Obituary: Sir Norman Wisdom
- 4 October 2010
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
During a career which spanned seven decades, Sir Norman Wisdom went beyond clowning and slapstick to star in 19 movies.
His knighthood, which came in 2000, put the diminutive comic on a footing with the likes of Sir Ralph Richardson, Sir John Gielgud and Sir Alec Guinness.
But Sir Norman's lofty and cherished status among the British public could never have been imagined at the time of his birth in February 1915.
His parents divorced when he was nine and his violent, drunken father abandoned him and his brother Fred.
Sir Norman headed for a career first in the Merchant Navy and then the Army, where he found a platform for developing his showman's talents.
He became a bandsman, graduated to concert parties, and honed his comic skills.
After World War II, the British actor Rex Harrison advised Sir Norman to become a professional entertainer after seeing him in a Forces revue.
He was soon touring the country as straight man to the magician David Nixon and his perennial character, The Gump, was born.
Playing the fool
He signed to the Rank Organisation and made 19 films during the 1950s and 60s, each of which followed the same pattern.
Sir Norman played the fool in his shrunken jacket and flat cap, defying fate and Mr Grimsdale, to get the girl in the final frame.
Some called his work childish and trite and his films were certainly basic.
But Sir Norman's breath-taking physicality and cheery manner endowed them with a charm still recognised by people of all ages.
Charlie Chaplin said Sir Norman was his favourite clown.
Wisdom wowed Broadway in the 1960s and, was praised for his role in The Night They Raided Minsky's, a spirited evocation of the glory days of American burlesque theatre.
The slapstick nature of his films brought Sir Norman a worldwide following. Crowds in Hong Kong flocked to a 24-hour screening of his films.
He was a particular favourite in Albania. During the height of the Cold War, the country's Stalinist rulers decreed that his films were politically acceptable.
It allowed their subjects a taste of the West and Sir Norman was mobbed when he visited the country to be awarded the Freedom of Tirana.
The apparent simplicity of Sir Norman's act sometimes hid the depth of his abilities.
Those who might have otherwise scoffed at The Gump would have been won over by his moving portrayal of a terminally ill cancer patient in the Bafta-winning 1981 TV adaptation of Going Gently.
His wife of 22 years left him in 1969, and he brought up his children alone. But the stage shows, cabarets and pantomimes continued to pull in the crowds.
He later made his mark in evergreen sitcom Last of The Summer Wine, and made an appearance in Coronation Street in 2004, playing elderly fitness fanatic Ernie Crabbe.
A comic craftsman
He retired to the Isle of Man but continued to perform well into old age, being cited as a formative influence by another diminutive and physical British comedian, Lee Evans.
Sir Norman believed that the key to his success was a simple one.
"My comedy is for children from three to 93," he once explained. "You do need a slightly childish sense of humour and if you haven't got that, it's very sad."
Although no creator of high art, Sir Norman Wisdom was a true craftsman who demanded much from himself.
Where some gained huge reputations and salaries through painting and sculpture he, along with a very select group, simply made the world smile.