Norman Evans

Through TV, film and radio we are familiar with celebrities, but things were very different prior to the 1950’s. Then, variety took place in theatres and tended to take on a local or regional character. Furthermore many of those that took on the stage were ordinary people, often with ordinary jobs and living just down the road. One such star emerging from Rochdale was Norman Evans.

Norman was born in Rochdale on 11th June 1901 and after attending Castlemere Council School worked first as an office boy at Arrow Mills in Castleton, then for Swailes Ltd in Milnrow (formerly Lancashire Paper Tubes Company on Molesworth Street) initially in the office but then as a saleseman or ‘rep,’ securing orders for the parent company. Although the pay was poor it seems that Norman was good at his job. One incident suggests this as well as his sense of fun. Norman went to Sykes of Halifax – a particularly hard for to get an order – and was quickly shown the door. In a local café he drew their manager as a huge monster chasing Norman down the road. He returned to the company, showed the cartoon to the boss and got his order ! He was as good at ‘reading’ his customers as he was at reading a theatre audience, another of his tricks being to imitate – accurately – his bosses and customers.

One of his work colleagues told me that Norman owned a Riley car which was constantly breaking down due to the petrol being ‘gravity fed.’ Norman didn’t understand this and when the mechanics ‘fixed’ it (by turning on the pump) Norman was amazed and rewarded them with a pack of cigarettes. Stories of his practical joking at work are still told, for example his pretending that there was a mouse in the office to frighten the office girls.

After work Norman would indulge in his hobby – variety and theatricals. The late 20’s and 30’s was an era of the local concert party. Masonic Halls and ‘smoking clubs’ (all male) were places where Norman would practice his comedy and ventriloquist acts. Sometimes he would play for Sunday Schools, charging one guinea and those who saw him said that he was never ‘smutty’ or crude, relying on good Lancashire humour to entertain.

Talented as a comedian, pianist, trumpet player (and cartoonist) Norman left his reps job for a career in show business in 1934. Gracie Fields saw him at a charity show at the Rochdale Hippodrome in 1931 and being further alerted of his talents by a friend gave him an audition in her dressing room. Impressed, she put him on her Friday night bill at the Chiswick Empire, knowing that Sir Oswald Stoll, the impresario would be there. Stoll was impressed too and booked him for the Alhambra two weeks later. By 1935 Archie Pitt had him under contract for the tour of ‘Mr Tower of London’. When he left his job he said that he would come back to see them in Milnrow driving a Cadillac rather than his ‘tin can’ and he did, for an un-recorded Workers Playtime at the Butterworth Hall Mill.

On the national stage his career soon blossomed, appearing at the Royal Variety shows of 1936, 1947 and 1951, even appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show in America in 1949. Norman also made appearances in films just after the war and regularly appeared in pantomime – always as the dame. He is best remembered though, for his comedy portrayal of Fanny Fairbottom, a toothless Lancastrian woman gossiping ‘Over the Garden Wall.’ These one-sided monologue would be about neighbours’ illnesses and good natured local intrigue – often done in miming or silent mouthing when the subject got too hot or risqué. Acknowledging his debt to Norman Evans, Les Dawson recreated a similar gossip on TV in the 1970’s.

When variety dried up in the 1950’s Norman Evans returned to Pantomime but a car accident near to his home in Fulwood Preston resulted in Norman losing an eye. Some years of recovery later, Norman made a comeback, working on his own TV series – the Norman Evans Show – between 1956-1958. By the early 1960’s he was performing throughout a summer season at Butlins Holiday Camp in Pwllheli which he enjoyed at that time though in poor health. His final TV appearance was on Comedy Bandbox in 1962 shortly before his death. He was honoured posthumously   with a plaque at the Manchester Opera House in 1999.

Norman Evans was buried at Carleton Cemetery in Blackpool on his headstone the words ‘Norman’s Last Garden Wall.’

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