Sir Norman Wisdom is one of the most important figures in the history of British comedy. Although his broad humour, full of nervous twitches and falling over, is out of favour with modern audiences, he was for a time the biggest attraction at British cinemas and has influenced generations of comedians, most notably Lee Evans and Michael Crawford's portrayal of Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em.
Norman's childhood was of a harshness almost unimaginable in Britain today. He was born in London, England on February 4, 1915. His father was a vicious drunkard, and his mother eventually ran out on him, abandoning nine-year-old Norman. He was taken into care and did not see her again until he was 34. Aged 13, he and a friend decided to head to Wales to get work as miners. It took two weeks for them to walk from London to Cardiff, sleeping in fields and ditches.
After a year in odd jobs, aged 14 and only 4 foot 10.5 inches tall (149 cm) he joined the army, the 10th Royal Hussars. The army made him a musician, teaching him to play a number of instruments and putting him in the band. He also performed in concert parties and taught himself to tap-dance. Legend has it that he once fell over in the middle of a dance routine and got such a laugh that he decided to fall over deliberately, and a talent for comedy was discovered.
Just before the end of World War II, while performing in a charity show in Cheltenham Town Hall, Essex, he met actor Rex Harrison, who advised him to go professional. Norman followed this advice and made his professional stage debut in 1946. He travelled the length and breadth of Britain, performing in variety shows, seaside summer seasons, and concert parties.
But variety was dying, and film and television were the place for a talented young comic to be. He made his motion picture debut in 1948, A Date with a Dream, but this did not bring him stardom. Instead, he got work in television, with a show called Wit And Wisdom (1948-1950) for the fledgling BBC.
Further television followed, but he returned to the big screen in 1953 in Trouble in Store. This was created as a vehicle for Wisdom to mimic his television success, and allowed Norman Wisdom to use his polished persona as a well-meaning clown in cloth cap and too-tight suit. He played Norman Pitkin, working in a stock room of a London department store. The film also starred his regular straight man Jerry Desmonde and talented comedienne Margaret Rutherford, to whom Wisdom sang a self-penned ditty "Don't Laugh at Me ('Cause I'm A Fool)". This was to become his theme song, and decades later he would still use it to end his stage act.
Signed to Rank, he was the biggest box office draw in British cinema at the time, playing a series of similar comic parts. As well as starring, sometimes in multiple roles, he also wrote many of his films. However, the repeating formula brought diminishing returns as he moved into the 1960s. The Girl on the Boat (1962), based on a P.G. Wodehouse story, was an attempt to broaden his range, and The Night They Raided Minsky's (1968) was a big hit at the time. Since then he has done little film, with his 1992 comeback picture Double X getting poor reviews.
He spent most of the late 1960s and 1970s on television, in shows such as Androcles and the Lion (based on George Bernard Shaw's play), Norman, and A Little Bit of Wisdom. Since then he has done a number of more serious television guest roles, including Bergerac, Casualty, Last of the Summer Wine, Dalziel and Pascoe. His style has become less manic as he has aged, and he has proved himself still able to turn in a fine performance.
Wisdom has had a close assocation with the British Royal Family for many years, performing at 9 Royal Command Performances, the first being the Royal Variety Show in 1955. He has also entertained the Royal Family privately in their theatre at Windsor. In recognition for this, as well as his charitable work, he received the Order of the British Empire in 1995 and a knighthood in 2000 - he admitted that as he stepped down from the latter he couldn't resist a deliberate trip.
Although his popularity has waned in Britain, he still has many fans in former communist Eastern Europe, where his films were part of the small quantity of Western entertainment allowed in by dictators like Enver Hoxha. He has performed much charitable work for the area and in recent years has made many trips to Russia, Ukraine and Albania. He is a kind of national hero in Albania, and in 1995 received the freedom of the city of Tirana.
He married twice, and has two children, Nicholas (born 1953) and Jacqueline (born 1954) by his second wife, Freda Simpson. Norman lives alone on the Isle of Man, where he spends his leisure time playing golf and walking. He is also still active in charity work, including for the Norman Wisdom Hospice in Chernobyl, Ukraine and for Mencap in the Isle of Man.
Wisdom produced his autobiography, Don't Laugh at Me, in 1992, and the same year received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the British Comedy Awards. He continues to work on stage and screen, with a role in a Kay Mellor-scripted comedy Between the Sheets due on television in 2003.
TV (not including numerous guest appearances)
- BBCi. "You Dirty Old Man!" BBC Comedy website. June 4, 2003. http://www.bbc.co.uk/comedy/news/20030604.shtml
Linda Green. "Sir Norman Wisdom". Theatre, Musicals and Actors Web. 2003. http://www.tmaw.co.uk/normanw.html
Eamonn McCusker. "Pitkin: The Life and Films of Norman Wisdom". BritMovie. 2003. http://www.britmovie.co.uk/features/mccusker/wisdom00.html
"The historic visit to Albania of Norman 'Pitkin' Wisdom". Spirit of Albania. http://www.geocities.com/spiritofalbania/pitkin.htm