In Praise of...Norman Wisdom
|FEATURES - MOVIES|
A truly iconic British comedy figure heads into the wings, already missed...
Some say comedy is a gift; others say it’s just a means of getting through, seeing it as merely a pay check. However, from time to time we are lucky enough to meet, or even experience, individuals who are an exception to the rule- Sir Norman Wisdom was one of these people.
I myself had a good upbringing. Raised in a middle class lifestyle, my mother and father did everything I could have asked. They raised me properly; made sure I was correctly educated and encouraged me throughout.
Regrettably, I never really repaid the support they gave me; regularly in trouble as a kid, I grew up and adopted the role of the class jester. Unfortunately, schools tend to see this sort of behaviour as disruptive, as opposed to the humorous angle that my fellow class mates saw. As a result, my behaviour was called into repute on a number of occasions, usually for very inconsequential matters and I grew frustrated.
Now, not long after my 10th birthday, my father invested in the complete collection of Norman Wisdom films on a spur of the moment purchase. Initially I had no idea who he was but, after just one film, Norman Wisdom went on to become one of the biggest influences of my adolescent life. Yes, while others were obsessed with David Beckham or the latest star of yet another reality show, I had become inspired by a comedian of yesteryear.
There was something about Norman; his accommodating persona meant that it was easy to relate, while his style of comedy was similar to mine, rife with self-deprecation and an almost childish enthusiasm that very few comedians since have managed to reproduce. Now, this is not to say that Sir Norman was simple, in fact far from it. As his autobiography explains (My Turn) Norman was an immensely talented individual. Having discovered his love of entertaining during a tour of India with the British Army, Wisdom began to concentrate on developing his skills as a musician and stage performer. Already an accomplished trumpet and clarinet player, Norman continued to grow in confidence and, after a number of various roles and an unfortunate run in with Winston Churchill where he was disciplined for calling him Winnie, Norman turned this passion into a career after some helpful words from actor Sir Rex Harrison.
From here, Norman went from strength to strength. Making his professional debut at 31, his rise to the top was phenomenally fast, with people unable to get enough of “the gump” character for which he became most-recognised. The character was quite distinct, with his tweed flat cap askew, peak turned up; a suit at least two sizes too tight; a crumpled collar and a mangled tie. After two successful years, Wisdom was an established West End star and soon turned his attention to television and film. It is here that Wisdom gained global recognition, with his mischievous, playful character drawing audiences from all areas of the globe. With Charlie Chaplin labelling him as “his favourite clown”, Norman was received whole heartedly, especially at home where he was seen as the perfect anecdote to the bleak asceticism of post-war Britain. During a 19-film stint, Norman will be most remembered for his portrayal of Norman Pitkin, a hapless errand boy who had an almost frightening ability to bounce back from relentless moments of embarrassment. (See below)
After a brief stretch in America, Norman returned to London in the 80’s, where he subsequently gained popularity from various television roles. During his career, Norman was awarded a BAFTA for Most Promising Newcomer to Film, appeared twice on This is Your Life and performed for Her Majesty the Queen on two separate occasions.
During the 1990’s, Norman’s career rekindled following the emergence of Lee Evans, a comedian whose performances were compared largely to those of Norman’s during his film era. A new, younger audience saw Norman again propelled to the top and, never one to miss an opportunity, Norman took a number of cameos, replicating the lovable joker that had marked his rise to fame.
"His enthusiasm and likable character portrayals were what made him unique, commanding a legion of fans from as far off as Albania, where his films were amongst only a handful of Western exports allowed in the country during the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha"
In 2004, Norman appeared in Coronation Street as fitness fanatic Ernie Crabbe. Despite his 89 years of age, the performance was a perfect tribute to his limitless energy. While time had aged his once youthful looks, his spirit remained young, with many of the cast remarking that it was hard to keep up with him.
Sir Norman Wisdom announced his retirement on 4 February 2005, a date which also marked his 90th birthday. They say you can’t keep a good dog down and Norman was the epitome of this, returning to perform three more film roles and appearing in a documentary of his life before withdrawing due to health concerns. The documentary, which discussed his career in depth and the unfortunate development of vascular dementia which Wisdom was now suffering from, received incredible viewing numbers whilst achieving much critical acclaim.
There can be no denying the influence and joy that Sir Norman has given us and these must be remembered. During an Interview with the Telegraph in 2004, Wisdom commented that “all he wanted to do was make people laugh”. When accepting a Knighthood in 2000, he pretended to fall over, a stage act that he had become accredited with during his career. “Her eyes were twinkling” Norman remarked of the Queen, "She loved it, she did. And everyone else was guffawing. It made my day. Anything for a laugh, I say."
This undeniable passion for comedy and dedication to making people laugh is something that Norman will be forever remembered for. His enthusiasm and likable character portrayals were what made him unique, commanding a legion of fans from as far off as Albania, where his films were amongst only a handful of Western exports allowed in the country during the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha.
While his popularity may have waned as times changed, he was never forgotten and the impact of his career remains perfectly visible today.
Sir Norman Wisdom was the finest British comic of the 20th century, his roles going on to influence a generation. While I am saddened by his loss, in which a piece of myself feels like it has been lost, I feel honoured that I have been able to document the life of such a remarkable individual.
Let us not mourn the loss of a national treasure, but instead celebrate the life of a true great, an individual who brought so much joy to so many people and whose achievements are unlikely to ever be repeated.
God Bless, Sir Norman Wisdom.
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