Sir Norman Wisdom
Sir Norman Wisdom, who died on Monday aged 95, ranked second only to Charlie Chaplin as the 20th century’s most consistently successful British screen comic; he shared with Chaplin a talent for visual and physical humour whose roots lay in music hall and whose appeal transcended cultural boundaries.
When the two men met briefly in 1950 Chaplin told Wisdom: “You will follow in my footsteps,” and three years later Wisdom made his first major film, Trouble in Store. Although he was already established on stage and on television, reviews of the film were moderate, and Rank executives held out no great hopes for it. In the event, the film set records in 51 London cinemas, and Wisdom’s plaintive theme song, Don’t Laugh at Me, spent months in the Top 10.
An unbroken run of 15 successes followed until 1966, with the 5ft 4in tall Wisdom holding off even the challenge of James Bond to be Britain’s favourite box-office draw. In 1964 a record 18.5 million people watched his BBC pantomime Robinson Crusoe.
Wisdom’s screen success declined along with the British film industry. His last outing was an ill-advised sex comedy in 1969, What’s Good for the Goose. Sex, like colour film, seemed to jar.
He did not translate well in America, which already had a similar star in Jerry Lewis. A later role, however, in a Broadway musical, Walking Happy, earned him a critics’ award in 1967, and the following year The Night They Raided Minsky’s saw him nominated for a supporting Oscar.
Yet everywhere else Wisdom’s pathetic charm cast a binding spell. He was as popular in South America as he was in Iran, where he met boys whose only English was his catchphrase “Mr Grimsdale!” His films were often shown in eastern bloc countries, where he achieved celebrity status. In Britain his cocking a snook at the Establishment prefigured the Sixties; in the eastern bloc Marxist censors approved his proletarian if hapless subversion of the elite. A hospice established for those affected by the Chernobyl disaster was named after him; and in 1995 he received the Freedom of both the City of London and of the Albanian capital, Tirana. Wisdom was the only Western actor whose films were allowed to be shown in Albania under the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha.
Norman Wisdom was born at Marylebone, London, on February 4 1915. He was not candid, nor perhaps sure, about his date of birth and regularly knocked up to 12 years off his age.
He grew up in poverty in Paddington (where his first memory was of a Zeppelin passing overhead during the First World War), the son of a chauffeur and a seamstress. His father was a violent drunk who often hit Norman, once throwing him against the ceiling. When his parents separated Norman and his brother were farmed out to paid guardians. They eventually grew up at Deal, in Kent.
Norman left school at 14, becoming a delivery boy for Lipton’s and then a commis-waiter at a London hotel, from where he was sacked for dropping a loaded breakfast-tray down a lift shaft. He walked to Cardiff with the aim of becoming a miner, but was deserted by the friend who had promised him work, and instead embarked in a steamer bound for Argentina as a cabin boy. The crew taught him to box, and in Buenos Aires Norman (who weighed only five stone) found himself matched (for money) against an opponent twice his size and age. He won the fight, but the crew spent his prize-money.
Back in London, and still only 14, he was disowned by his father and began living rough on the streets, at first sleeping at the foot of Marshal Foch’s statue in Victoria. He would sneak into cinemas to keep warm.
He lasted two hours as a trainee draughtsman before finding his first métier as an Army bandsman. In 1930 he was sent to Lucknow, India, with the 10th Hussars. As well as learning to play 11 instruments, he also became adept at falling off a horse for the amusement of officers’ wives. It was his first solo performance. A fanatical gymnast who later performed all his own stunts, he was also for three years the Raj’s flyweight boxing champion.
Wisdom returned to England a civilian in 1936 and worked as a telephone operator, and when war broke out was seconded to work Churchill’s own switchboard. He then joined the Royal Corps of Signals. His concert party work was spotted by Rex Harrison, who encouraged him to become a professional.
His break came in December 1945 at the Collins Hall, Islington, a venue for new variety turns. He had followed the manager everywhere for three weeks asking for a chance. Billed as “The Successful Failure”, he produced an act that was a synthesis of his experiences and would never change. Wisdom was life’s victim, a gormless, game village idiot. Mime and pratfalls were his stock-in-trade, dance and song mere distractions, as he clowned with musical instruments that shut on his fingers or was knocked out by his boxing shadow. It was silly, unsophisticated fun larded with pathos — and austerity audiences lapped it up. In Skegness one teenage schoolgirl laughed so hard that she dislocated her jaw. Within two years Wisdom was a West End star.
Not everyone appreciated his rise to top billing. An upstaged Canadian act took to coming on to interpret Wisdom’s routine until laid out by an uppercut. By 1950 he was appearing regularly on the new medium of television, as well as in pantomime and ice spectaculars. He was also a favourite with the Royal Family and performed at Windsor Castle.
Yet he still wanted to create a character unique to him, and in a Scarborough charity shop he found a uniform. “The Gump”, in a jacket three sizes too small with tie awry and cap askew, became his trademark role, the eternal schoolboy with the looks of a beaten puppy.
Wisdom became addicted to hard work, following 12-hour days on a film set with two exhausting shows at night. He was also a perfectionist, rehearsing a new sketch for up to a week. The punishing regime cost him his second marriage while bringing him the trappings of wealth. He collected cars, kept a 94ft yacht and lived in the Sussex house once inhabited by Anne of Cleves. In 1968 an appeal he lost against paying tax on £200,000 worth of silver bullion invested in America set a legal precedent. In 1980 he moved to the Isle of Man.
He appeared in no more films after 1969, instead making four series for television, A Little Bit of Wisdom, up to 1976. Thereafter he was seen sporadically, most notably in a straight role as a dying cancer patient in a 1981 BBC play, Going Gently. He then had a screen part in a dire British thriller, Double X, in 1992.
Wisdom kept himself formidably fit through golf, jogging and even football. He was still performing a relentlessly physical stage act in his eighties. There was a ghostwritten autobiography published in 1992, Don’t Laugh At Me.
He was appointed OBE in 1995 and knighted in 2000.
From 1995 until 2004 he made occasional appearances as Billy Ingleton in the BBC’s television comedy Last of the Summer Wine. In 2004 he had a cameo role in Coronation Street, and in 2007 he appeared in Kevin Powis’s film Expresso. he had a small part as Winston the butler in the film Evil Calls: The Raven (2008).
Norman Wisdom’s first marriage, to Doreen, was a wartime romance, and was quickly dissolved. In 1947 he married Freda Simpson, with whom he had a son and a daughter. That marriage was dissolved in 1969.