Norman Wisdom

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Norman Wisdom Pencil Portrait
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In 1981, Norman Wisdom appeared in a British television drama ‘Going Gently,’ as a dying patient in a cancer ward. Stephen Frears’ poignant script would provide the actor with an opportunity for delivering a beautifully measured performance and one that would deservedly scoop a richly deserved BAFTA award. He might have been ‘out of fashion’ for years before his death in 2010, but that never meant I had to listen to uninformed and narrow minded opinions about his status as a film icon.

In a career spanning seventy years, the little man’s physical comedy provided a last link with the music hall era, whilst earning him hero status in Albania. A wonderful crooner and distinctive drummer, he numbered Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth amongst his biggest fans, and was Britain’s biggest box office star throughout the 50’s and early 60’s. In character as Norman Pitkin, the five-foot-two Wisdom was the eternal errand boy, comically resplendent in a tight suit and upturned flat cap. Railing against the injustices of the world, his exhortation “Mr Grimsdale!,” was a rallying call to arms for millions of cinemagoers, resolutely supportive of the eternal underdog.

Rumours of his imminent demise were rife for some considerable time. On December 28, 2008, comedy fans in Britain tuned to Sky News, were greeted with the erroneous headline that Wisdom had died. He was in fact, very much alive, if a somewhat diminished figure from the the peak of his showbiz career in the fifties and sixties. I suspect he would ordinarily have laughed at this gaffe, but sadly at this stage of his life, was in poor health with a failing memory. Suffering from vascular dementia, second only to Alzheimer’s as the most common form of dementia. the diminutive star was by now living in a care home, following the sale of his Isle of Man home.

Like millions, I was aware of this fact as a direct result of his family’s courageous participation in the documentary ‘Wonderland: The Secret Life of Norman Wisdom Aged 92 and ¾,’ which showed their struggle in deciding how best to care for their aging parent. Naturally, he was unlike any average care resident, realising as early as he did, that a captive audience would for now, be omnipresent in his daily life.

Born to a chauffeur father and dressmaker mother in London, Wisdom was sent to a children’s home at age nine when his parents separated. The job titles on his early résumé belie a youth spent trying to eke out an existence, working as he did as a page boy, errand boy, cabin boy and drummer boy (he also worked as a waiter and coal miner). Wisdom joined the Merchant Marines and later the British Army. During the war, he worked as a telephone operator in a London command center, and was once disciplined for addressing Winston Churchill as “Winnie.”

After the war, he joined the Royal Corps of Signals and it was while stationed in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, that he was discovered by actor Rex Harrison, who urged Wisdom to pursue a career in showbiz. Despite already being 31 years old, Wisdom wisely followed Harrison’s advice.

Two years later, he’d become a West End star and was making his television debut.

As a comedic actor, he was Charlie Chaplin’s “favorite clown,” which is unsurprising given that Wisdom’s comic persona was, in many ways, similar to his own – a slight chap in ill fitting clothing, an irrepressible innocent bumbling his way through a world seemed turned against him. With its slapstick physicality, Wisdom’s comedy harked back to a previous era, and in the bleakness of post-war England, many found his music hall aesthetic comforting. Unfortunately, such comfort was in short supply in his formative years, regular beatings from an abusive father being the order of the day. Interviewed by Sue Lawley on the long running BBC radio series ‘Desert island Discs’ in 2000, he describes being thrown against the ceiling by his father for breaking a cup. Such beatings were a regular occurance.

Recommended listening

The Musical World of Wisdom (1991) featuring Rick Wakeman

A selection of Wisdom’s favourite compositions, scored for piano by ex-Yes frontman and Isle of Man neighbour, Rick Wakeman.

Released in 1991, the album was, to that point, the culmination of a decade long and ultimately, enduring firm fast friendship between the two men.

Track Listing

1. Don’t Laugh At Me
2. Follow A Star
3. Please Opportunity
4. The Traffic Warden
5. Falling In Love
6. Never Give In
7. Writing A Song
8. It’s All So Wonderful
9. Nobody Does It Like Me
10. I Want To Go To Heaven
11. What Makes The World Go Round
12. The Lion Tamer
13. I Can’t Give You Anything But Love
14. Memories To Music

Total Time: 52:48

Desert Island Discs (2000)

Interviewed by Sue Lawley, our Norm displays precious little modesty, selecting amongst eight pieces of music, five of his own recordings.

Recommended viewing

Follow a star (1959)

Working with a new production crew, director Robert Asher coaxes a tour de force performance from our Norman. Mining a similar vein to “Singin’ in the rain,” Wisdom is once again the dreaming shop worker, this time aspiring to singing stardom. Vernon Carew (Jerry Desmonde) is the fading crooner who takes our hero under his tutelage in order to hijack his protege’s voice, whilst June Laverick is Judy, his crippled girlfriend and the only person capable of drawing out his full vocal potential, in a wholly convincing romantic subplot.

Along the way, there’s sterling support from Hattie Jacques – an obvious casting choice after her superlative performance in ‘The Square Peg’ – who appears in the film’s funniest and most memorable scene, as Norman’s indefatigable, long suffering music tutor. Sternly struggling with her most difficult student and aping Rex Harrison’s ability to speak in perfect pitch, she’s the archetypal vocal coach, all gesticulation and motivation, barking out multiple instructions whilst delivering body blows to our beleagured pupil.

Along the way, the little man also interacts with Ron Moody as a scene stealing pit violinist, Richard Wattis as a hypnotherapist, John Le Mesurier, Fenella Fielding and Charles Grey.

The culmination of Wisdom’s first cinematic period with Rank Pictures, ‘Follow a star’ is a consistently entertaining vehicle from beginning to end. As a new decade dawned, and eager to branch out, he would film the now greatly overlooked ‘There was a Crooked Man’ (1960), a movie not to be confused with the Kirk Douglas westerner made ten years later.