Why you should watch Norbert Smith: A Life — A look at the film, and a Harry Enfield Q&A Write-Up

Gareth Bellamy
Sep 12, 2018 · 12 min read

Norbert Smith: A Life is a very funny mockumentary from Harry Enfield in the style of a South Bank Show arts documentary. It was released in 1989 on Channel 4 in the UK. Co-written with noted comedy writer and producer Geoffrey Perkins, directed by Geoff Posner, it was well received at the time, winning an International Emmy and a Montruex Festival award, but has gone largely unmentioned in recent years. Until now.

In July 2018 it was released on DVD. This is therefore your chance to catch up with one of the best things examples of British comedy produced in the last fifty years.

Is it funny?

Yes, of course.

Why?

It’s Harry Enfield making fun of the history of film.

The Set-Up

The film (it’s nearly an hour long and was shot on film, it’s a film!) purports to be a documentary about Sir Norbert Smith, played by Harry Enfield. Sir Norbert is being asked about his lengthy career in film to date by Melvyn Bragg playing himself. This is the framing device, within which Harry Enfield gets to display his character driven comedy by appearing in small spoofs of various films, and film genres through the history of British film. From the black and white era of early talkies all the way through to the eighties.

Sir Norbert Smith

Sir Norbert is a confused old man. He’s shown to have suffered from a drinking problem, and his hazy recollections and inability to remember where he put down his cup of tea hint at the early staged of dementia. However, he has a warm personality, enjoys talking about his career, and appears to have enjoyed his interesting life. He’s the perfect subject for a documentary.

The films spoofed include:

Will Hay comedies of the late 30s — ‘Oh, Mr Bankrobber’.

American Technicolor musicals of the 40s — ‘Lullaby of London’ where a song is performed where virtually every line is an incorrect reference to life in London — “They’ll be buffalo roaming just outside of Godalming!”

Brief Encounter turned into an advert for a soap powder called Sudso.

Laurence Olivier’s 1948 production of Hamlet as performed by Noel Coward.

World War Two era government information films. If you’re familiar with Harry Enfield’s creation Mr Cholmondley Warner, this is his first screen appearance.

‘It’s Grim up North’ spoofs the kitchen sink dramas of the 50s such as Saturday Night, Sunday Morning with a look inside the net curtains of a Northern terrace. It’s all child beatings, whippets and getting a skinful and a bird.

Cliff Richard’s early musical films come in for a kicking on the dancefloor with ‘Keep Your Hair On, Daddio’.

The Carry on Films also received the Norbert treatment, but in this case three of the original stars of the series put in an appearance, Jack Douglas, Kenneth Connor and Barbara Windsor.

War films of the 60s and 70s, The Great Escape, Wild Geese etc, which featured ageing British actors such as Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole were parodied in The Dogs of Death.

In-between the mini film segments, none of which outstay their welcome and generally last a maximum of three minutes each, Sir Norbert is quizzed by Melvyn Bragg about his career. This is further interspersed with former colleagues and co-stars of Sir Norbert’s recalling their less than happy memories of working with him and their dismal careers ever since.

The result is an incredible range of parodies, taking in a lot of the key film genres of the 20th century, into which Harry Enfield and co-writer Geoffrey Perkins managed to shoe-horn a never ending stream of top quality gags. Many spoken, but many buried in the soundtrack or hidden on screen for you to uncover.

Each film segment looks and sounds accurate to the period it portrays, and uses the lighting and editing grammar of the time very accurately. The crackle and rustle of old black and white films, the over-saturated colours of 1940s musicals. This was all handled in the pre-digital era by manually scratching the film, shooting on black and white film stock or processing the film in different ways. It’s this attention to detail in the production which encourages repeat viewings.

Putting all these elements together makes Norbert Smith: A Life so much more than just a series of sketches bolted together with a through line of a documentary tacked on. It IS a documentary.

For these, and many more reasons, I commend you to go forth and watch Norbert Smith: A Life!

https://www.simplyhe.com/products/norbert-smith-a-life-dvd

Norbert Smith: A Life — Screening and Q & A at the Everyman Cinema, Maida Vale. Tuesday 11thSeptember, 2018

A Write-Up.

To celebrate the release of the film on DVD, there was a Q & A with Harry Enfield and Director Geoff Posner, hosted by John Rain https://twitter.com/MrKenShabby

What follows is a write-up of the Q&A. It’s really just getting down what I can remember for future reference, nothing more.

I’ve enjoyed watching the film for nearly thirty years. I’ve often wondered how it came to be made, what the production of it was like. I wanted to try and capture some of the key points discussed for myself, more than anything else.

The evening started with a screening of the film from DVD, followed by questions to Harry and Geoff, first from the host, John Rain, then open to the floor.

The Everyman Cinema was a great location to watch Norbert Smith. Plush, large, comfy seats with space for beer on your chair arm. Ideal for taking in such a work of importance in the history of British film.

Watching a film or TV show you know well and love in a room full of strangers is an interesting experience. It’s interesting to hear where the laughs fall. Sometimes people laugh at different places in the same joke. In that respect, it was very distinct from watching comedy with a laugh track.

Mockumentaries, which purport to be serious, leave you with space to laugh, without necessarily telegraphing to you that this is the point at which YOU SHOULD BE LAUGHING.

Geoff Posner was a surprise last minute addition, as the event had only been advertised with Harry in attendance. To comedy nerds his name is very well known, so hearing his experiences was a welcome addition.

Harry said he’d arrived with a couple of family members, in support, as they didn’t think anyone else would be there. They’d left after the showing as they could see there was a crowd.

As Harry and Geoff Posner were introduced, they each got a round of applause, of course, then Harry pointed out that two of Geoffrey Perkins’ kids were in the audience, he’d sat at the back with them during the screening, generating another round of applause. (Geoffrey had sadly died aged 55 in 2008).

Harry said he’d written Norbert Smith at home after finishing university in 1983. He’d sent the script off to various people, including John Lloyd, who liked it, but said he wouldn’t work on it as he was busy doing Spitting Image and would Harry come and work on that. It also went to Paul Jackson, who liked the script, but said he couldn’t work on it as his hands were full with Saturday Live, and would Harry come and work on that. It got bounced around a bit until Channel 4 got hold of it.

It was acknowledged how strange it was to make an hour long comedy of this nature. Very expensive due to all the different segments and cast. Harry made a pointed comment about it being a time when Hat Trick had a lot of money… to spend on COMEDY.

In terms of the writing process, once the project was coming together, Geoffrey Perkins said they needed to rewrite the script as Harry had written it years before whilst younger and it wasn’t good enough.

Harry and Geoff Perkins then decamped to Ibiza, to spend a week or two re-writing the script.

They had previously spent days going through old Govt information films to get the language and look right for the Mr Cholmondeley Warner character.

They had a lighting director(I think, or DOP) on some of the black and white sections of Norbert Smith, who had first worked on some of the Ealing films, specifically Man In The White Suit. They were in the same studio they’d shot that film in for some of the Norbert scenes. When, a few years later, they used the Mr Cholmondeley-Warner character in a series of advert for Mercury Communications, they used the same person to help film them.

Harry and Geoff said they’d noticed when watching the screening earlier in the evening, that they’d picked up on there being bits of Geoffrey Perkins in the show. Specifically, in the Dick Dotty scenes when the director’s voice yells ‘cut, that’s Geoff voicing the director.

The wanted to film it all on sets for visual accuracy as most of the older films they parodied were themselves filmed on set. They put a plan and budget together but were told they’d have to massively cut costs. So instead they used locations where possible. For example, Leadenhall Market was used for the street scene where young Norbert has his collar felt by the copper in ‘Rebel Without A Tie’. By keeping the shot narrow, they could avoiud all the modern elements in the area.

The comment was made that Lullaby of London looks very impressive on screen. Harry said this was due to Geoff Posner, who did a good job of making a little money go a long way on screen and making it look good.

They recruited Melvyn Bragg because while they worked on Saturday Live, they were working in the same building as The South Bank Show, but on different floors. Geoff Posner bumped into Melvyn in the lift, asked him if he’d do it, then sent him the script, he then agreed. Very easy to work with, only thing that annoyed him was the frequency of planes flying over when they were filming near Heathrow. (After their original location dropped through). Sometimes they could only film for a couple of minutes due to constant air traffic overhead,

Denise O’Donoghue (producer of Norbert Smith) got on her huge, analogue phone and got through to Heathrow Control Tower. She’d said “we’re filming here with Melvyn Bragg and Harry Enfield, can you do something?” Flights soon stopped.

They said Melvyn was very easy to work with because he knew his lines and just treated it like a normal documentary. That’s why his performance is so good, playing it straight, and contrasts with what’s going on around him very well.

The only person they tried to get cast, and couldn’t was Hugh Grant. Harry wanted him for the Hamlet scene, but Grant apparently felt this was too near a serious Hamlet project he’d worked on, and felt they were mocking him.

Filming was all on 16mm, film processed overnight and rushes viewed next day at the editors in Soho.

First day of filming the exploding dog scene, film came back lab as no images viewable. The shot the black and white on black and white film stock, but lab had processed it as colour.

The scene was difficult to film as the dog wouldn’t do what it was told. So having to reshoot the scene was problematic.

The wanted the shots to look as real as possible, so each segment was lit and graded separately. Scratches on the film were physically placed there, as are the bumps and jumps in audio and video, as no digital editing was available then.

Geoff Posner said it was very much a ‘physically slicing up the film’ approach. (In which respect, that’s a parallel with the way Chris Morris would work in his early radio comedy, doing insanely complex things with analogue tech that other people would only get round to much later in digital)

Wobbly effect of the exploding dog scene, eg, making the film look like it’s wiggling and about to break, for example, was done by projecting the film onto a white wall, wobbling the projector manually with your hand when playing back, and then filming the resultant projection on another camera.

Sketch they’d most like to make into a film: Dogs of Death, this got a cheer of agreement from the crowd.

The idea was mooted of filming a son of Norbert as a follow up.

The biggest laugh they had on set when filming was the end of the Dogs of Death, the soldiers all run out of the room, and right at the end of the scene one of the extras slips over on a rug. Apparently, as his legs went akimbo he farted, causing the whole crew to spend minutes cracking up. Harry had run out first, so missed it. Said he walked back in when they’d cut and everyone was just pissing themselves).

They thought some of the scenes wouldn’t get made today, as people might think they were mocking senile people. That wasn’t the intention, but the scene towards the end where Norbert is putting the washed cups back into the sink was questioned as an example that people might not find so funny.

Harry was asked if he was nervous/confident about making it. He said he was very nervous, as he was so young, 27, and was in the middle of making this huge comedy film. He credited the make-up lady who calmed him down when she was helping him get into his prosthetics. He mentioned three hours as the timing for this. He was worried about the cost, and the expectation. But he also said he trusted the two Geoffreys he was working with, as they were so experienced, so felt confident they knew what they were doing.

Harry had attended the memorial service for the actor who played Sir Donald Stuffy, who he had enjoyed working with, when he died last year.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moray_Watson

Harry also didn’t know in advance that the DVD was coming out.

Only scene I noticed missing from the DVD was Andrew Lloyd Webber segment from the ‘man of music’ section. Harry didn’t know why. Suspect it was because Webber had some run-ins with being accused of plagiarism??

Biggest laughs of the night.

Loudest overall laughs — The Dogs of Death scene where Major Cartwright of the Red Hares has a magically refilling whisky glass. Most sustained number of laughs in a scene — I’d say it was ‘It’s Grim Up North’.

But if you had to pick a winner, you’d go with Dogs of Death.

Melvyn’s reaction shots got more laughs then I’d expected, eg, when Dick Dotty is telling his appalling anecdotes, camera cuts to Melvyn looking pained, laughs everytime. (I tend to laugh on Dick’s actual terrible gags — but good to see how you can get so many laughs out of such a compressed script).

Question about the Carry On section, I think the host said they’re responsible for the last great Carry On film as Carry on Columbus was famously a failure. They said how nice it was working with Babs Windsor, Jack Douglas and Kenneth Connor. Geoff Posner said you can see on screen that they let them get on with their ‘Carry on’ riffing for a bit as they knew the lines, and they were great at what they did. I think it’s the interplay between Jack Douglas and Kenneth Connor at the gates of Greenham Common.

Someone asked if the whole film was based on theSir Larry Olivier profile, which I believe Bragg had done in 1985. He said no, because he’d never seen it, despite because accused several times of doing just that.

When asked about updating it, he said it wouldn’t work now because so many of the source films would be alien to the audience, as in, younger people haven’t grown up watching Will Hay film repeats on BBC2 for example.

Harry was in two minds about recounting this anecdote. A few years ago, he was at a BBC lunch, when they used to do those things, at the Ivy. This would have been several years after Norbert was screened. As he got up to leave, he said goodbye to everyone on his table. Went around, shaking hands etc. When he got to Paul Merton, Paul refused, accusing him of stealing his exploding dog gag in Norbert. Harry said I didn’t know he had an exploding dog gag, if I had done, we’d have changed it, to an exploding cat or something.

A few years later he’s at the ITV studios on the South Bank, he sees Paul Merton waiting for a lift, he waves and shouts hello, but apparently Paul was still upset about the dog gag.

A fact I found out, but not at the Q&A, is that lady Norbert was married to Robert Donat between 1953–56, who was the star of Hitchcock’s 39 Steps, amongst others. Quality casting.

I think it would have been great to know what was on their original list of films/genres they wanted to ‘attack’. Would have been good to hear more about casting etc, but you can’t have everything!

But it was a rare opportunity, and a great experience, to get an insight into how one of your favourite comedy films/programmes was made.

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