Harry’s Ramblings; Talking on Norman
It is great fun being a cruise ship lecturer, because you get to choose what you are going to talk about. My theme on the Oceana was ‘They Made us Laugh’, and one of the great comedians I talked about was Sir Norman Wisdom.
The main theatre on the ship seats about 600, and it was more than half full for this talk, quite an achievement bearing in mind that it was a sunny day outside full steam ahead from Malta to Croatia, the sun beds were full on the top deck, passengers keeping the drinks waiters very busy with cocktails and beers.
Sometimes the ship’s entertainment staff announce me, others it is just me to walk on stage and start entertaining. Before that occurs, I get there 20 minutes early so the technician can assist me in setting up my laptop with slideshow presentation, and fit me up with a face mike. I then have ten minutes to sit quietly in the wings, just relaxing peacefully. There is nothing like walking onto a theatre stage to see an attentive audience, just wanting to be entertained. They want to like me, they want to know more about the subject. It is a unique feeling, knowing that you are there, on your own, for the next 45 minutes. I love it.
I start with a photo of Norman alongside the River Room at London’s Savoy Hotel, and Mel B from the Spice Girls. The occasion was the 25th lunch in 2001 for the South Bank show, Norman wasn’t receiving an award, but the photographers were surrounding him, loving listening to his anecdotes, when she walked past. The snappers said ‘Norman, how about a photo with Mel?’ Quick as a flash Norman replied ‘where is he?’
I then go to the early days, In Paddington, when his brute of a father left Norman and his brother Fred on their own while he worked as a chauffeur, away for days and weeks at a time. Norman’s mum had enough, she left them, he got back, saw two feral boys under ten, walked out. After a while the authorities got to know about their thieving for food, taking them into care and sending them into foster care in Deal in Kent. Stability for a while, despite Norman being a handful, after a couple of years or so he was back in London, sleeping under a statue of a French general on a horse close to Victoria railway station.
He got a job as a hotel dogsbody, even working the lift when he met Joan Crawford, who cast lascivious eyes on the budding Wisdom torso. Fortunately for Norman she wasn’t in the car for long. He and another boy wanted adventure, so at the age of 13 they walked the 173 miles from London to Cardiff in the 1920s. It took three weeks, he wore his boots out so walked many miles barefoot, when they arrived his mate said ‘right I’m off’, leaving Norman on his own. He was outside Cardiff dock gates, he said to the man on security ‘excuse me mister, any jobs going on any boats?’. The Maindy Court was sailing that night, and it went with cabin boy Norman.
It was a freighter, bound for Buenos Aires, Argentina. During the six weeks or so voyage, they taught puny Norman how to box, he already had a pretty good idea so there wasn’t much learning. After quite a long time at sea, when they arrived in port they were all off to the fair. Boxing booth was found, the local bruiser was worth $1 if you existed one round, $2 for two rounds, and a whole $5 for the match of three rounds. After much encouragement tiny Norman entered the ring, and was still standing at the end of round one. He was still there after round two, albeit in a battered condition, game for anything he lasted the very long three minutes of the final round. His shipmates looked after his $5, leaving him on his own to find his way back to the Maindy Court.
Still on board was the lonely gay randy cook, who, seeing vulnerable fresh susceptible easy prey, chased exhausted Norman until he was cornered. Fortunately, the second officer was still on board, who locked Norman in his cabin until it was safe.
Returning to England, Norman was back sleeping under the French statue, close to an all-night refreshment stall. The man suggested Norman join the army, he tried, but he was a small 14 year old and rejected. Back at the hotel, Norman had some kind of existence, but military appealed, he returned, saw a different recruiting officer who saw potential, altered his age, and Norman was on his way to India.
As well as boxing, he joined the band, initially playing the xylophone. When he was on his own as the unit was out for a few days, he went into the store cupboard, found some appropriate footwear, and taught himself to tap dance in a very short time. While in the army Norman learned how to play the guitar, violin, drums, clarinet, piano, various other instruments.
And this is only the first fifteen minutes of the talk. Later on I will return to Norman’s story, and also tell you about Tommy Cooper, Ken Dodd, and Bob Monkhouse.