Saturday 3 December 2016

Life is no joke for the most popular clown around

Published 19/06/2010 | 05:00

Nothing dates quite as badly as comedy, and while classic acts like the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy do achieve a kind of immortality, most funny folk are doomed to become outmoded and forgotten. Such is the fate of Sir Norman Wisdom, who once upon a time was the most popular film comedian in Britain, and even threatened to make it big in America, but is now largely unknown to anyone under 40.

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Now 95, Sir Norman is living in an old folk's home on the Isle of Man, the tax haven to which he retreated in the 1960s. He has been suffering for the past five years with vascular dementia, which has devastated his memory to the extent that he no longer recognises himself in his own films.

He's not the only one. In a BBC2 documentary called Wonderland: The Secret Life of Norman Wisdom Aged 92 in 2008, he came face to face with obscurity. In a heartbreaking moment, he asked a little boy outside his grandson's school if he knew who he was. The boy stared at him blankly, even when he announced with a smile that he was Norman Wisdom. How are the mighty fallen.

For Norman was once a favourite of royalty, a beloved national institution and among the highest-paid British film stars of his day. In many ways, he belonged to the old tradition of the sad clown, and Charlie Chaplin was among his biggest fans. But Norman started out with different ambitions, and stumbled on comedy only by chance.

Born on February 4, 1915 in Marylebone, London, Norman was raised in considerable hardship. His father was a chauffeur, his mother a theatre dressmaker, and as a boy Norman, his brother and parents all slept in one room. After his mother died, Norman spent several years in a children's home in Kent before leaving school at 13 to become a grocer's boy. He also worked as a coalminer, a waiter, and a cabin boy on an Atlantic cruise ship before joining the army.

In the Royal Hussars, he learnt to box, becoming a noted flyweight. And it was while fooling around in the gym one day that he discovered his capacity for slapstick comedy. Over time, he worked up a vaudeville act that involved jokes and pratfalls and some singing -- he had a sweet singing voice, and would later go on to have a number of hits.

He was performing a charity concert in Cheltenham Town Hall during World War II when he was spotted by a noted entertainer in the audience. Rex Harrison was suitably impressed, and came backstage after the show to urge Norman to become a professional comic.

In 1946, Norman left the army and did just that. At first he worked as a comic sidekick to the popular magician David Nixon, but once Norman had honed his act he hit the big time pretty fast.

He began sporting a cheap suit several sizes too small with a crumpled shirt and tie and a flat cap worn askew. He developed a trademark idiotic laugh and a tendency to fall over at the drop of a hat. Audiences loved it, and within a few years Norman was packing out West End theatres and Charles Chaplin was calling him "my favourite clown".

In 1953 he began a very fruitful collaboration with the Rank Organisation that would result in 15 hugely popular films. In comedies like Trouble in Store (1953), Man of the Moment (1955), The Bulldog Breed (1960) and A Stitch in Time (1963), Norman played a diminutive everyman who endures a series of disastrous setbacks and misunderstandings before emerging triumphant at film's end.

He almost always played the same character, Norman Pitkin (though the surname sometimes changed, the personality never did), and was generally engaged in some kind of menial employment -- a butcher's boy, milkman, department store flunkie, or lonely beat cop. He usually hankered after some unattainable woman to whom he could not summon the courage to speak, and was bullied by a posh employer or authority figure.

He was often teamed with Yorkshire character actor Edward Chapman, who played a kind, exasperated stooge, and led to the most famous Norman Wisdon catchphrase, "Mr Grimsdale!"

Norman's appeal at this remove is not easy to explain. His films were not especially well-scripted or witty, and relied in the main on his considerable skill as a physical comic. His energetic slapstick was both impressive and strangely graceful, and reminiscent of great silent comics like Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Chaplin.

Like Chaplin, Norman traded on the winning charm of the downtrodden everyman, and his films also had a lot in common with those of the ukulele-strumming, northern comic George Formby. And while critics might not have thought much of Norman's endearing idiocy and constant pratfalling, the plain people of Britain took him to their hearts.

Every self-respecting schoolboy in the 1960s and even '70s (when his films were still being shown on television) could do a half decent Norman Wisdom impression, and in fact comedian Lee Evans is still doing one today.

Norman's appeal was not confined to Britain. His films did well here in Ireland. And in a poor and largely rural country on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, he became an unlikely superstar. For some reason, Wisdom's 1950s' comedies were among the very few Western films that were allowed to be shown in Albania during the Cold War era. Perhaps partly as a consequence, Norman became a superstar there.

When he was invited to visit the country in 1995 after the fall of communism, Norman was overwhelmed by the warmth of the welcome he received, with even the country's president, Sali Berisha, admitting he was a huge fan. And when Norman visited again in 2001 when England were playing Albania, his presence at the England training ground eclipsed that of David Beckham.

Back in Britain, however, the dawn of the swinging '60s coincided with a sharp decline in Norman's fortunes. At 50-odd he was getting a bit old to play a juvenile clown, and his antics and comedic style seemed suddenly outdated. By the end of that decade his film career was effectively over.

He ploughed on, appearing in Royal Variety shows and even starring in a Broadway play, and only officially retired from showbusiness in 2005. But the game was up, and soon a generation of Britons would appear who didn't even recognise his name.

pwhitington@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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