Norman service

I grew up with Norman Wisdom, who has died, aged 95. His films seemed to be on an endless loop on TV when I was a kid; they formed part of my comedy education, alongside the Carry Ons, the Doctor films and various other gentle oddities like Nearly A Nasty Accident, What A Whopper and The Iron Maiden. Outside of the Keystone Cops and all the old Mack Sennett/Hal Roach silents and two-reelers which were also on telly all the time, I pretty much grew up thinking that Britain was the centre of the comedy universe. And in the 50s and 60s, it pretty much was. (I actually made no distinction at the time between old and new, American and British, black and white and colour – hey, everything was in black and white in our house until about 1973 anyway – if it was a film and it was a comedy and it was on telly, me and my brother Simon were there.) If I had comedy heroes in my childhood, they would have been Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Sid James, Kenneth Connor and Norman Wisdom. All dead now, of course. But still alive.

If you look them up, there are about a dozen classic, mainly job-based Wisdom comedies in black and white, from 1953’s definitive Trouble In Store (the one in a shop) to The Early Bird in 1965 (the one on the milk round). I remember seeing Michael Bentine’s The Sandwich Man on TV, a sort of loose comedy compendium made in colour in 1966, in which Wisdom plays a boxer, and it felt a bit weird. Weird to see him in colour, and weird to see him playing a small part. Also, it seemed such a melancholy film, out of sync with the merry world of Wisdom, in which slapstick mayhem was never far around the next corner.

Norman played the fool, with his ill-fitting, half-mast demob suit and pulled-down cap, always on the verge of hysterical laughter, or so it seemed, but capable, like all the best clowns, of conveying almost heartbreaking melancholy. I’ll be honest, as a kid, I found those bits harder to take. I preferred it when he was falling over, or into things, or off things, or leading a brass band down a blind alley, or rounding up an entire police force with his father’s police whistle, or just bringing chaos into the life of Jerry Desmonde (who was already dead by the time I saw him – he passed away in 1967). Once I came of age, and discovered Spike Milligan and Monty Python and Mad magazine, I put the innocent silliness of Wisdom behind me, but he made an indelible impression on my young soul. I’m sad that he’s gone, although he lived a long life, loved and even worshipped as a God for most of it. He was pratfalling to very near the end. That might have seemed desperate or tragic in others, but not him, oddly.

I was privileged to be in the same room as Norman in around 1993, I think, when Stuart and I were invited to a light entertainment reception at the BBC on the back of our first Radio 5 comedy series, and felt very much like interlopers or competition winners. We were in awe of the big stars who attended in the Council Chambers, which seemed impossibly grand – I mean the likes of Wogan, Parsons, Jacobs – but it was Wisdom who made the biggest impact. He will have been a sprightly 78 then, but it was still a delight to see him take the tray from a waiter and prance around, giggling, serving us all drinks. What a treat.

Gawd bless him. And if you have kids, show them On The Beat or Trouble In Store, made over half a century ago, and see if they laugh. I hope they do.

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10 thoughts on “Norman service

  1. Trouble in Store is one of me faves and I even like the songs and wallow in the sentimentality. RIP Sir Norman. Mr. Grimsdale can rest easy now.

    Spot an uncredited Roland Curram as a sailor in the second link

  2. Very well put. I think for a lot of us in our late 30’s through to late 40’s Norman fits into that fuzzy part of childhood where what appeared on the telly seemed a lot closer to “real life”. He looled like most of the “older” people at the time (suits and flat caps seemed to be the thing in the 70’s for those that had lived through the war) and reminded me a hell of a lot of my grandad.

    So Norman was all grown-ups being silly to me. And he was always put down by the nasty boss man in the film (who was obviously the teacher in our eyes as no 8 year old had a boss) and always won out.

    I think we all thought we knew Norman a little bit.

    R.I.P

  3. Never found him remotely amusing as either a child or an adult, I have to say, but certainly a consummate professional, and always sad to lose another link to a classic filmmaking era.

  4. I met Norman after one of his shows about 20 years ago and, despite the fact that he was 75 and has just performed on stage for 2 hours, he couldn’t do enough for us. He chatted, signed autographs and had photos with me and all my family for a good ten minutes.

    My cousin was a huge fan of his and, following a letter from my aunt, Norman wrote a handwritten congratulations note to him on his wedding day !

    A true gent and a comedy great

    Superb piece Andrew

  5. Part of Norman Wisdom’s appeal to me as a child was that my parents seemed to find him, or certainly his slapstick ways, irritating. Add that to the chaos that swirled around him in many of his films and Wisdom seemed quite subversive to my eight year old self.

    Bob Mortimer often makes me think of Norman Wisdom.

  6. I guess the whole ‘Mr Grimsdale! Mr Grimsdale’ thing seems rather extreme today, but I grew up with Normal Wisdom or rather I grew up with him and my Grandfather who was a huge fan so he has a lot of memories that way for me. I always stop and watch a NW film if I catch one on a Sunday afternoon.

    One of the best moments of Screen for me (and I am hoping Andrew you can remember which film it was) was the one with the beginning sequence where he gets out of bed very tired, bleary eyed etc and goes to make a cup of tea in his pyjamas then while the tea is brewing he goes to make his ablutions while another lodger does a similar thing again all bleary eyed, it’s a beautifully choreographed sequence as I remember all done with no words for about the first 10 minutes of the film and (as I vaguely remember) ends in a huge explosion and/or the bath falling through the floor onto the bedroom below.

    I think it was a Wogan or Russell Harty interview where all he did was simply try to take a sip of his drink during the interview but each time he went to take one he was interrupted. Over and over each time the audience laughing more and more. A simple piece of comic timing done with consummate skill.

    Like you said Andrew… Gawd Blessim.

  7. I worked on a cruise ship 16 years ago and Norman Wisdom would occasionally sail as a guest entertainer, (which essentially was a free cruise with a couple of shows a week thrown in).Being more downstairs than upstairs we did not really get the opportunity to see him performing – crew not being allowed in passenger areas – butone evening he did whilst we were all hard at work in the galley he came unnanounced through the swing doors from the restaurant and went into his full Mr Grimsdale schtick which was very funny.He then took time to chat to the chefs and galley boys even though most of them had no idea who he was! (none of them were Albanian, mainly Indian)

    My then girlfriend (now wife) was an officer on the ship and was allowed deck privileges saw him perform in the caberet theatre on board, where his ‘show’ sadly went down like a pork pie at a Bar Mitzvah, even though the audience were in the main his contemporaries in age (but not in social class) and he shuffled off stage to lukewarm, lacklustre applause.Quite sad really

  8. I think I would have titled this “Wit and Wisdom” or something. Only I expect that’s been done by all the papers. Hard to come up with original puns.

  9. “if it was a film and it was a comedy and it was on telly, me and my brother Simon were there.”

    This sentence really struck a chord with me and brought lots of lovely memories flooding back. Thanks for that Andrew, and for this dignified and warm article. I think old Norman’s death has been met in the best possible fashion; with a gentle tide of appreciation.

  10. Andrew – your blog pretty much sums up my feelings about this. Norman was a part of my childhood too. However, as a surly young adult I remember “dissing” (as I believe The Kids call it) Norman when I saw him on TV. I condemned him as “childish”. Now I’m a bit older I realise there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that – in fact, it’s a wonderful thing. I hope I’m still “childish” well into my 90s.

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