Comedy Writer – David Nobbs: A Lifetime in Comedy

Report by Lisa Nightingale

‘Write silly!’ is David Nobbs’ truth burrowed deep in the underbelly of his work. It is truth that transcends many comedies – Dad’s Army was based in the truth of the war, Reggie Perrin’s life was so boringly ordinary that he could not cope with it. ‘Your writing can have its own truth. As long as it clings to that truth, it will go a long way.’ Recognise the boundaries surrounding your chosen subject and stick within those confines.

May 15 Barbara and David Nobbs_0010David began his writing career at age 9 with only W.E Johns’ Biggles for inspiration. After National Service and Cambridge University, with Peter Cook, he had caught the writing bug and wrote for magazines, before moving into journalism where he wrote small articles on local issues. A writer’s first printed professional word never fails to thrill, David’s was a typo.

The world of journalism was just not doing it for him and in his evenings, he wrote his first novel. He almost preens with pride at the memory of its doing fairly well. So he relocated to London and wrote. And wrote and wrote. But nothing sold.

So, it was back to journalism.

‘Persistence can be hard work.’ he admits. It paid off though and a sketch submitted to ‘That Was the Week That Was’ was accepted.

But, David could not stop writing novels, embellishing an unassuming body with a dash of drama e.g. The Cucumber Marketing Board with Pegasus Baines, a Nutritional Scientist, Heston Blumenthal like Chef (The Cucumber Man, 1994). It is a disappointment to David that drama has been lost from satire.

‘Television is made for dialogue.’ he says. Snippets of overheard conversation on a train, in a queue, at a ‘Do’ all make for material. Much of today’s comedy has replaced irony with anger and it is a shame that so many characters are not likeable.

‘The basic principles of Comedy remain the same. It is the details that change.’ And a move to the country provided David with his hit ‘A Bit of a Do.’ People watching at a wealth of village celebrations, from the Dentists’ Dinner Dance, to the Angling Society Awards. He used his own experiences combined with the drama created by the ongoing whisperings of the recurring guest list.

As for new writers, David recognises the difficulties of facing a fast moving society that we now live in. Today’s news can be forgotten by next week. And that our current obsession with Political Correctness sweeps the stereotypes that can yield so many laughs under the carpet. Persist! Exploit the Radio Times and the TV Times and current comedy shows credits! The Agent/Producer issue is much of a ‘chicken and egg’ discussion, so keep sending your sketches and ideas to either. Or both. But funny and silly still rise to the top.

Special Guest,  Cllr Eileen Berry, the Mayor of Winchester

May 15 Mayor Eileen Berry_0011Madam Mayor Eileen Berry is a straight talking woman. It was no real surprise when she confessed to having been a rebellious writer when growing up. ‘Rebel or not – be true to yourself’ she says. ‘My writing life sustained me.’ And it was in writing that she accessed a plethora of emotions. As a little girl, she could not spell and so read a lot and read her own work to others.

‘Never apologise for your work.’ Criticise and criticism should be kept to the writers’ work and always remain constructive. In this sense, others can be listened to and learned from.

Over her past year as Mayor, Eileen has accumulated riches beyond her expectations. She has always liked people and has revelled in her Mayor’s capacity to attend groups like the Hampshire Writers’ society and to meet the do-gooders that are never seen. She has not met anyone who has not inspired her.

Madam Mayor is a lifelong poet. She was a member of the Winchester Writers’ circle and Winchester Poets.

A Celebratory Retirement Tea for Barbara Large MBE FRSA HFUW, Abbey House, Winchester

Report by Celia Livesey

A celebratory retirement tea was held in the elegant Abbey House, official residence for the Mayors of Winchester. The current Mayor, Cllr Ernie Jeffs and his wife, Barbara, the Mayoress, paid tribute to Barbara Large for the tremendous success and international reputation of the annual Winchester Writers’ Conference, especially with this year being the 33rd and also the last under the direction of its founder Barbara Large.


The Mayor said he was keen to recognise Barbara’s contribution to the the cultural and economic life of Winchester by marking the end of her era with an impromptu celebratory tea. He went on to say that Barbara is a well know local figure, full of energy, inspiration and fun. Council officers and a succession of Mayors have enjoyed working with her, and participating in some unforgettable events over the years.

Although Barbara has already had her official retirement ‘send off’ from the University of Winchester many collegues from a range of local cultural organisations, friends, authors and members of the Hampshire Writers’ Society, (of which Barbara is also the founder), had come along to wish her well for the future.

Cllr Robert Humby, Deputy Leader and Portfolio Holder for Economic Development gave a short address. He said that just as he was getting to know more about Winchester’s cultural life, the guest of honour, Barbara Large – was taking leave of one of the City’s finest institutions after an incredible thirty-three years at the helm.

04_ BL receiving poem

He said that Barbara has achieved what many of us hope to achieve in our lifetimes… She has not only created something of great value to very many people. She has also left a Conference with a national – even international reputation that will continue long into the future to the benefit of Winchester as a visitor destination, a place for academic study and a cultural centre. And she has left a legacy of countless writers and illustrators to whose first books she has, in some senses, played the midwife.

03_ Mayor & Mayoress & BLShe has maintained her smile, her energy and her passion throughout these thirty-three years. She has been the official face of the Conference, but she has also been a loyal and caring friend to many of the delegates and authors, and also many people here today.

Cllr Humby said they were proud that Barbara is ‘of Winchester’. And it was felt that the end of her time at the Conference needed to be signaled in a suitable way. So poet, performer and playwright Keith Bennett, with whom Barbara has worked on numerous writing competitions for the Conference, had been invited to write a few lines on the occasion of her retirement.

It was particularly apt that, Keith should start by launching into Old English. It was because of Alfred the Great the English language became further developed as a written language.

Hweat, we Gardena in geardagum theod cyninga, thrym getrundon un tha aethelingar ellen fremendon

The translation:

So the Spear Danes in days gone by and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.

Keith said that he had known Barbara for a number of years and had come to realise that Canadian was a language, which although sounding similar to English, had a completely different meaning in some instances. For example, when he said no to Barbara – it was always changed in translation to yes, I’d love to.

Keith then read aloud the poem he had written for the occasion:

A Celebration of Barbara Large

founder of the unique, highly successful Winchester Writers’ Conference

A moment’s pause in the hectic pace of life;

celebration, trumpets, fanfare, drum-roll

of thunderous proportions, most un-like

Barbara, who has relinquished control.

Large enough to let her baby grow, not

founder like those lesser shows but shine out

of her generosity of spirit and thought,

the honesty, support and without doubt

unique approach she brought to this endeavour;

highly wrought, each year outdid the last,

successful in every way success can come.

Winchester applauds its Canadian treasure.

Writers too, without hesitation raise their glass,

Conference, and Barbara Large MBE, well done.

Copyright © Keith Bennett, September 2013

A framed copy of the poem, together with a letter formally thanking Barbara for her contribution to the cultural life of Winchester over many years was presented.

Cllr Humby invited Barbara to say a few words in response, which started by Barbara thanking the Mayor and Mayoress and Cllr Humby and everyone for the wonderful reception in her honour.

She went on to say that although she had retired from the Winchester Writers’ Conference, she had no intention of slowing down. A new website had already been launched, and she had just recently come back from presenting a poetry festival in a castle in darkest Wales, which featured Carol Ann Duffy, the poet laureate. Barbara assured the Mayor that if he needed anyone to help with cultural matters in Winchester, then she was his girl.06_BL with flowers

Barbara said that Abbey House, and this reception room, held very special memories for her. The Children’s Poetry awards from the Winchester Writers’ Conference have been held here year after year, and to see children all dressed up in their best clothes stepping up to the microphone, eyes shining, was something she would never forget.

Barbara spoke about all the authors who had been discovered at Winchester, and asked Jack Sheffield to recount his story, from arriving at Winchester as a ‘rookie’, to beginning a second career and being told he was marketable. Jack presented Barbara with a copy of his latest book, School’s Out to be released on the 26 September.

The Mayor and Cllr Humby presented Barbara with a bouquet of flowers, and again thanked everyone for coming and helping to make this a very special occasion.