Sir Norman Joseph Wisdom - A Comic Genius Remembered

Written by Paul McEvoy
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It was with a great sense of sadness that I learned of Sir Norman Wisdom's demise the other day. After a six month illness, at the grand old age of 95, our Norm, Norman Pitkin, the loveable Gump, quietly passed away at an Isle Of Man nursing home. A true working class hero, Norman certainly was a chap of many, many talents… his greatest being the ability to make us laugh, something he always tried very hard, sometimes too hard, to achieve…

In his own words, Norman was 'born in very sorry circumstances' to Frederick and Maud Wisdom - a chauffeur and theatrical dressmaker respectively - in Marylebone, London on February 4th 1915. It was a brutal and lonely childhood. His mother left home when she realised she could no longer cope with his father’s moods who was a rotten drunk and violent with it. As a chauffeur he would go off on long jobs leaving the nine-year-old Norman and his slightly older brother Fred to fend for themselves - home alone sometimes for weeks at a stretch. Things would always go pear shaped for Norman each time Dad finally returned… After much violent abuse at his father's hands, Norman found himself in a children's home in Deal, Kent. An unhappy place, he ran away a number of times only to return with a maturity beyond his years at age 13 to become an errand boy for a local greengrocer, complete with basket mounted bike…

After a while and fed up once more, Norman decided to jack in the grocery round and set off to walk (yes, walk) to Cardiff to sign up as a cabin boy in the Merchant Navy… no doubt on the long trek to Wales he must have thanked his lucky stars that his name wasn't Roger… cheap jokes aside, he later quit the navy and signed up for various and varied stints as a page boy, a coal miner, a waiter and finally the post that was to be the making of him, a British Army drummer boy in the 10th Royal Hussars. Posted to Lucknow, India in 1930 he qualified for his valuable education certificate, and while serving he managed to squeeze in equestrian duties, learned the drums, clarinet and trumpet and became the flyweight boxing champ of the British Army in India. Stroll on What couldn't this little fella do? But hang on, there's more for fuck’s sake. Realising his physicality could be funny and entertaining he began goofing around in the boxing gym, much to the delight of his army peers, showing off with acrobatic slapstick and eye-watering pratfalls. Norman got a kick out of entertaining his Army mates… he really liked to be liked (shades of the neglected boy coming to the fore), and what’s more he realised he enjoyed being smack bang in the spotlight.

Norman began in earnest to hone these skills and during WW2 managed to perform regularly and often both as a musician and multi-talented variety comedy entertainer, in between regular duties for the Royal Signal Corps. He impressed actor Rex Harrison so much that he sought Norman out after one Army Charity show and personally urged him to become a professional entertainer once back on civvy street.

Now there was no stopping wonder boy.

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Leaving the forces in 1946, demob happy, he climbed the theatrical entertainment ladder like a hungry rat up a drainpipe, establishing his long-lived down at heel 'Gump' persona (with the ill fitting b*m-freezer jacket, ragged tie and wonky flat cap) as the resident fall guy to the noted magician and future TV star David Nixon. Norman had bigger ideas and forged ahead in the theatre world, and within a couple of years he had his name in lights in London's West End and had made his own successful TV debut. He had accomplished that oh so difficult transition from stage to screen with apparent ease. Even the comedic demi-god Charlie Chaplin publicly cited Norman as his favourite clown. Stone the crows. A grand accolade indeed… With massive audiences eating from the palm of his hand, Norman turned his speculative eye towards the cinema… and really, from here on in, the rest is history… my history, your history, our history.

I remember his fifties and sixties films being screened in the seventies… black and white giving way to colour, Norman's persona unchanging, his hair getting dyed blacker as he got inevitably older, the pratfalls as time went on got ever so slightly less convincing to our slowly jaundiced eyes. Am I being unfair? Unjust to a dyed in the wool, pure blood entertainer who only wanted to be liked? To be funny? To make us larf? Yeah, maybe. After all, one of his truly best and most rounded films to my mind was The Early Bird, made in 1965, quite late in his film career and Norman was certainly no spring chicken in that one.

Perhaps as I got older and my childhood eyes grew more cynical I missed the point… I hadn't realised that the next generation coming up behind me would laugh all over again at what I wasn't finding quite so funny any more… BUT let me rewind the video - and the mind - a little bit further…

Oh, now the memories come flooding back. For us, the first time round, and being so new to our young eyes, those films were the stuff of Monday morning playground re-enactments and assembly hall sniggers. I remember being knee high to a spacehopper, lying on the front room floor, watching Trouble In Store and The Early Bird on a wet Sunday afternoon with mum, dad, nan and bruv, all crowded round the old DER rental, all of us full of roast dinner and tinned Heinz sponge pudding, laughing hard enough to choke… our Norman on top form, more than tickling the nations' funnybone, cheering us kids up in the dark dreary days of endless strikes and 3 day weeks, dressed as always in the same crap flat cap and shrunken suit or milkman's uniform, playing the same eternally hopeful, awkward, helpless, bumbling, hilarious character in film after film - an endless formulaic scenario that became a treasured part of our childhood memories and provided a lot of our childhood laughs. Blimus… the power of nostalgia evokes a whole raft of forgotten moments in me. Snapshots of a by-gone age, preserved on celluloid and in our rose-tinted, hazy memory banks. Even the candle-lit nights of Ted Heath’s power cuts suddenly seem cosy and romantic.

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As it was, Norman was one of the first British screen actors who managed to both make me laugh out loud with his trademark physical comedy AND (secretly) moisten the childhood eye with the treacle thick sentimental pathos he exuded… that sense of semi-unrequited love he evinced… things that evidently struck a number of resonant chords in my 10 year old heart. Ah, jaysis… Mary, Kathy, Caroline and Yvonne… I can still see their freckled, heart shaped faces, still taste the endless packets of Love Hearts we shared behind the new prefab classrooms and simultaneously still hear the deafening cardiac symphony in my chest, even now… all played out over a reedy soundtrack of "Mr Grimsdale. Mr Grimsdale.". Bittersweet playground kiss-chase affairs that seemed to be wholly summed up, in my pre-adolescent mind, by Norman's childlike film persona. If you made 'em laugh you got the girl… kind of. In Norm's world though, he never got the girl much did he? Like fuck. Life would later imitate art when, after a promising start in America, Norman abruptly came home, giving up his dream of  breaking into the States and the Ed Sullivan/Johnny Carson/Hollywood big-time circuit, when his second wife of 21 years, Freda, suddenly upped and left him. Must have broken his heart. His subsequent career was mainly confined to domestic TV appearances and later his one man cabaret show, which he took round the world. His TV work culminated with the odd appearance in shows like Casualty and latterly a long run in Last Of The Summer Wine… in which his boundless enthusiasm, work ethic and simple desire to show off for the camera/spotlight sometimes managed to piss his co-stars right off. One of the stars of the show, Peter Sallis, said as much as he loved him, Norman often became a huge distraction during filming. Instead of taking direction and simply doing as the director asked, Norman kept wanting to 'enhance' his performance and go off-piste with a random pratfall, a banana skin slide or some similar sort of attention seeking acrobatic manoevure. Anything to get a laugh. All too much. You just can't keep a good music hall man down, can you… ooh, where's me washboard Mother?

Sallis says, "In the end I developed three words to help Norman in his work… they were SHUT UP NORMAN."

I shouldn't have thought Norman would have given a tupenny fuck though…

Norman had a huge personality, crammed into his small, wiry frame… a big dynamo heart thumped in that wee ribcage, desperate to be loved and desperate to entertain. Flip sides of the same coin. A deep desire and the sheer physical ability to make us laugh, and then, with a tongue-tied and sheepishly bashful look, the desire to make us feel empathy for his underdog character too.

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I’ve spent a good while reminiscing and dredging all this up from the sumps of my mind, and after a good clean up with a wire brush and a rinse under the mental tap the memories of Norman Wisdom's work and the effect those films had on my childhood are still fresh and still good and moreover, still wholesome.

What would a fitting epitaph for Norman be?  

I came to the conclusion that sad as it is he's shuffled off the mortal coil, Norman had run a bloody good innings really… we should all be so lucky. He had enjoyed rude health and career success for most of his life, and had basked in the love and appreciation of millions across the world… especially in Albania, where Mr Pitkin was politically approved and was regarded as something of a modern day folk hero. On a visit there in 2001, Norman encountered the England football squad who were playing the Albanian team in the city of Tirana (where incidentally he was given the keys to the city in 1995). Norman's presence at the football ground created a lot of excitement and eclipsed even that of our boy Beckham. WTF? Norman, ever the professional artiste, worked the crowd and ran onto the pitch before the start of the match wearing a Tommy Cooper style half Albania / half England football shirt get up, which went down a storm with the Albanian fans, thousands chanting ‘PITKINI PITKINI’, especially when he performed one of his inevitable comedy trips on his way out to the centre spot. ‘THERE’S ONLY ONE NORMAN WISDOM.’ Too right. Cue drum roll. Eye thank yew… bizarre.

Quite simply and at the end of the day, Norman Wisdom deserved his success… he worked bloody hard enough to get there. A driven man indeed… He loved the spotlight and at one point or another we ALL loved him dearly for it. But if he had gone on another 5 years to his centenary, and if he had had an audience with Her Majesty The Queen to mark it, no doubt he would have been nudging her security out of the way so he could get his camera angle right, or he might have moved m'am aside to make room for a trip, fall and forward roll across the red carpet… without even spilling a regal vol au vent in the process. But its just not becoming for the elder statesman of the British music hall is it? Where would the dignity be? And lets not forget, the Royals certainly don't need an old variety man to make 'em look fucking ridiculous.

So I duly raise my titfer and bid you good luck and God bless Norman, and heartfelt thanks for the laughs and the memories. I hope Mr Grimsdale is there to meet you at the pearly gates, and that he'll have a quiet word in your ear and tell you it's all OK, you can rest now Mr Pitkin… there's no need to try so hard any more.

© Words Paul McEvoy/ ZANI Media

Read 6206 times Last modified on Sunday, 28 March 2021 16:16
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Paul McEvoy

Paul McEvoy

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