Roger Lewis pays tribute to a great actor whose physical comedy provided a last link with the music hall era
Published 10/10/2010 | 05:00
On the set of HBO's The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, based on a book I wrote, what did the actor Geoffrey Rush and I talk about? Why, Norman Wisdom. There I'd been, growing up in the sooty drizzle of south Wales, and there Rush had been, in tropical Queensland, both of us marvelling at Wisdom's loping walk, shrieking laugh, and his optimistic defiance of authority figures. But we both felt we were on our own -- that our enthusiasm was not generally shared. Like Benny Hill chasing bikini-clad ladies in fast-motion, Norman Wisdom has been out of fashion in his own land for some time -- though you can find these old troupers often enough on foreign television channels. Not only that, Wisdom is on a set of stamps in Grenada.
In character as Norman Pitkin, the five-foot-two Wisdom was the eternal errand boy, in a tight suit and a flat cap with an upturned peak. His yell of horror as the universe conspired against him -- "Mr Grimsdale!" -- has echoed for me down the years.
Actually, looking back, there was perhaps something disconcerting about Wisdom's face-pulling performances. The gurgling hysteria coupled with his physical agility put me in mind of our evolutionary connection with the apes. You expect Norman to swing from the lampshades and leap through a window to land halfway up a tree. Like the gormless George Formby, Wisdom liked to suggest that in his heart he remained a delinquent child. All the films he made and every sketch he was in were about how impossible he finds it to be responsible and earn a living.
You can see why Charlie Chaplin was a fan. The Little Tramp, like Norman's Pitkin, was always on the run from cops and storekeepers. The Little Tramp, too, was deeply sentimental, falling for blind flower girls or looking after abandoned babies. Wisdom, in his films, also interspersed the slapstick with awkward, leering love scenes. In What's Good for the Goose he even hopped into bed with Sally Geeson.
The point is that while Wisdom found fame in the British cinema of the Fifties and Sixties, he was already an anachronism. He could have belonged to the gaslit Victorian music hall, a place of acrobats in leotards, of tear-jerking ballads and crude, broad emotions. Wisdom's childhood certainly fitted this melodramatic bill.
The family lived in a one-room flat in Fernhead Road, London W9. Wisdom's father was a cab driver and his mother made dresses. When she died, Wisdom's father wanted no further part in his upbringing so he was sent to an institution. Starvation, barefoot to school -- so far, so Dickensian, so Chaplinesque. For Chaplin, likewise, endured a London slum background, absent parents, orphanages and the workhouse.
At the age of 13, Wisdom claimed he walked from Kent to south Wales and got himself hired as a cabin boy in the Merchant Navy, then as a drummer in the Army, and later to India as a bandsman and trained as a telephone operator. In addition to playing the trumpet and clarinet, Wisdom became a flyweight boxing champion.
During the war, as a soldier with the Royal Corps of Signals, Wisdom was Churchill's telephone operator down in the command bunker. He was put on a charge for calling the Prime Minister "Winnie". Clearly, here was a man destined for showbusiness. He appeared in troop concerts and made his professional debut at the Collins' Music Hall in Islington and the Golders Green Hippodrome in 1945.
Wisdom began making low-budget films for Rank in 1953 with Trouble in Store, in which he sang what became his theme tune, Don't Laugh At Me' Cause I'm a Fool. There were to be 19 movies altogether, which made more money than the James Bond franchise -- and Wisdom spent his last 27 years as a tax exile on the Isle of Man.
In each picture, Wisdom is the pratfall-prone milkman, trainee policeman, cub reporter, shop assistant and so on and so forth, a baggy-pants clown. British critics always sniffed and looked away in embarrassment. But the members of the ordinary British public were receptive to what they saw as the pranks of a charming innocent.
Wisdom said: "I can never tell a joke. I've always found it easier to fall over." Which he did. A lot. He even did a backward tumble in front of the Queen at Buckingham Palace, when she knighted him. The physical, visual comedy -- comedy that has nothing to do with verbal wit and which transcends language barriers -- made him, like the Chaplin of the silent movie era and, later, Rowan Atkinson's Mr Bean, easy to export to non-English speaking markets and territories.
By a surreal stroke of fate, Wisdom was particularly beloved in Albania, where the flags will be at half-mast. Though this is a bit like thinking Captain von Trapp was leader of the Austrian Resistance, or putting Inspector Clouseau in charge of a recruiting drive for the Surete, Enver Hoxha, the Albanian dictator, believed Wisdom to be a subversive master satirist whose Pitkin character, by overcoming management oppression, reveals the horror of the capitalist menace.
Wisdom went along with this. He received the freedom of Tirana in 1995. When, six years later, the English football team was playing in Albania, Wisdom put in a personal appearance and received more cheers than David Beckham. A song written for Wisdom by Tim Rice reached number 18 in the Albanian charts, a record for the lyricist.
Until the age of 90, Wisdom was touring with a one-man show. He appeared in Casualty, Bergerac, Coronation Street and Last of the Summer Wine. In the latter, he received his comeuppance from Peter Sallis, who found Wisdom's irrepressible nature a trial. "He was a bugger once people were watching," recalled the producer. "If he knew he had an audience, he was away." Sallis watched sourly. "I developed three words to help Norman in his work. They were, 'Shut up, Norman'."
Wisdom was a first-rate actor. In 1968, he received an Oscar nomination for his vaudeville hand in The Night They Raided Minsky's. But the drama remembered by everyone who saw it is Going Gently, Stephen Frears' poignant television film about a cancer ward. Wisdom is the dying patient, Judi Dench the nurse. It deservedly won him a Bafta award in 1981.
The film should be retrieved from the archives and shown as a tribute. But as for Wisdom's more typical or traditional work, it has been out of favour for so long, perhaps the daft stuff can now be revived as well? Let's see what new audiences make of it -- we might all be Albanians now. Press for Time, A Stitch in Time, The Bulldog Breed . . ., they would make a fine contrast to today's young comedians, who are mouthy, supercilious, irritating, and who behave like pampered pop stars. With the death of Norman Wisdom, the last link with the end of the pier, with comedy created from genuine adversity and a reaction to poverty, has been lost.