All too often forgotten about these days, but Norman Wisdom holds a special place in British comedy lover’s hearts with a career that spanned fifty years.
“Don’t Laugh At Me, because I’m A Clown” he sang, but laugh we did. Norman Wisdom was Britain’s favourite comic come clown for over 50 years. Loved by everybody the world over and a master of his craft nobody ever had a bad word to say about Norman Wisdom.
Born Norman Joseph Wisdom on 4 February 1915 to Fredrick and Maud Wisdom in the Marylebone district of London. His Father was a chauffeur and his Mother, a dressmaker who often worked for West End Theatres. He had an elder Brother Fredrick Thomas Wisdom (he died July 1971). The family lived at 91 Fernhead Road, London, where they all slept in one room.
Norman did not have an easy life, suffering at the hands of his Father who kicked him out of the family home. This resulted in a spell in a children’s home from at the age of 11 he ran away. Returned to the children’s home he left school aged 13 and became an errand boy for a local grocery store.
By his own account in 1929 he walked to Cardiff in Wales. Here he became a cabin boy in the Merchant Navy. Wisdom also took jobs as a coal miner, waiter and page boy. It was during a spell in the army he began to learn his craft learning to play trumpet and clarinet. An accomplished boxing champion for the Army he was performing a comedy boxing routine when he began to realize he might have a talent for entertainment. On leaving the army he learned to drive and worked as a private hire driver. He also secured a job as a telephone operator. During World War 2 Wisdom was sent to work in a communications centre in a London command bunker connecting calls from war leaders to the Prime Minister.
Norman Wisdom left the army in 1946 and made his debut as a professional entertainer aged 31, he rose to the top of his profession very quickly initially as a straight man to magician David Nixon, becoming a West End star in his own right within two years. Charlie Chaplin even called Wisdom his “favourite clown”.
Wisdom made a series of low-budget star-vehicle comedies for the Rank Organisation that began with Trouble in Store in 1953, earning him a BAFTA for Most Promising Newcomer to Film in 1954. Not popular with critics hey were very popular with domestic audiences and Wisdom’s films were among Britain’s biggest box office successes of the day, being successful in some unlikely overseas markets, helping Rank stay afloat financially when their more expensive film projects were unsuccessful.
Despite a move to filming in colour, by the mid-1960s Wisdom’s commercial film appeal was in eclipse. The obvious incongruity of a fifty-year old man playing the grandson of the Prime Minister in Press for Time (1966) counted against him; Wisdom’s age was inaccurately reported for many years.
In 1966 Wisdom hit Broadway to star in a musical comedy ‘Walking Happy’
In 1976 he completed his first American film as a vaudeville comic in The Night They Raided Minsky’s. After a performance on the Ed Sullivan Show further US opportunities were denied him when he had to return to London after his second wife left him. His subsequent career was largely confined to television and he toured the world with his successful cabaret act. He won critical acclaim in 1981 for his dramatic role of a dying cancer patient in the television play Going Gently.
In 1987 he was the subject of This Is Your Life for a second time. He came to prominence again in the 1990’s thanks to comic Lee Evans whose performance had often been compared to Norman Wisdom.
From 1995 to 2004 he appeared in a recurring part on Last Of The Summer Wine as Billy Ingleton. In 2000 he was knighted for services to entertainment.
A small role in the movie Alone In The Dark as Winston the Butler came his way in 2002 (this was released in 2008 as Evil Calls: The Raven). He had a cameo role in Coronation Street in 2004 as fitness mad pensioner Ernie Crabbe. He came out of retirement in 2007 for a role in a short film Expresso.
Norman Wisdom lived for 27 years on the Isle Of Man, in 2006 he suffered a health scare that resulted in him being fitted with a pacemaker. In 2007 Wisdom moved to a Nursing Home still on the Isle Of Man, suffering from vascular dementia. In August of 2007 in an exclusive interview with Sunday Newspaper News Of The World journalists were given access to Wisdom’s room at the home. He claimed to be happy and content in a routine which his family and carers considered kept him safe in spite of the memory losses associated with his condition.
On 16 January 2008, BBC2 aired Wonderland: The Secret Life Of Norman Wisdom Aged 92 and ¾, a documentary highlighting the dilemma of coping with an ageing parent. In a spoken trailer on BBC Radio 5 Live for the programme and in later publicity interviews undertaken by his family, it was stated that Wisdom’s memory loss had become so severe that he no longer recognised himself in his own films.
In 2010 it was reported that Norman Wisdom had suffered a series of strokes leading to a decline in both his physical and mental health. He died at 6.46pm on 4 October 2010 aged 95.