Sweet Talker


John Citizen meets Henry Normal, producer of the new poetry series, Whine Gums, on BBC Three. Photo of Henry Normal



Ah – wine gums, always flavour of the month. Something to get your teeth in to. Different shapes and sizes. Various colours. Definitely a best-selling line.


Ah – Whine Gums, currently being shown on BBC3, a poetic jar of wordsmiths hitting your taste buds and also giving you plenty to chew over. Whine Gums features John Cooper Clarke, Jackie Kay, Liz Lochhead, Wendy Cope, Malika Booker, John Hegley, Michael Donaghy and Benjamin Zephaniah, amongst others. There are old favourites and new flavours, but before I shook the bag, I went along to meet one of the makers, Henry Normal, at Baby Cow productions, the company he set up several years ago with long time collaborator Steve Coogan. Between the two of them, they're responsible for some of the best comic creations of recent years, including Paul and Pauline Calf, and the unforgettable Alan Partridge.


While I waited in the company's office, I took in all the fixtures and fittings, a BAFTA award for this, a celebrity photograph of that, deadline charts for filming. Telephones were ringing and faxes were faxing. It's a long way from the one-man act that Henry Normal started out as.

If the early 'sixties was the Liverpool sound, with the likes of Roger McGough, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten, then come the early 'eighties, that title had moved east along the M62 to Manchester. From the Cavern to the Hacienda, John Cooper Clarke, followed quickly by Henry, then later on Lemn Sissay, established the city in the forefront of spoken word. In fact the Manchester Poetry Festival was set up initially by Henry in 1994. He then brought on board the present director, Richard Michael, who has taken it from strength to strength.

I asked Henry how he first got interested in the world of poetry. He explained that it all began at school, when he came across a Spike Milligan collection, Small Dreams of a Scorpion, and realised that the funny and the serious could be combined. "My Mum died when I was twelve", he says, " I was very gregarious before that, always someone who'd have a laugh. Then I became withdrawn, and I used to write for solace. So I've always had these two strands: very serious stuff, and comedy". Then he offered me a whine gum. What I mean is, I sampled some of the programmes, and very nice they were too.


Whine Gums is actually made up of eight fifteen minute programmes, each of which has a different theme, ranging from 'Language', to 'Lifestyle', to 'Family' to 'Emotions'. It's called Whine Gums because Henry thinks that the negative perception of performance poetry is that poets "whine". He thinks the title confronts that perception, he's saying: "trust us, you ain't going to get that". The locations are well chosen, and both the filming and editing are sharp and focused, giving a feeling of immediacy and energy. Henry sold the programme to Stuart Murphy, head of BBC 3, in one meeting. "I mentioned that one of the poets would be John Cooper Clarke," he explains. "He's such a fan, he pretty much commissioned it there and then".


There has been poetry on television before of course, notably Litpop with Steve Tasane and Patience Agbabi; BBC2's recent series of poetry performed by actors; and Tony Harrison's work with Peter Symes (which Henry admires). But most proposals don't even get past the receptionist's desk, let alone make it to the producer's office, so it's great to see this concerted effort by the Baby Cow team. Henry is obviously pleased with the results. "We wanted to capture the sheer exuberance and excitement of the poets", he says. "The way we've filmed them, it' s not like they're performing to a live audience and you're listening in, it's more immediate than that. They look you in the eye…"


Henry's own poetry collections are also worth looking out for. They include The Dream Ticket, Is Love Science Fiction? and Map of Heaven, although when I went to the Poetry Library to do more research, I found out that some copies had been borrowed indefinitely. Henry joked that "he'd bring them back soon".His last book came out nearly ten years ago and he hasn't done any live poetry tours for a similarly long time. His world, or rather his word, is now that of script-writing and editing, as well as producing. He prefers the teamwork this involves, as opposed to the solitary experience of writing poetry. "It's far easier to laugh when there's someone else in the room. If you're on your own, you feel a bit nutty", he says. Also, with all the other stuff going on, he just doesn't have time to write. However, I got the feeling that though his poetry pan may be on the back burner, it doesn't mean the flame will go out.

Future plans for Baby Cow include trying to get Whine Gums on to BBC2 for another series, so that it gets the chance to be seen by a much wider audience. Performance Poets, or, as Henry prefers, "poets who can perform", deserve wider recognition.


The next project, though, is Bard to Verse, "bite sized chunks" from Shakespeare plays. It's set in the present day and cast against type with people who you wouldn't usually associate with the works of the great man. It will be shot in a similar style to Whine Gums. Still on a confectionery thing, I thought they could rename it, Our Revels now are ended.


I finished off by asking Henry what poetry really meant to him, and he said, "I used to love performing poetry in venues of around 200 seats. I loved an audience where I could see everybody's face, and I could do long poems, serious poems, light poems, and by the end of it, I felt we'd shared something that was more than me telling a load of jokes. . . The beauty of it is that it's a very simple form of communication". Lots of hard work goes into achieving that simplicity, and I don't mean to moan about it, but I, for one, can't wait for some more Whine Gums.

Poetry News, Summer 2003