Showbiz stars on 'giant of British comedy' Norman Collier
BACK in the days when Blackpool's summer season attracted the biggest stars in British comedy, the Lord Mayor used to host a lavish launch party.
"They were very glamorous events," remembers Tommy Cannon, comic veteran and one half of enduring duo Cannon and Ball.
"Everybody who was everybody was there. That was when summer season was summer season.
"I can remember to this day the time we were there with Norman. He was such a funny guy, he could reduce a room to stitches without saying a word.
"On this occasion, they'd put a huge bowl of punch in the middle of the room and everyone was taking little dainty drinks from it. Norman walked up to it, took his socks off, washed them in the punch, wrung them out, put them back on and then carried on as if nothing had happened.
"The whole room had just stopped and there were people weeping with laughter.
"But that was Norman. He was a one-off, a brilliant comedian. But, more than that, he was a lovely, genuine man.
"I'm absolutely devastated," says Tommy, visibly choked. "I only visited him about three weeks ago and I knew he wasn't in the best of health. But I'm so sorry for his family. He was a giant of British comedy and he'll be sorely missed."
Tommy Cannon is just one of many friends, colleagues and fans paying tribute to Norman Collier after the Hull funnyman passed away at the age of 87.
All of the comics who worked the clubs alongside Norman, many of whom rose alongside him to national TV stardom, have fond memories of the man who created the original broken mic routine and was famed for his dancing chicken act.
"He was the funniest of all of us," says former Bullseye host Jim Bowen.
"I've known Norman for 30 years, maybe more, and he was one of the nicest men in showbusiness.
"There was one thing for certain, you never wanted to go on after Norman. He was so funny that he'd blow you away. He was an absolute master. I think people maybe forget today but he was an absolutely massive star. He didn't do The Comedians, but he worked his way up through the clubs.
"He worked really hard to get where he did, and no one deserved it more. I remember us doing the Royal Command Performance and him even making the Queen laugh."
Born on Christmas Day, 1925, Norman grew up in New George Street, Hull, at the back of the New Theatre, where he and his seven brothers and sister lived in a cramped two-bedroom house with no hot water and an outside toilet.
Speaking to The Journal in 2009, the comic remembered a hard childhood, visiting the markets at night bargaining for leftover meat and stale pastry.
"It was hard work," he said. "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."
The Colliers later moved to Lockwood Street and it was here Norman met Lucy, his devoted wife of more than 60 years, who lived at the end of the road.
"We met in 1947," he said. "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."
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After being demobbed from the Army in 1945, Norman turned his hand to labouring but would later find his comic vocation by accident, after being volunteered to do a turn at the Perth Street Club, when the booked act failed to appear.
From there, his star slowly rose, first on the Hull club scene and then further afield.
Fellow comedian and friend Johnnie Casson later travelled the world with Norman, visiting places such as Belize and Oman on tour and entertaining the forces.
"Norman was one of the funniest men I ever met. Seriously, he could make a cat laugh," says Johnnie.
"A lot of the places we visited, it didn't matter if they could speak English or not, he could make you laugh just by looking at him.
"He was a lovely, generous, man and, for me, he had conquered the art of living – he got older but he never grew up.
"It's a hackneyed old phrase 'the comedian's comedian' but I think in Norman's case, it was true. He was an inspiration to me and to many others too."
Barry Chuckle remembers a joker with an infectious sense of fun.
"We did a summer season in Great Yarmouth with Norman," says Rotherham- based Barry.
"We were in different theatres but we used to see Norman around. My brother played a lot of golf with him and he said Norman would always do his chicken walk around the green to put him off his putting. He was just a lovely chap and a genuinely funny man."
Norman's friend and biographer Mike Ulyatt invited him to a lunch with Eric Sykes, knowing the pair had not seen each other in years, and said he wished he had recorded the moment.
Mike, 73, of Willerby, said: "They were telling some brilliant showbiz tales at the dinner table and Eric said to him, 'We are the last of the Vaudevillians in this country'.
"He stepped up to the microphone and everyone expected him to do his routine, but he simply said '1, 2, 3, all good to go Eric', who told him to get off the stage.
"It took me two years to write his autobiography because he would go off on such a tangent but he had many stories to tell.
"I last saw him at Christmas in the care home and although he wasn't the Norman I once knew, he was still witty."
It is not just the veteran comedians who were paying tribute to Norman today but a new generation of comics who grew up watching his carefully-crafted routines.
With a tweet Norman would no doubt have appreciated, Office star Ricky Gervais used the Hull comedian's broken mic-style to tweet: "R P orman ollier".
Impressionist Jon Culshaw tweeted: "Rest in peace Norman Collier. Funny, funny, wonderfully funny man. People would be permanently laughing whenever they were around him."
A concert to celebrate his legacy had already been organised at Hull New Theatre for Monday, September 16, and his family have confirmed it will still go ahead.