Norman BARRETT (1935-)

Norman Barrett This Is Your Life

programme details...

  • Edition No: 787
  • Subject No: 776
  • Broadcast date: Wed 31 Oct 1990
  • Broadcast time: 7.00-7.30pm
  • Recorded: Fri 5 Oct 1990
  • Venue: Tower Circus, Blackpool
  • Series: 31
  • Edition: 3
  • Code name: Tower

on the guest list...

  • Peter Jay
  • Christine Jay
  • Sally - wife
  • Guy - son
  • Michael Austin
  • Joan Rosaire
  • Jim Clubb
  • Mary Chipperfield
  • Roger Cawley
  • Gerry Cottle
  • Bobby Roberts Snr
  • Kitty Roberts
  • Bobby Roberts Jnr
  • Frank Foster
  • Rogana Foster
  • Derek Burrell-Davies
  • Mary Burrell-Davies
  • Neville Denton
  • Charlie Cairoli Jnr
  • Bernie Clifton
  • Johnnie Yong
  • Walter Yong
  • Cyril Bertram Mills
  • Mimi Mills
  • Filmed tributes:
  • Luis Palacio
  • Ken Dodd
  • Ronn Lucas and Scorch

production team...

  • Researcher: Mandy Nixon
  • Writer: Roy Bottomley
  • Directors: Brian Klein, Terry Yarwood
  • Associate Producer: John Graham
  • Producer: Malcolm Morris
  • names above in bold indicate subjects of This Is Your Life
related pages...

Norman Barrett recalls his experience of This Is Your Life in an exclusive interview recorded in April 2012

Norman Barrett This Is Your Life Norman Barrett This Is Your Life Norman Barrett This Is Your Life Norman Barrett This Is Your Life Norman Barrett This Is Your Life Norman Barrett This Is Your Life Norman Barrett This Is Your Life Norman Barrett This Is Your Life Norman Barrett This Is Your Life Norman Barrett This Is Your Life Norman Barrett This Is Your Life Norman Barrett This Is Your Life

Photographs and screenshots of Norman Barrett This Is Your Life

Norman Barrett's autobiography

Norman Barrett recalls his experience of This Is Your Life in his autobiography, Ringmaster: My Life in Showbusiness...

At their annual rally that year, to mark my 25 years at the Tower Circus, the Circus Friends Association generously gave me an "illuminated address" to record this landmark in my career, a much appreciated gesture because they represent that essential other part of circus - the people around the ring whom we entertain. They also presented me with a portrait of myself at the Tower, painted by Sandy Davidson, a keen circus fan and very talented artist.

Little did I realise how useful Guy's knowledge of the backstage operations at the Tower Circus was going to be when, towards the end of the 1990 season, my family, close friends whom I trusted, and a number of colleagues all conspired to deceive me!

On Friday, 5 October 1990, I was once again looking into the lens of a TV camera from Thames Television.

"Don't take your eyes off the camera, and keep waving", said the director. "It's for the finale".

So I did as I was told, and waved on - but then a strange thing happened. The crowd began clapping even more loudly, cheering and stamping their feet.

"My goodness" I thought, "this is going well. Must be because they're on television."

Then something made me glance over my shoulder - and there stood Michael Aspel with the famous red This is Your Life book.

"Congratulations Norman, on a wonderful show. I walk the plank to say, Norman Barrett, This is Your Life," he said, referring to the gangway from the ring fence to the central rostrum, above the sparkling water. That was why the crowd had gone wild! The moment they saw Michael, who is immediately identified with the series nowadays, they knew I was for it. The penny dropped, I realised how thoroughly I'd been set up, and I cracked "They've had me on the go all day." And they (Thames TV, that is) had - I'd been to Manchester for them.

The amazing thing was that, although the whole thing had been put together under my nose, and virtually before my very eyes, I hadn't the faintest suspicion of what was happening.

The "cover story" which had enabled the team from Thames to deceive me so successfully, was that they were making a documentary on Blackpool Tower Circus, in what might be its last year as a real circus auditorium.

It had all begun four months earlier, when TV producer John Fisher suggested I was a suitable subject. Researcher Mandy Nixon, daughter of the late famous magician, David Nixon, approached Sally, who told her of the existence of the draft of this book, as a source of information.

Mandy first arranged to meet Sal at the Imperial Hotel, where they were staying, but Sally felt very uncomfortable, because so many people there knew her, in particular, the girl at the reception desk - and if I came by it would only need a careless word and the secret could easily be out. Mandy made a particular point of warning everyone. If the subject (I was code-named Tower) gets to know, the whole thing is aborted, even at the eleventh hour. So subsequent meetings were held in a less public place.

Surprisingly, it turned out that this was the first This Is Your Life to be made outside London. [ editor: The first edition made outside of London was actually way back in 1957] And while I had the most complete set of autobiographical photographs of any subject so far, the fact that I was likely to pop up anywhere, at any time, in the Tower Circus, made it very difficult for them all.

At one point, Guy told me later, they were actually in the auditorium having a planning meeting when they heard me coming. There was no time to run, so they all hid by laying down among the seats. And when my old friend, Gerd Siemoneit-Barum and his wife, Roz, visited Blackpool once more in September to see the show for the second time that year, they stayed at the Imperial. But Mandy was staying there, and had arranged to meet Guy, who was absolutely essential to their preparations because he knew everyone at the Tower, and where everything was to be found, plugged in, and so on. I could have walked into the Imperial at any time to see Gerd and Roz after the show, and someone could have said "We've just seen your Guy with a girl." So that was another meeting to be re-arranged, because naturally I'd have mentioned it, and he might have found it hard to come up with a quick answer.

On the day, there was stuff everywhere. If I'd gone into a dressing room, and found things which shouldn't have been there, it would have "blown" everything. There were lorries out on the promenade with the Thames Television seating, and cables everywhere under the seats. To get well ahead, they even suggested installing their own curtain track in advance - until Guy told them that if there was so much as a new screw, I'd notice. So he went round with their technical manager, to check everything. The monitors and some equipment they could get away with, on the pretext that it was there for the "documentary".

Perhaps the nearest they came to disaster was to lay a cable under the ring-mat in readiness, little realising that we took it out for the finale, and I would have been very suspicious to find a cable with nothing at either end. Luckily, Guy spotted it, and indeed, the success of the whole thing was very much down to him.

There'd been another close shave earlier, when I rang my old boss, Bernard Crabtree, to tell him the good news about the "documentary". He almost let the cat out of the bag, because he'd already been asked to be there, and obviously knew about the TV crew being around. On some pretext or other, Sally almost snatched the phone from my hand, before any damage was done.

Even when it came to selling seats, there were problems, because Thames wanted to keep certain blocks of seats, and I countermanded their request, and told the box office "No, you can sell them".

Eventually, they had to get me right out of the way on the Friday afternoon, to rehearse with the guests who had a part to play. To do that, they decided to take me back to Belle Vue, because apparently the directors of the Tower Circus had originally suggested the holding of a Christmas Circus at the King's Hall and that was the link. They set me researching for this interview, and I "swotted up" the history of Belle Vue from a book. To make quite sure I would go to Manchester, John Fisher came up in person from London.

Little did I know that only the night before they'd rung up Sal, desperate for questions to put to me, and so Sal and Guy lent them the same book! In fact, that episode almost caused me to be late for the first time in 25 years, because I got seriously stuck in a traffic jam near Warrington on the way home.

So the fact that I was "on site" virtually the whole time was a serious handicap to them all. All the more amazing, then, that everyone knew except me. I was well and truly set up.

Of course, before we could go ahead with filming the programme, we had to clear away the props, mop up, and put in Thames TV's seating, TV monitors, and so on. I went to my dressing room, and at first, in the hour or so between the "hit" and the start of filming, I felt very much like the man in the condemned cell. It's a nerve-wracking wait, even though you know the formula. In the event, I decided I'd just go out and enjoy myself, following Ian Smith's advice to me at the Circus World Championships.

And that's just what I did. I must have been relaxed, or the juggling with Bobby Roberts wouldn't have gone well. The moment I walked through the curtains, I knew it was going to be easy, because, in my own "house", I could see rows and rows of mates and friends. Even the television crew were all friends from Thames TV with the "Ronn Lucas Show". Ronn is an American ventriloquist, a very good one and a very nice guy, who has a very unusual "doll" - a fire-breathing dragon called "Scorch". Although the series was called after him, and he was the principal, a number of supporting acts had been booked which were circus, or circus-based. This was why I was brought in as technical consultant, a new role for me.

"Lock on the camera, and don't worry about who may walk through the curtain," the director said, and of course, it was impossible to guess just who they would come up with.

It all turned out to be a marvellous, marvellous evening. After the usual pictures of early days, first came Mrs Kitty Roberts, who recalled that, when I was 21, she took me on one side and said, "Norman, you're a bloody awful clown. Put this on instead," and gave me my first ringmaster's suit. Then there was her son, Bobby Roberts Junior, who, as I've said, is one of my oldest friends in the business, and a brief Barro Brothers juggling routine.

Neville Denton, the friend who forgot to save me a place at his table at the weekly dance, so that I finished up sitting next to Sally, was there. I hadn't seen him for 18 years.

The Yong Brothers, Johnnie and Walter, who once formed that wonderful hand-balancing act which I rate as one of my all-time favourites, were there. They walked in doing a trick they hadn't done together for nearly 10 years, to recall some of the practical jokes we used to play on each other, such as the day they made my dressing room "disappear" by removing all my belongings, and replacing them with someone else's.

Norman Barrett This Is Your Life

When it came to another of their feats, Johnnie needed just a little help from me in holding his legs horizontal! Great guys, and lovely to have them there.

There was a video from Ken Dodd, busy at the London Palladium, and a filmed message from Luis Palacio, working with Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey in the United States, with one of Jim Clubs's mixed groups. Another filmed message was from ventriloquist Ronn Lucas in the USA.

Norman Barrett This Is Your Life

From Hamburg came my predecessor as Equestrian Director on Bertram Mills Circus, Frank Foster Junior, and his wife Dora, otherwise know as Rogana.

Over the years, I've worked many times with Bernie Clifton, the ostrich-riding comic. The moment I saw he was wearing his "Red Shadow" cloak, I knew someone was going to get wet. Perched on his shoulder, for part of his act, is a wonderful prop "cat", with green eyes that light up, a head that turns to survey whatever or whoever may be of interest, with a beady malevolence. It can also "cry" jets of water to a range of about 10 feet! Sure enough, the front two rows got the pantomime treatment, and when Bernie said I was like a breath of fresh air, he reinforced his message with a few quick and almighty blasts from the CO2 cylinder which he conceals beneath his cloak. I once saw him work that one on an orchestra rehearsal - sheets of music went swirling like snow-flakes.

Norman Barrett This Is Your Life

To round it all off, my old boss, Cyril Mills and his wife, Mimi, came from London. I was really delighted he was there, because in all my years at the Tower Circus, he hadn't been up before, and as he was 88, the long journey from London must have been very tiring for him. For me, that really capped the whole thing, and so far as I know, that was his last public appearance.

Of course, that was just the beginning of a wonderful weekend, with all those old friends coming to see the show, dropping by the house, and the phone never stopped ringing.

How Sal managed during those four months, I can't imagine. It must have been rather like being a spy, married to someone working for the other side. And as for Guy, I was so proud of the way he handled himself in it all. As Michael Aspel said early in the programme, my Dad's ringmasters coat would have burst with pride with my career at the Tower Circus. I felt just the same, for such wonderful support from Sally and Guy making it all go so well.

Above all, I was very conscious that so many friends had come, from all over Britain, just to be there, and that's a very heart-warming feeling indeed.

Series 31 subjects

Lord Brabourne | Graham Gooch | Norman Barrett | Richard Harris | Tracy Edwards | Stephen Hendry | Robert Pountney
Jimmy Savile | Evelyn Laye | Ernie Wise | Kenneth McKellar | Tom Gleave | Bernard Braden | Barry Foster | Carmen Silvera
Arthur Hailey | Tony Hatch and Jackie Trent | The Bee Gees | John Woodhouse | Evelyn Glennie | David Tomlinson
Dave Willetts | Harry Carpenter | Lionel Bart | Stan Richards | Lonnie Donegan