FILM: NORMAN WISDOM

Born: February 4 1915
Died: October 4 2010

by PETER TATCHELL (copyright 2012)

He was the British cinema’s most successful post-war comedian as well as a West End and Broadway star and a top selling recording artist. And later in his career he starred in a number of popular television series. Norman Wisdom was multi-media and multi-talented … a physical clown, pantomime artist, musician, singer and laughtermaker supreme.

Born to a tragic home life, Wisdom found himself homeless as a youngster in London during the Depression and was forced to beg and steal to survive. Eventually he travelled to the west coast (apparently walking the whole way) and got a job as a cabin boy on a boat bound for South America. On his return he joined the army and in the process learnt to box and play a range of musical instruments.

Norman was delighted to find he was also adept at physical comedy and could raise laughs with a pratfall or mime. Demobbed at the end of World War 2 his time spent in troop entertainment lead to career on the stage where the legendary Vera Lynn made sure the newcomer’s talent was fully appreciated when they shared a variety bill.

With his career increasing in popularity, Norman made a wordless cameo in the 1949 Terry-Thomas film A Date with a Dream, appearing for less than a minute with an extract from his one-man boxing routine. In contrast, four years later the Rank studio gave the variety performer the starring role in their comedy Trouble in Store. And overnight, Norman Wisdom became a top line star of the British cinema.

Playing a trouble-prone department store employee with a heart of gold, he was embraced by movie audiences who warmed to his “little man” persona in an ill-fitting suit whose slapstick tumbles provoked an onslaught of laughs.

His characterization was helped by having an ever reliable foil in the person of Jerry Desmonde, long time straightman to the great Sid Field (who’d died only a couple of years before). Desmonde would appear with Norman many more times over the next decade.

The film was also notable for the Wisdom-penned theme song Don’t Laugh at Me (Because I’m a Clown) which also proved a winner on the pop charts.

Trouble in Store became a prototype for a series of similar roles, with Norman seen in a new Rank offering each year. He also became a sought after performer on stage at the London Palladium and other venues.

With his phenomenal bigscreen success, BBC Television signed Wisdom for several variety shows in 1956 and 1957, a year which also saw evergreen supporting player Edward Chapman joining the movie bandwagon in Just My Luck, in the first of five appearances as Norman’s long-suffering employer (invariably named Mr. Grimsdale).

A year later, Wisdom played the lead in the West End musical Where’s Charley? (based on Charley’s Aunt) which also featured Jerry Desmonde in the cast.

Amongst his film and stage commitments, Norman returned to the small screen in December 1961 for a highly talked-about appearance on the top-rating Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Joining host Bruce Forsyth as his sole guest (owing to an Equity strike that week) the pair took part in some fun-filled routines in what became the show’s most famous edition.

In 1964 Norman starred in the Anthony Newley musical The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd but the production failed to make it to the West End (though it eventually had success on Broadway without him). Wisdom did however make commercial recordings of a couple of the songs.

1966 was a watershed year for Norman when he finally deserted the J. Arthur Rank movie cameras and crossed the Atlantic to headline the Broadway musical Walking Happy. A year later he starred with Noel Coward in a U.S. television special based on George Bernard Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion. Then it was a tribute to the knockabout world of burlesque in the 1920s in the movie The Night They Raided Minsky’s, a part tailor-made to Wisdom’s style of physical comedy.

But, despite his burgeoning success in America, by the end of the decade Norman Wisdom abruptly returned home to Britain. His marriage had ended and he decided caring for his children was more important than maintaining his career in the U.S.

Norman signed with ATV to star in a series of half hour shows on commercial television and for the next seven years was a regular on TV screens in his homeland.

By the 1980s, now in his mid-60s, Norman won critical acclaim for a dramatic role as a terminally ill patient in the BBC2 Playhouse special Going Gently. In later years, he’d also devote his acting talents to the long-running sitcom The Last of the Summer Wine.

Despite his advancing years, Wisdom continued to perform energetic physical stunts in his touring stage show (and in 1986 made a successful cabaret tour of Australia).

His last years were capped by receiving a knighthood from the monarch who’d ascended to the throne about the time Norman first became a movie star in the early 1950s. And, true to form, he couldn’t resist amusing his sovereign with a mock stumble as he departed from the investiture.

When Norman Wisdom died, aged 95 in 2010, the world lost a cherished funnyman and the last great survivor of an era of physical comedy which he’d outlived by half a century.

Films

A Date With A Dream (1948)
Meet Mr. Lucifer (1953)
Trouble In Store (1953)
One Good Turn (1954)
As Long As They’re Happy (cameo, 1955)
Man Of The Moment (1955)
Up In The World (1956)
Just My Luck (1957)
The Square Peg (1958)
Follow A Star (1959)
There Was A Crooked Man (1960)
The Bullldog Breed (1960)
The Girl On The Boat (1960)
On The Beat (1962)
A Stitch In Time (1963)
The Early Bird (1965)
The Sandwich Man (cameo, 1966)
Press For Time (1966)
The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968)
What’s Good For The Goose (1969)

Radio

CHILDREN’S HOUR: BLACKPOOL PIRATES
BBC Home Tuesday 5-00pm August 30 1949 (55 min)
with Charlie Chester, Arthur Haynes, Jewel & Warriss, Julie Andrews, Frankie Howerd, Norman Wisdom

FINE GOINGS ON (series 1)
BBC Light Thursday 7-30pm FORTNIGHTLY January 4 to July 5 1951
with Frankie Howerd, Marjorie Holmes, Bill Fraser, Norman Wisdom
(script: Eric Sykes)

SUNNYSIDE UP
BBC Light Thursday 7-30pm September 27 1951
with Max Bygraves, Norman Wisdom

ROBBING HOOD
BBC R2 Tuesday 7-00pm July 21 to August 25 1992
with Norman Wisdom, Moira Lister, Windsor Davis, James Grout

tributes

THE LAUGHTERMAKERS: Norman Wisdom
BBC Home Friday 1-10pm February 22 1957

THE NORMAN WISDOM STORY
BBC Home Tuesday 7-30pm February 28 1961 (60 min)
hosted by David Nixon

A WEALTH OF WISDOM
BBC R2 Wednesday 10-00pm April 22 to June 10 1987 (15 min)
Norman Wisdom reminisces with Michael Pointon

NORMAN WISDOM: A CAREER
BBC R2 Friday 1-00pm April 9 1993 (60 min)
Norman Wisdom reminisces with Roy Pickard

DON’T LAUGH AT ME – NORMAN WISDOM’S FIFTY YEARS OF LAUGHTER
BBC R2 Tuesday 9-00pm June 2 1998 (60 min)

DON’T LAUGH AT ME – NORMAN WISDOM AT 90
BBC R4 Tuesday 11-30am July 13 2004
hosted by Marc Riley

Television

Wit and Wisdom
BBC October 18 1948 (45 min)
BBC August 30 1950 (45 min)

Cuckoo College
BBC May 13 1949 (60 min)

Vic’s Grill
BBC (fortnightly) April 18 to June 27 1951 (6 x 30 min)

The Norman Wisdom Show
BBC February 27 1952 (60 min)

Norman Wisdom
BBC July 27 1952 (20 min)

The Norman Wisdom Show
BBC October 6, November 3 and December 1 1956 (3 x 60 min)
BBC September 21 1957 (60 min)

Androcles and the Lion
NBC November 15 1967 (90 min)

Norman
ITV/ATV April 2 to May 7 1970 (6 x 30 min)

Nobody is Norman Wisdom
ITV/ATV June 26 to August 7 1973 (6 x 30 min)

A Little Bit of Wisdom
series 1: ITV/ATV April 9 to May 21 1974 (7 x 30 min)
series 2: ITV/ATV January 10 to February 14 1975 (6 x 30 min)
series 3: ITV/ATV March 30 to May 11 1976 (6 x 30 min)

It’s Norman
ITV/ATV December 28 1974 (60 min)

The Norman Wisdom Show
BBC2 December 29 1976 (35 min)

Playhouse: Going Gently
BBC2 June 5 1981

tributes

Just Wisdom
C4 December 27 1986

The South Bank Show
ITV August 22 1993

Heroes of Comedy
C4 September 25 1999

Legends
ITV August 30 2000

Norman Wisdom – His Story
BBC October 15 2010

Recordings

Melancholy Serenade / Serenade to a Wealthy Widow
H.M.V. 78rpm POP 141

I Don’t ‘Arf Love You / Narcissus (both with Joyce Grenfell)
Columbia 78rpm DB 3161

Don’t Laugh at Me / Once in Love with Amy
Columbia 78rpm DB

Beware / Dream for Sale
Columbia 78rpm DB 3654

Norman Wisdom
Columbia EP SEG 7612
Beware
Dream for Sale
Don’t Laugh at Me
Once in Love with Amy

Yodelee! Yodelay / Impossible
Columbia 78rpm DB 3700

Boy Meets Girl / Two Rivers (both with Ruby Murray)
Columbia 78rpm DB 3715

Me and My Imagination / Up in the World
Columbia 78rpm/45rpm (45)DB 3864

Happy Ending / The Wisdom of a Fool
Columbia 78rpm/45rpm (45)DB 3903

Columbia EP SEG 7687
Up in the World
Me and My Imagination
Boy Meets Girl
(with Ruby Murray)
O’Malley’s Tango (Ruby Murray vocal)

Where’s Charley?
Columbia LP 33SX 1085 (1958), reissued by Monmouth Evergreen
includes four Norman Wisdom vocals:
Better Get Out of Here (with Pip Hinton, Terence Cooper and Pamela Gale)
Make a Miracle (with Pip Hinton)
Once in Love with Amy
My Darling, My Darling

Where’s Charley?
Columbia EP SEG 7844
features one Norman Wisdom vocal:
Make a Miracle (with Pip Hinton)

Columbia EP SEG 7856
You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me
Spylark
You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby
By the Fireside

If You Believe in Me / Yer Gotta Get Aht
Columbia 45rpm DB 4601

The Joker / Who Can I Turn To?
Columbia 45rpm DB 7352

Follow a Star / Give Me a Night in June
Top Rank single 45JAR 246

Follow a Star
Top Rank EP JKP 2052
Follow a Star
Give Me a Night in June
I Love You
The Bath Song

Walking Happy
(US) Capitol LP (S)VAS 2631 (1966)
Norman is featured on this original Broadway cast album

Androcles and the Lion
(US) RCA LP LOC/LSO 1141
Norman is featured on this soundtrack of the 1967 TV special

I Would Like to Put it on Record
Wing LP WL 1216
Young at Heart
I’ll Always Love You
You Were Meant for Me
I’d Like to Put it on Record That I Love You
So Nice to Dream
My Little Dog
Take a Step in the Right Direction
They Didn’t Believe Me
Please Opportunity

The Night They Raided Minsky’s
(US) United Artists LP UAS 5191 (1968)
Norman is featured on one track of this film soundtrack:
Perfect Gentleman (with Jason Robards)

Where Do I Go from Here / Just Like the Day
CBS single 4569

Sparky’s Magic Piano / Tubby the Tuba
Countour single 2870 146

White Christmas / Is Everybody Happy?
E.M.I. single EMI 2098

Do You Believe in Christmas? / All Over the World
Genie single RWS 037

Nobody’s Fool
Carlton Sounds CD 30360 00032 (1995)
What Kind of Fool am I?
My Foolish Heart
These Foolish Things
The Fool on the Hill
Who Can I Turn To?
Fools Rush In
What is This Thing Called Love?
Can’t Help Falling in Love
Am I Wasting My Time on You?
A Fool Such as I
Falling in Love with Love
Old Fashioned Lady
They Didn’t Believe Me
Don’t Laugh at Me
The Wisdom of a Fool

reissues 

Don’t Laugh at Me –  Original Recordings 1951 – 1955
Naxos CD B000U7V940

Heart of a Clown – the Best of Norman Wisdom
Rex CD Rexx 125 (2009)
Don’t Laugh at Me (‘Cause I’m a Clown)
Please Opportunity
So Nice to Dream
The Wisdom of a Fool
Dream for Sale
They Didn’t Believe Me
Up in the World
Me and My Imagination
You Were Meant For Me
Narcissus
(with Joyce Grenfell)
My Darling, My Darling
Once in Love with Amy
The Bath Song
My Little Dog (Where’s He Gone?)
Boy Meets Girl
(with Ruby Murray)
Heart of a Clown
I’d Like to Put on Record (That I Love You)
Follow a Star
Give Me a Night in June
Two Rivers
(with Ruby Murray)
Beware
Happy Ending
London Melody
Impossible
I Don’t ‘Arf Love You
(with Joyce Grenfell)

Video

The Legendary Norman Wisdom Live on Stage
Video (1990)
57 minutes

Trouble on Tour
BMG Video 74321 223453 (1994)
assisted by Tony Fayne

Just Wisdom
Video
45 minutes of film highlights

DVDs

Norman Wisdom Collection
ITV Studios 6DVD set B001CWLFIQ
The Bulldog Breed
One Good Turn
The Early Bird *
Press For Time
On The Beat *
Man Of The Moment
A Stitch In Time *
Just My Luck
The Square Peg
Follow A Star
Trouble In Store *
Up In The World
(* four have commentary tracks with Norman talking with Robert Ross)

A Date With a Dream
DVD

The Girl on the Boat
DVD

There Was a Crooked Man
DVD

The Sandwich Man
DVD

What’s Good for the Goose
DVD

The Night They Raided Minsky’s
DVD

Sunday Night at the London Palladium – volume 1
Network dvd
includes the edition of December 3 1961 wherein Norman was the sole guest.

The Legendary Norman Wisdom Live on Stage
Beckmann DVD (2004)
57 minute stage show

Bibliography

TROUBLE IN STORE – NORMAN WISDOM, A CAREER IN COMEDY
by Richard Dacre (Farries, 1991)

DON’T LAUGH AT ME COS I’M A FOOL
by Norman Wisdom (?, 1992)

MY TURN
by Norman Wisdom (as told to William Hall) (Arrow paperback, 2003)

*** HARD ACT TO FOLLOW
by Michael Sellers and Gary Morecambe (Blake, London. 1997)
contains a chapter by Nick Wisdom reminiscing about his father

PITKIN’S PA – MY LIFE WITH SIR NORMAN WISDOM
by Ann Axe (?, 2011)

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