01 June 2015

Norman Wisdom

English comedian and actor Norman Wisdom (1915–2010) starred in a series of hit comedies between 1953 and 1966. His trademark role was The Gump, in a jacket three sizes too small with tie awry and tweed cap askew, the eternal schoolboy with the looks of a beaten puppy. Wisdom became a celebrity in countries as far apart as South America, Iran and Albania. Wisdom later forged a career on Broadway in New York and as a television actor.

Norman Wisdom
British postcard. Photo: J. Arthur Rank Organisation.

A star is born!

Norman Joseph Wisdom was born in London in 1915. His parents were Frederick, a chauffeur, and Maud Wisdom (née Targett), a dressmaker who often worked for West End theatres, and had made a dress for Queen Mary. Norman and his brother Fred were raised in extreme poverty and were frequently hit by their father.

After a period in a children's home, Wisdom ran away when he was 11 but returned to become an errand boy in a grocer's shop on leaving school at 13. Having been kicked out of his home by his father in 1929 he became a cabin boy in the Merchant Navy. Wisdom enlisted into the King's Own Royal Regiment, but his mother had him discharged as he was under age. He later re-enlisted as a drummer boy in the 10th Royal Hussars of the British Army.

In 1930 he was posted to Lucknow, in the United Provinces of British India, as a bandsman. There he gained an education certificate, rode horses, became the flyweight boxing champion of the British Army in India and learned to play the trumpet and clarinet. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Wisdom was sent to work in a communications centre in a command bunker in London where he connected telephone calls from war leaders to the prime minister. He met Winston Churchill on several occasions when asked for updates on incoming calls, and once was disciplined for calling him Winnie.

Whilst performing a shadow boxing routine in the army gym, Wisdom discovered he had a talent for entertainment. He began to develop his skills as a musician and stage entertainer. In 1940 aged 25, at a NAAFI entertainment night, during a dance routine, Wisdom stepped-down from his position in the orchestra pit, and started shadow boxing. Hearing his colleagues and officers giggles, he broke into a duck-waddle, followed by a series of facial expressions. Over the next few years, until he was demobilized in 1945, his routine would be suffixed with his characteristic singing and the trip-up-and-stumble.

After the war his variety debut came at the old Collins Music Hall on Islington Green, north London, in 1945, and he started touring Britain in pantomime and summer shows. In 1948 he made his first West End appearance, on a variety bill at the London Casino, and became famous virtually overnight. "A star is born!" announced the Daily Mail, and the following week Wisdom went straight to the top of the bill at the Golders Green Hippodrome, north London.

His next date was a summer show with the magician David Nixon, and for this appearance he meticulously worked out the characterisation for which he became famous: variously known as Norman or The Gump or Pitkin – an enthusiastic, puppyish little man with a too-tight tweed jacket and crooked cap. Attired as such, and complete with the later familiar jerky gait and propensity for sudden collapses, he played a volunteer who came out of the audience to help – and, of course, reduce to a shambles – Nixon's magic act.

Norman Wisdom
German postcard by Ufa, Berlin-Tempelhof, no. FK 988. Photo: J. Arthur Rank Organisation. Publicity still for Trouble in Store (John Paddy Carstairs, 1953).

A Cult Figure in Albania

Norman Wisdom made a series of low-budget star-vehicle comedies for the Rank Organisation, beginning with Trouble in Store (John Paddy Carstairs, 1953) with Lana Morris and Margaret Rutherford. This film earned him a BAFTA Award for Most Promising Newcomer to Film in 1954. The film broke box office records at 51 out of the 67 London cinemas in which it played and was the second most popular film at the British box office in 1954.

The follow-up was One Good Turn (John Paddy Carstairs, 1955) co-starring Joan Rice. It was the 7th most popular film at the British box office in 1955. Other comedies were Man of the Moment (John Paddy Carstairs, 1955) with Belinda Lee, Up in the World (John Paddy Carstairs, 1956) with Maureen Swanson, and The Square Peg (John Paddy Carstairs, 1958) with Honor Blackman.

The series peaked commercially with A Stitch in Time (Robert Asher, 1963). His films' cheerful, unpretentious appeal make them the direct descendants of those made a generation earlier by George Formby. Never highly thought of by the critics, they were very popular with domestic audiences and Wisdom's films were among Britain's biggest box office successes of their day.

They were also successful in some unlikely overseas markets, helping Rank stay afloat financially when their more expensive film projects were unsuccessful. Wisdom was a cult figure in Albania, where he was one of the few Western actors whose films were allowed in the country during the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. In Hoxha's view, proletarian Norman's ultimately victorious struggles against capitalism, personified by Mr. Grimsdale and the effete aristocratic characters played by Jerry Desmonde, were a Communist parable on the class war. He was known as Mr Pitkin after the character from his films. In 1995, he visited the post-Stalinist country where, to his surprise, he was greeted by many appreciative fans, including the then President, Sali Berisha. During this trip, Wisdom was filmed by Newsnight as he visited a children's project funded by ChildHope UK.

His films usually involved the Gump character, Norman Pitkin, in a manual occupation in which he is barely competent and in a junior position to a straight man, often played by Edward Chapman (as Mr Grimsdale) or Jerry Desmonde. They benefited from Wisdom's capacity for physical slapstick comedy and his skill at creating a sense of the character's helplessness. The series often contained a romantic subplot; the Gump's inevitable awkwardness with women is a characteristic shared with the earlier Formby vehicles. His innocent incompetence still made him endearing to the heroine.

Wisdom made two films independently in order to extend his range, one of which, There Was a Crooked Man (Stuart Burge, 1960) is according Richard Dacre in Encyclopedia of British Cinema, amongst his finest, but the cinema public craved only the Gump.

Norman Wisdom
British postcard by Rotary Photo. Photo: J. Arthur Rank Organisation.

Going Gently

In 1966, Norman Wisdom went to the United States to star in a Broadway production of the Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn musical comedy Walking Happy. His performance was nominated for a Tony Award.

He also completed his first American film as a vaudeville comic in The Night They Raided Minsky's (William Friedkin, 1968) with Jason Robards and Britt Ekland. After a typical performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, further US opportunities were denied him when he had to return to London after his second wife left him.

In 1969 he made a fairly sophisticated sex comedy, What's Good for the Goose (Menahem Golan, 1969), in which he did a bedroom scene with Sally Geeson. His public was not ready for the little Gump in bed with a woman, and Wisdom's career as a top film comedian was over.

His subsequent career was largely confined to television, and he toured the world with a successful cabaret act. He won critical acclaim in 1981 for his dramatic role in the television play Going Gently (Stephen Frears, 1981). In this harrowing play, set in the cancer ward of a London hospital, he portrayed a retired salesman unable to come to terms with terminal illness. For once the pathos was unforced, and Wisdom triumphed in a difficult role, winning a BAFTA Award.

In 1992 he played a retired burglar in a film thriller, Double X: The Name of the Game (Shani S. Grewal, 1992), which sank almost without trace.

Wisdom became prominent again in the 1990s, helped by the young comedian Lee Evans, whose act was often compared to Wisdom's work. His classic Rank films were playing to new audiences on television screens and DVD, with a growing number of new young fans in the United Kingdom and abroad. The high point of this new popularity was the knighthood he was awarded, for services to entertainment, in the 2000 new year's honours list. During the ceremony, once he had received his knighthood, he walked away and again performed his trademark trip at which the Queen smiled and laughed.

From 1995 until 2004 he appeared in the recurring role of Billy Ingleton in the long-running BBC comedy Last of the Summer Wine. The role was originally a one-off appearance, but proved so popular that he returned as the character on a number of occasions. In 1996, he received a Special Achievement Award from the London Film Critics.

In 2002 Wisdom filmed a cameo role as a butler in a low budget horror film, Evil Calls: The Raven (2008). In 2004, he made an appearance on Coronation Street, playing fitness fanatic pensioner Ernie Crabbe. In 2005, Wisdom announced his retirement from the entertainment industry on his 90th birthday. He intended to spend more time with his family, playing golf and driving around the Isle of Man, where he was living.

In 2007 he came out of retirement to take a role in a short film called Expresso (Kevin Powis, 2007), set during one day in a coffee shop. Wisdom plays a vicar plagued by a fly in the café. The film premièred at the Cannes Film Festival 2007. Producer Nigel Martin Davey gave him only a visual role so he would not have to remember any lines, but on the day Wisdom was alert and had his performance changed to add more laughs.

A year later he played a cameo in the horror film The Legend of Harrow Woods (Robert Driscoll, 2008). Wisdom published the autobiography Don't Laugh At Me (1992) and Richard Dacre wrote the biography Trouble in Store (1991).

Wisdom was married twice. His first wife was Doreen Brett, whom he married in 1941. By 1944 they had separated when Doreen gave birth to a son, Michael (1944), fathered by Albert Gerald Hardwick, a telephone engineer. The marriage was dissolved in 1946. He married his second wife, Freda Isobel Simpson, a dancer, in 1947; they had two children: Nicholas (born 1953, who later played first-class cricket for Sussex) and Jacqueline (1954). The couple divorced in 1969, with Wisdom granted full custody of the children.

Norman Wisdom died in 2010 at Abbotswood nursing home on the Isle of Man at the age of 95. Stephen Dixon in his obituary in The Guardian: “Wisdom was almost the last in a great tradition of knockabout, slapstick clowns, a performer who relied less on words than on an acrobatic physical dexterity to gain his laughs.”

Norman Wisdom
British autograph card. Sent by mail in 1958. Photo: J. Arthur Rank Organisation.

Sources: Stephen Dixon (The Guardian), Richard Dacre (Encyclopedia of British Cinema), The Telegraph, Wikipedia and IMDb.
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