The Weird & Wonderful World Of Wisdom
I feel like wearing a black armband today. Sir Norman Wisdom has died, aged 95. To many Britons this unsophisticated comic represents something inexplicably special. We grew up with him always on TV and in movies, low budget slapstick comedies that defined an era. At the age of 13, after a bad childhood, Wisdom was homeless and living on the streets. The army helped him to his feet; he became a boxer, drummer, acrobat, singer and comic, and continued in showbiz for 45 years. At his peak he looked alarmingly like Robbie Williams.
Although the US didn’t take to his films, he was a hit on Broadway in ‘Walking Happy’ (the musical version of ‘Hobson’s Choice’) and was nominated for an Oscar in ‘The Night They Raided Minsky’s, where he appeared with Jason Robards effectively playing Bruce Forsyth(!)
His films were hits from Iran to South American, but he became a superstar in Albania and was treated like royalty there, because his films displayed a strong streak of Marxism.
I wrote about him several times, once in an award-winning short story, ‘Norman Wisdom And The Angel Of Death’, and again in ‘Paperboy’. Here’s an extract…
‘Strip away the sentiment and you arrived at the surreal, whether Norman was imagining his landlady with a horse’s head, singing an eye-chart off-key, turning a police pursuit into a back-garden steeplechase, playing golf upside-down in the top of a tree, being induced with pneumonia or seduced in weirdly convincing drag. Male comedy stars spent so much of their time dressed as ladies that it seemed an entirely natural occurrence.
It took me years to work out why I enjoyed these films. I knew that admitting I liked Norman Wisdom to classmates would make them treat me even more like a leper, because in my year you were only allowed to like Steve McQueen. The others were missing the point. The shrill, inarticulate little comic had his roots in the class war.
In ‘One Good Turn’ he made straight for the First Class train carriage for no other reason than to disturb its occupants, and this was a trend that continued throughout his films until it became open anarchy. He destroyed posh buildings, wrecked institutions, smashed up expensive cars and gleefully encouraged others to be drawn into fights; this was a schoolboy’s anarchist manifesto, a reaction against the ration-book restrictions of Post-war England that consistently attacked authority figures including mayors, corporate executives, government officials, police sergeants and politicians, and only caused destruction to status symbols – Rolls Royces, country mansions, gala dinners and state visits.’
In the Bryant & May books I based my character DS Janice Longbright on an actress called Eleanor Summerfield, who played Sgt Wilkins in ‘On The Beat’.
Norman’s website crashed twice today as people flocked to it to leave condolences. He represented something irrepressible in postwar Britain, and although they’re very dated now, his DVDs will doubtless go on to amuse kids for years to come.
Here he is at his most annoying in ‘The Early Bird’, wrecking a golf game that ends up in a tree. Given his stuntwork in the movie (not the least of which is a spectacular fall down a flight of stairs) it’s surprising to realise that Wisdom was approaching his 50th birthday.
Ron Goodwin’s lovely scores for these films were never issued as soundtracks.
Finally, here he is playing the drums live and dancing with a very young Bruce Forsyth at the London Palladium.