A change of pace for Norman

Dying to entertain you: Michelle Hardwick (The Royal) , Norman Pace and Chloe Newsome (Coronation Street) who star in Murdered to Death, at Lichfield Garrick

WHETHER every comic really wants to play Hamlet is debatable. I suspect donning tights as the Prince of Denmark was never high on the agenda for the likes of Bernard Manning or Les Dawson.

But while many comics happily grow as old as some of their material others have successfully made the transition from stand up and cabaret to treading the boards in the legitimate theatre*.

Notable among those successfully taking the road from jester to thespian are the likes of Jimmy Jewel, of Jewel and Warriss fame, Dave King, Mike Read, Russ Abbott and  . . . Norman Pace.

Although perhaps in Norman's case there has always been the actor trying to get out even in the heady days of double act Hale and Pace who were among the major stars of the 80s and 90s.

Both Norman and partner Gareth Hale have moved into straight acting with Gareth being recruited as head porter in TV's The Royal while Norman has been learning on the job in theatres up and down the country.

Norman said: “I knew I always wanted to be an actor from the age of five. I played Ali Kasim in the school play and stood up there and thought ‘fantastic - I want to do this every day' and it has never changed really. I think it is to do with showing off and being the centre of attention and as long as you know that I think it stops you from being a bit of an idiot with it.

Norman is claimed as a son of Dudley but that perhaps owes more to the morality of the times in the year he was born, 1953, than anything else.

He said: "I was born in Dudley and brought up in Newark in Nottinghamshire. My mum got pregnant out of wedlock and ran away to my father's parents in Dudley to have me and  bought rather a big baby back to Newark.

"So I only spent about three months in Dudley but I sued to come back and have holidays with my grandparents. Played football on top of a slag heap."

After grammar school in Newark-on-Trent he went off to college in Eltham, South London.

“I went to teacher training college because my mother felt it was safer than going to drama school but I did a drama and PE course there. Gareth and I met each other and we started doing cabaret so I know teaching was a part-time occupation for me because one day I would be doing this.

“I would still be doing it if I was only an amateur because I am driven to do it. If I had never been good enough to do it as a pro I would have been doing am-dram for the last 30 years - I prefer being paid for it though.”

Norman entered the acting profession from what might be seen as a side road in that he is neither a product of a drama school nor has he received classical training. 

“I had some training as a drama teacher. It was not really about acting although we did a lot of productions and that helped but I have been learning on the job and I am still learning. At the age of 50 I started work experience. That is more or less it. But I am so fascinated and I have been really lucky to work with really good actors and even they do things differently.

“Some, the ones I really admire, start with the whole script. What most of us do is you get a script, you look for your own lines and then you mark them and then when you have learned those you learn your cues and so you don't come in at the wrong time. But a couple of people I know they start with the whole script and on the first day of rehearsal they can tell you more about your character than you can.

Norman Pace, left, with Ian Dickens, the producer, Michelle Hardwick  and Chloe Newsome on the stage of the Grand.

“You just think “wow!” The devotion and dedication to do it that way and then they refine everything they know down to their own part so they are more concerned with the success of the whole than with their own bit in it.

“That is a tremendous act of selflessness. Everyone consider actors to be selfish but the best ones are not. It is no good being brilliant if the play is rubbish and it comes off after two weeks. It is a team thing.”

Norman, now 57, still has that little boy look of wide eyed wonder when he steps on a stage. His enthusiasm is infectious and he is still the child in the ultimate sweetshop.

He said: “I would do it without being paid if I had to. When you stand on a stage in a spotlight you either shrink or you grow and I have always known I am a grower and I am still growing. I absolutely adore it.

“There are times when you are tired and miserable, you might have had a row with someone or something and it is almost like you have to do it but when you get out there in front of an audience that always changes. You always feel better at the end than you did at the beginning. It is the best drug in the world.”

Perhaps it is his background in showbiz rather than provincial tours and rep but Norman said: “Normally the parts I get offered are comedy roles but that makes it more important that you don't cheat and you do the acting bit, otherwise why would your comedy skills be needed if just anybody could do it?

“It has been a learning curve for me and I am getting a lot of respect for doing it and that respect and dignity, if you can maintain it throughout your career, is perhaps more important than the success.”

His latest role is Inspector Pratt, the bumbling detective who mangles the English language every time he opens his mouth in Murdered to Death, Peter Gordon's spoof of Agatha Christie country house murder mysteries, a play which has the distinction of being both a riotous comedy which, beneath the laughs, can also stand on its own as a thriller.

Norman Pace back on the stage at the Grand where he appeared with Gareth Hale in their variety heyday

Norman said: "When I first read the script I thought I have to do this it is a huge challenge. I read the first 30 pages and my character wasn't in t in it. and then he is in it a lot. He speaks a form of convoluted English with a lot of Malapropisms and mispronunciations.

"I didn't realise that people who came to see it were as interested in whodunit as they where in the comedy. I thought it would be a comedy play but it is balanced between a whodunit and comedy and is absolutely perfect."

The part of Pratt is no easy one though and  even Peter Gordon, the writer, had to admit he had done 'poor oid Pratt 'no favours with his dialogue when he came to see Norman in the play in Windsor. 

Norman said: “It is such a difficult part. Some of the stuff I have to say at breakneck speed is . . . but it is delicious when you get it right. You feel such power surging though you when you come out with this stuff and the audience is hanging on every word and laughing. It is an ego thing. It feeds all the good bits of your ego and makes you feel confident without becoming cocky and that is a delicate balance.

“The great pleasure and the thing that makes me relax though is that if I do get lines wrong the audience don't know because Pratt has got everything wrong even when it is right so it gives you the licence to free up a little bit. But I don't cheat. I do every line as written because that is what you owe to the person who wrote it. You respect the piece. That is what I have learned from the proper pros.”

What is next for Norman? He doesn't know. “I am not rich but I am all right. I am in a fortunate position if I don't work again I will still be all right but I will never retire. I will just wait for the next thing that looks good and that I can do a good job on.

“I need a reason to get up in the morning and nothing motivates me more than working on stage.” 

Roger Clarke 

*Obscure theatrical fact No.247

The term legitimate theatre goes back to the Licensing Act of 1737 when only legitimate theatres were licensed to show serious plays - spoken drama. The illegitimate theatres, were allowed to show the low-brow stuff such as comedies, musicals, melodramas.

The theory was that Government, through the the Lord Chamberlain, could much easier apply censorship to the few licensed theatres.

The Government's fears were not out of a desire to protect the populous from nudity, explicit sexual content, blasphemy, bad language or extreme violence but the much simpler motive of stifling criticism - this was state not moral censorship.

What went on in the illegitimate theatres which were more interested in making money entertaining the riff-raff than making political points was of little concern to the Government.


But SIr Robert Walpole, who was effectively the first prime Minister, was taking a lot of stick from overtly political and satirical productions in the theatres attended by the wealthy and influential members of society, productions such as John Gay's Beggar's Opera and the even more pointed Henry Fielding's Tom Thumb.

Walpole's reaction was to impose strict censorship. The result was that the public no longer trusted any play passed by the censor as it was seen as Government propaganda while many writers, such as Fielding, turned their back on the stage and started to write novels

Up to then the stage had been the natural home of the wit and the thinking writer - now they turned to the printed page and the art of the dramatist was stifled, subjected to the whims of the Government and the Lord Chamberlain until the licensing acts were finally repealed in 1968. 

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