special BAFTA and everybody's going to come and we're gonna have a meal.’ My first reaction was, who’s paying for this?
“Don't forget your working class background,” Henry laughs.
“When I used to work on The Royle Family, we used to go in the V&A. It always tickled me that Ricky Tomlinson and Sue Johnston, and some of the other cast, would sit in the V&A - a very posh hotel in Manchester - and Ricky would take his own beer in a carrier bag and then sneak it into his glass, so we didn't have to pay the expensive prices.”
Prior to his illustrious TV career, Henry toured as a performance poet with new wave bands from Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield, including a then-unknown group called Pulp. He also toured with Seamus Heaney in Ireland and managed to get the Irish poet to Manchester Poetry Festival (now the Manchester Literature Festival) which Henry set up 25 years ago.
“I managed to get [Heaney] the day after he’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature,” Henry says.
“It was lovely to see him arrive at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester and everybody stood up and applauded him as he entered. That was a moment in history.”
Poetry gets a bit of a bad rep sometimes, so what does poetry mean to Henry?
“Poetry is a form of communication," Henry says.
"Nobody ever says, ‘I don't like music’ or ‘I don't like paintings’. Yet people do say ‘I don't like poetry’ as if it's one thing - and of course it's many, many things.
“I spent my life, both in television and in poetry, trying to connect with humanity in others, and trying to say that it's okay for us to be imperfect.
“When you're a kid, you see this big wide world. And I think you can feel a little bit intimidated, that you're imperfect, and some people take that into adulthood. It takes away from your enjoyment of the world.
“So, if anything, that's what my poetry has been about over the 40 years I've been doing it - about getting in touch with humanity and coming to terms with imperfection. And some knob gags, obviously.
“Spike Milligan was both serious and damn funny. The Liverpool poets - Roger McGough, Brian Patton and Adrian Henri - are a really good blend of lots of different things. You've got comedy but you've also got love poems and tenderness.”
Henry has supported some big acts over the years, but this is his first solo tour.
“If people come and see me, there's a great compliment. Because obviously, we've all been locked away. It's a great compliment in putting your foot out the door and actually making that decision to get back into the world and to become social again.
“Now, obviously we've got to do it safely. I don't body surf the crowd and there's no mosh pit. It’s going to be very ‘COVID-friendly’, as it were. I don't mind if people wear masks. I don't have to see the smiles, I just have to hear the laughs.”
The Escape Plan visits 19 venues across the UK, including a substantial Northern leg of the tour in 2021:
- Sale Waterside - 8 October 2021
- The Library Theatre, Darwen - 10 October 2021
- The Old Courts, Wigan - 2 November 2021
- Rebrick Auditorium, Halifax - 3 November 2021
- The Met, Bury - 17 November 2021
- Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool - 19 November 2021
- Garrett theatre, Chester (Chester Literature Festival) - 20 November 2021
- King's Hall, Ilkley - 23 November 2021
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