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Norman Wisdom

August 16, 2011

Comic who didn’t die

Norman Wisdom made his first low-budget comedy in 1953. The critics hated it, but audiences loved the little underdog who left a trail of mayhem behind him and eventually got the girl. He cranked out fifteen more and made a fortune. At his peak, his films made more money than the James Bond franchise in the Sean Connery era. Then, quite suddenly, it wasn’t funny any more. In the swinging sixties maybe slapstick went out of fashion, or perhaps a 50-year-old playing a teenager for laughs had become more grotesque than funny! Whatever the reason, the run stopped dead.

But Wisdom was still alive with nearly half his life in front of him. What should he do? He started badly. He went to Hollywood but made only one film there, his wife left him, and a disastrous effort in 1969 to revive the aging funny man in a sex romp was so embarrassingly dire that he never made another big screen movie.

But he was lucky in another way. His films were just as funny with the sound turned down. Wisdom’s remarkable physical clowning, his too-tight jackets, pratfalls and facial expressions were the only good bits in them. The plots were so weak and the jokes so laboured that non-English speakers enjoyed them more than the original audiences. The films carried on selling all over the world, with fans and regular revival festivals as far away as Hong Kong and Australia. He made a good living on cruise ships and the chat show circuit.

Most incongruously, Wisdom (or at least his character “Pitkin”) became a star in Albania. Enver Hoxha, the mad dictator of that benighted country, had woken up one morning and decreed that Wisdom’s comedies were the only western films that could be shown. Allegedly one was shown on Albanian TV every day for thirty years. There were even Wisdom TV channels.

Whether he was really popular, or just slightly more interesting than a turned-off set, I’ve no idea, but back in England he became better known for being “famous in Albania” than for the films themselves. No one watched them any more. He travelled with the England football team to Albania and, to hysterical cheers, came on the pitch at half time. In England he came on at half time if an Albanian club visited, if an Albanian player turned up, or if the hot dog man was Albanian! Every article or TV documentary about Albania mentioned his fame there.

Eventually he worked his way back into some sort of English favour; at least he got minor parts in TV sitcoms and turned up on English chat shows again. When he developed senile dementia and his family moved him into a nursing home and sold off his Rolls Royce, he was famous enough for the BBC to make a programme about that. He lived so long that, in 2008, Sky News prematurely released his obituary.

Famous in Albania, programmes about your dementia, and a premature obituary. As the poet Philip Larkin once said in another context: “That’s what you get for not dying, see!”

— Jim Thornton

Reprinted from AO Deadpool 2010

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