When being funny's just a job . . .
Veteran comedian Norman Collier wasn't short of memories when it came to writing his autobiography. He puts down his dodgy mic to tell Sue Mason some of them . . .
Norman Collier (left) with Norman Wisdom
I get lost trying to find Norman Collier’s bungalow and when I finally arrive he has sent out a search party – his son-in-law, John. We arrive at the house together and John joins us in the sitting room.
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It’s not because he’s worried I’ll trick the 83-year old comedian into talking about things he really shouldn’t be talking about, for in all his 61-year career, there has never been one whiff of scandal about the Hull-born funnyman.
He remains, as he always has been, a family man, devoted to Lucy – his wife of 60 years – his three children, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
The pictures on the walls on the sitting room are all family photographs (although, when pushed, Norman disappears and returns with a picture showing him with a very curly-haired Tom Jones, both looking rather more youthful) and in the corner are some toddlers’ colourful toys.
Although he’s performed for the Queen, toured the world and has a Christmas card list that reads like a Who’s Who of Showbiz, being on stage is, to Norman, just a job – hence the title of his new autobiography.
Comedian Norman signs a copy of his autobiography for fan Stephen Foster at Waterstones in Jameson Street, Hull
He’s never been one to tell jokes but he’s fantastic at telling stories. Even though he’s now hard of hearing (the real reason John is sitting in with us), he hasn’t lost his ability to make grown-ups weep with laughter. Several times he does this to me and I know if I tried to tell the same stories, I wouldn’t get so much as a smile.
As Lucy makes us a cup of tea, Norman recalls his childhood. “I was born in Mason Street, near the fire station, and brought up in New George Street at the back of the New Theatre,” he says. “There were eight of us in a two-bedroomed house, with an outside toilet and no hot water.
“It was hard work. I was the eldest of eight children and it was hard going. It fell to me to go on errands and I even had to wash the kids. I used to heat up the water, stand the children on the table, wash them one at a time and put them to bed.
“We were like rats in a box, arguing over silly things. We would be sitting at the table and saying, ‘Mum, his elbow’s near mine’. We were looking for a fight.
“Everything was on tick and I used to run round to the shops at nearly closing time on a Sunday night and ask them to fill my carrier bag up with stale pastry for tuppence. I also used to go to the old market place in Hull and bid for meat, sixpence a joint. I made a mistake one time and bid for brisket. When I got home my mother threw it at me and I had to dodge it.”
Born on Christmas Day in 1925 and weighing in at a strapping 15lbs 4oz, Norman was later followed by sisters Irene and Ann and brothers Peter, Bernard, Tony, Maurice and Edward.
“Maurice went to Australia when it cost £10 and we never heard any more from him,” says Norman. “It’s hard to understand. He died in Australia.”
The Colliers later moved to Lockwood Street and it was here Norman met Lucy, who lived at the end of the road. “We met in 1947. It was terrible weather, I was 21 and Lucy was 19. We married in 1948 and had a reception with a bit of boiled ham at St Saviours in Stoneferry.”
Funnyman Norman Collier who’s made a career out of comedy
By this time Norman had been through his National Service, joining up at 17 and ending up as a gunner on an aircraft carrier towards the end of the Second World War. “We saw plenty of action but no danger, although the thought of doing it now would terrify me,” says the blue-eyed comedian, who is wearing a blue cardigan, trousers and a pair of khaki-coloured Crocs, decorated with Jibbitz of a monkey, a smiley and a frog.
He was demobbed in 1945 and found work labouring. One of the jobs he worked on was the building of Hall Road School.
It was here he met a friend who would change the course of his life.
“Coming home one night in 1948, Charlie Jacques asked me if I fancied a pint, so we went in to Perth Street Club. In those days, if the act didn’t turn up, they asked for a volunteer. The next thing I knew, I was being announced. That was the first time in my life and it was as if I had been doing it all my life.
“They said I was good and asked if I was an artist. I thought they meant a painter so I said no.”
All the same, for five bob, he acquired a Variety Artists Association card that allowed him to work in the clubs; at that time Hull was unique because the working men’s clubs were all privately-owned.
By the time he began venturing to out-of-town clubs in places like Doncaster and Goole, he was labouring at DCL, Saltend. One day, moving some scrap, he found a funnel and used it as a prop. Caught by his boss shouting “Vote for Collier” through it, he quite expected to be sacked. Instead, the boss pointed to all his cheerful colleagues and told him to carry on.
“When nightclubs came in, I had that much work on that I gave my notice at Saltend in 1962 and just did clubs, working three or four nights a week,” says Norman. From this new field of work, he was selected to take part in a show called Clubland Performance in Blackpool, compered by Michael Aspel. As a result, he was approached by the London office of Lew Grade’s showbiz agency to appear with Cliff Richard and the Shadows, who were huge stars.
“I said I’d rather stay in Hull and do the clubs there because the money in Blackpool wasn’t very good,” says Norman. “They couldn’t believe it.”
But they gave him a few more quid, which meant the Collier family rented a house in Blackpool for the summer season, so he could perform his nightly 10-minute spot.
Now much in-demand, Norman was touring with the likes of stars such as the Everley Brothers.
The first ever TV show he did was Let’s Laugh, which was filmed in Manchester. Also on the bill were fellow comedian Les Dawson and an up-and-coming Welsh singer called Tom Jones, who turned up in a little blue van.
“After that I did the clubs with him in North Wales. He had a good voice but his nose was big then,” says Norman. “But I knew he was going to be a star.”
Several years later, Norman ended up in Las Vegas and discovered Tom was topping the bill at Caesar’s Palace. Telling me the story, he puts on an American accent when he does the voices of those he met, from the taxi driver to the hooker who asked him to watch her bag while she went to the loo. Eventually he was taken through to see Tom (“he was in high-heeled boots”) for a champagne-fuelled happy reunion.
He tells me I must mention Lucy, who would pack his sandwich box for him when he did the clubs, always returning home to East Yorkshire that night, whether he was performing in Plymouth, Eastbourne, Wales or London.
“She used to pack us (Norman would be driven by son, Vic) up with sandwiches, wrapped in tin foil and in a sandwich box with our name on, with tea bags, powdered milk, everything, and she was always waiting up for when we got in at 2am.
“One night I rang her up as we were leaving and said I was hungry. When we got home, she’d cooked a meal. And she never complains.”
Although he’d been told several times he should write a book, he’d never seriously considered it until John pointed out it would help the grandchildren and great-grandchildren realise what Norman had achieved.
And it is John who tells me Norman invented the original “Wheeltappers and Shunters Club”; for the sketch, he would be the club chairman and wear two hats to do different characters.
“I was doing the Talk of the North nightclub in Eccles and in came (comedians) Colin Crompton and Bernard Manning and (producer) Johnny Hamp,” he says. Shortly after, Hamp’s version of The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club appeared, starring Crompton and other comedians.
Norman’s talent always has been creating hilarious scenarios out of nothing – his chicken sketch is a famous example, as is his broken microphone (he gives a private performance for me), an idea which comedian Jim Davidson later used in his act. Perhaps this is why Norman is known as the comedian’s comedian, a name he was given by Jimmy Tarbuck.
He’s in his mid-eighties but Norman is still performing; in August and September he will appear in a 25-night tour of The Best of British Variety, with Tom O’Connor, Faith Brown, Bucks Fizz, Cannon and Ball and Ray Allen; with the nostalgic 80s revival in full swing, he could well be performing the chicken sketch when he’s 90.
A long-serving member of the Grand Order of Water Rats, Norman has raised many thousands of pounds for charity through his golf tournaments. He played golf for the Variety Club of Great Britain and a tournament he organised at Hull Golf Club saw stars such as actor Robert Powell, singer Shakin’ Stevens and comedian Russ Abbott take to the greens at Kirkella.
“It rained all day but everyone played and raised £20,000,” says Norman, who moved into his Welton bungalow on Bonfire Night, 1965. Although guests at the bungalow have included singer Vince Hill and comedians Les Dawson, Frank Carson and Little and Large, it is more likely to host a family gathering, with bread-and-butter pudding made by Lucy. Either that, or they’ll go out to eat as a huge group, with local favourite venues being Mr Chu’s, Voujon and the Loftsome Bridge at Selby.
Son, Vic, is married to Margaret; daughter, Karen, and husband, John, have children, Jonathan, Lucy and Thomas; daughter, Janet, and Pete have two daughters, Rebecca and Jacqui, and grandchildren Lois, Markos and Yasmin.
“The little ones call him Norman because you can’t call him ‘Grandad’ when he’s top of the bill,” says John.
Just A Job, the recollections of Norman Collier, with a foreword by Eric Sykes, is published by Mike Ulyatt Enterprises, price £11.95. Norman will be signing copies of his book in the central atrium at Princes Quay shopping centre, Hull, on Saturday 28th March from noon until 2pm.