THE LEGENDARY SIR NORMAN WISDOM OBE
By Ann Evans.
Photos by Rob Tysall, Tysall’s Photography.
Seventy years ago the legendary Sir Norman Wisdom OBE came out of the army and went into show business. It was the start of an amazing career that has made him a household name, although it was through his years with the 10th Royal Hussars that he first discovered he could make people and that he had the talent to become an accomplished musician.
Norman Wisdom is a name we have all grown up with. Not only was he a brilliant British comedian, he was an actor, singer, songwriter and musician. For many people it’s his Norman Pitkin character of the little man in a badly-fitting ‘Gump’ suit, tweed cap with its peak turned up, that we remember him best for. And who can forget his catchphrase when things went wrong of: “Mr Grimsdale!”
Sadly we lost Norman in 2010, aged 95 but I count myself incredibly fortunate to have met the great man a few years earlier in one of his favourite haunts – Brighton. At 91, Norman was still making people laugh, bringing smiles to faces and having the most amazing effect upon everyone he bumped into.
Of course he didn’t literally bump into people – but there was no mistaking that classic Norman Wisdom ‘stumble’ as we crossed the road at Brighton promenade. The mere sight of him halted traffic and brought people dashing over to take a photograph and ask for his autograph. And this delightful man was only too happy to oblige.
Although Norman lived the latter part of his life in the Isle of Man, Brighton was special as he had lived along the coast and had family there. It was a special place too, because it was here at the Grand Theatre, Brighton, when he was playing just his third gig outside of the army, that a well known showbiz agent, at the time – Billy Marsh, sought Norman out, and came looking to sign him up.
It was one sunny, breezy afternoon that that I met up with this stalwart of British comedy and enjoyed a coffee and a chat that I will never forget. Looking smart in a Navy style jacket and not a hint of a ‘gump suit’ there was no mistaking Norman with that hurried ‘teetering’ walk, and those cheeky tongue-in-cheek smiles. He was 91 but he certainly hadn’t lost it. And though he didn’t fall over as we strolled along the prom, he certainly had a knack of keeping you on your toes as he’d deliberately stumble towards you, saying ‘catch me!’
I felt in good company, because back in 2000 when the Queen awarded him a Knighthood, he did his famous ‘trip’ after getting his OBE – making Her Majesty chuckle!
“I’m a lucky little devil!” Norman said as a simple acknowledgement to his years of success. Although looking back on his childhood he recalled how his parents split up when he was eight, leaving him and his older brother Fred to fend for themselves with an uncaring, brutal father. Often they slept rough on the streets, or with families who would quickly throw them out, when they saw their father wasn’t paying for their keep.
Throughout our conversation, there would be tears in Norman’s eyes when speaking of his brother Fred, who he referred to as ‘my dear brother’.
“I joined the army when I was 14,” said Norman. “I’d seen the Royal Marines at Deal and decided I wanted to join. So I walked to Whitehall and asked if I could join. I was too young and too small, but they accepted me for the band in the 8th Royal Hussars. It was regular food, a bed and chums – things I hadn’t had, so I enjoyed it.”
After only two months however, young Norman found himself shipped off to foreign shores, firstly to Lucknow, India with the 10th Royal Hussars and then the Himalayas. Eventually his life in the army took him all over the world. At the same time he learned a whole range of musical instruments.
“I learnt the drums, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, French horn and piano,” said Norman – eyeing up the grand piano in the hotel lounge where we sat having coffee. And while we weren’t privileged to have him play to us, he did burst into song, firstly singing ‘Falling in Love’ which had so many verses, I couldn’t believe how well he remembered them all. And then – to our absolute delight he sang a few lines of his signature song – ‘Don’t Laugh At Me ‘Cause I’m A Fool.’ It was the song he wrote for his 1953 film, Trouble in Store. A moment I will never forget!
Whilst in the army, Norman joined the concert party and soon discovered that he could make people laugh by just playing the fool and falling over. “I used to pretend I was being knocked over by a horse, and they’d laugh,” recalled Norman, who also told of when he learnt to tap dance. He tap danced to his audience in army boots and had them in stitches – even though that hadn’t been his intention!
After coming out of the army in 1946, he was advised to go into show business, so Norman headed for the Collins Music Hall in Islington. He continued: “I asked the stage manager if he’d give me a chance, and he said, ‘We only employ professionals, are you professional?’ I said no, but I want to become a professional. And he said ‘Get out!’
“But I hung around the theatre and became his shadow for nearly a week. Finally he said, ‘Okay you can play the first house.’ And afterwards, he came up to me and said, ‘Okay, you can do the second house as well.’”
Norman’s talents as a funny man quickly spread. He was soon booked for his second performance in Portsmouth and a third at the Grand Theatre, Brighton where he was signed up with showbiz agent, Billy Marsh. Within a few short years, Norman was star billing at the London Palladium and doing Royal Command Performances; he was making a stream of films which are still enjoyed today such as On the Beat and Press for Time; appearing on numerous TV and stage shows plus appearances in Coronation Street and Last of the Summer Wine. Always busy and always entertaining, Norman was also involved in countless charity events at home and abroad, and became a national hero in Albania.
At 91 when I had the honour of meeting the late great Norman Wisdom, he was looking fantastic, loving life and making plans for the future. And while he is no longer with us, the legend lives on and those classic comedies of the 1950s and 60s remain to be treasured by all who appreciate true British comedy.