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Sir Norman Wisdom dies at 95

By Keith Topping :  05/10/2010 :  Comments (20) :
Sir Norman Wisdom has died at the age of 95. The legendary British comedian and actor died yesterday at Abbotswood Nursing Home, where he had been a long-term resident due to a progressive decline in his physical and mental health. His son confirmed the death to BBC News.

A statement from the home said: "Sir Norman has today passed away at Abbotswood Nursing Home on the Isle of Man. He had maintained a degree of independence up until a few days ago. However, his condition rapidly declined. He was in no pain or distress and peacefully passed away at 6:40pm. We would appreciate that, at this sad time, the family be given space and privacy to grieve for their much loved father and grandfather. Details of funeral arrangements will be forthcoming as soon as everything has been finalised."

Wisdom, who retired from acting in 2004, made his name in a series of 1950s slapstick roles. He was in the mould of the archetypal clown, parading his pratfalls and slapstick in nineteen films of the 50s and 60s for the Rank Organisation ? playing a character usually called Norman Pitkin. In three of the most celebrated ? The Early Bird, The Square Peg and A Stitch In Time, he worked for a Mr Grimsdale, leading to the urgent cry that was to become his catchphrase.

Charlie Chaplin is once alleged to have described Norman as his own favourite physical comedian. Like Chaplin, Norman's early life had been full of hardship. His mother left home when he was nine, leaving him and his brother, Fred, in the care of their alcoholic father. Norman's father gave the brothers away to a family in Deal, Kent soon afterwards. The young Norman eventually tracked down his father, only to have the door slammed in his face.

Leaving school at thirteen, Norman became an errand boy with a grocery store. He also worked as a coal miner, a waiter and a cabin-boy, where the crew would make him box for money. As a teenager, he slept rough on the streets until someone suggested he join the army, seeing service in India and finally finding somewhere that he felt he belonged.

He would later say that his time with the Tenth Royal Hussars was the happiest of his life and it was in the military ? like so many stars of his generation ? that he discovered his natural love of performing. He became a bandsman, graduated to concert parties, and honed his comic skills. He left the army in 1946 and made his stage debut at the late age of thirty one. But his rise thereafter was fairly meteoric and he was a West End star within two years.

Later, in the 1960s, he seemed destined for a lengthy film career in American film, making an acclaimed appearance as a vaudeville burlesque comic in The Night They Raided Minsky's (1968). This followed a triumphant Broadway debut in Jimmy van Heusen and Sammy Cahn's Walking Happy, his performance for which was Tony-nominated. However, after a typical showstopping performance on The Ed Sullivan Show had won him a legion of new fans Stateside, the opportunities which may have been in the United States were cut short when he had to return to London after his second wife, Freda, left him.

Bringing up the couple's two teenage children himself, Norman's subsequent career was largely confined to television though he later toured the world with his successful cabaret act. He won critical acclaim in 1981 for his dramatic role as a dying cancer patient in the BBC play Going Gently. He also appeared in a number of TV sitcoms, including his own A Little Bit Of Wisdom and a nine-year stint on Last of the Summer Wine.

The underlying message of the goodness of the common man made his movies, famously, the only Western entertainment allowed to be shown in Communist Albania, where he remains an unlikely, and genuine, folk hero ? mobbed in the streets by adoring fans on his occasional visits to the country. A knighthood in 2000 (he, of course, feigned a trip as he met the Queen) and later well-placed cameos in the likes of Coronation Street and the big-screen versions of Five Children and It helped to revive his profile.

But he will always be best remembered as the clumsy, well-meaning man of his signature tune 'Don't Laugh At Me (Cause I'm A Fool).' He had a lengthy association with the North East, often visiting the region to see friends and entertain fans at St James' Park where he was always introduced to the crowd as a lifelong Newcastle fan. (Although, apparently, he occasionally did the same at both Arsenal and Everton! He was actually a member of the board of directors at Brighton & Hove Albion.) He famously appeared as a half-time guest at the England vs Albania 2001 World Cup qualifier at Newcastle and managed not to trip up when scoring a penalty at the Leazes End.

At the age of 90, he was still working, appearing in a video for a charity single by the Manx all-girl punk band, Twisted Angels. "We had some great laughs on the set and it was wonderful for me to be in front of the cameras again," he said.

On 28 December 2008, Sky News prematurely announced that Norman had died, running a pre-recorded obituary, both as part of its rolling broadcast coverage and on its website. Shortly afterwards, when it became apparent that other news sites were not carrying the story, Sky dropped the story, stating that it had been published in error in response to e-mail queries.

Sadly, his last few years saw Norman becoming increasing frail and suffering from vascular dementia. In early 2008, BBC2 aired Wonderland: The Secret Life Of Norman Wisdom Aged Ninety Two And Three-Quarters, a moving, if somewhat surreal, documentary highlighting the dilemma of coping with an ageing, yet independent-minded parent. In a spoken trailer on 5Live for the programme and in subsequent publicity interviews undertaken by his family, it was revealed that Wisdom's memory loss had become so severe that he could no longer recognise himself in his own films.

Once asked to sum up his appeal, Norman replied: "My comedy is for children from three to ninety three. You do need a slightly childish sense of humour and if you haven't got that, it's very sad."

He is survived by his two children, Nick and Jacqui.

This tribute appeared originally on Keith "Telly" Topping's Blog: From the North....

Reader Comments

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Kevin Hudson
1   Posted 05/10/2010 at 18:46:38

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Huge loss. Brilliant man.
Nick Entwistle
2   Posted 05/10/2010 at 19:50:12

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Tony Curtis too. Big downer.
Jon Cox
3   Posted 05/10/2010 at 19:52:16

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In 1969, they held auditions at the Scarisbrick Hotel in Lord Street, Southport. The film was called "What's good for the goose". It was a film in which Norman tried to go in a slightly different direction from his earlier films. The film didn't do that well at the box office.

How do I know this? ?because I went for the part of his son along with 200 or so other kids. Along with a girl and another young lad, I luckily got the gig.

It was filmed in a great big old hotel overlooking the sea, called The Grand Hotel. Happy days... and Everton were not far off winning the league.
Phil Bellis
4   Posted 05/10/2010 at 21:11:23

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Great clown, not a bad singer and a true gentleman; like L & H he made generations laugh
Second only to the great Evertonian (and ex-Granby St man) Leonard Rossiter as a comic actor
HTF no-marks like Brand & Co can be called comedians compared to these two is beyond belief
Tom Edwards
5   Posted 05/10/2010 at 22:27:21

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A gentleman and a fantastic comic and actor. I was lucky enough to see him in panto at Liverpool Empire in the early 70's and he was brilliant. The world has lost a gem. If there is a heaven he will be there with my mum and dad (a true blue), Labby, Bally, Dixie. RIP.
Colin Grierson
6   Posted 05/10/2010 at 23:14:19

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"Mr Grimsdale!"

Class act. A good, long life for a great man.
Rest in Peace, Norman.
Ste Blundell
7   Posted 06/10/2010 at 00:00:53

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I met him at Pinewood once. I was doing a drawing course there a few years ago and he walked into main the entrance with a middle aged man and woman. He stopped and smiled at me, then stood to attention, saluted and marched off down the hallway and out of sight with the man and woman scurrying after him. Hysterical!

It's a shame he's gone.

Gavin Ramejkis
8   Posted 06/10/2010 at 00:41:27

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I had the pleasure of meeting Norman a number of times many years ago in the Isle of Man whilst I was working there and played golf with him at Mount Murray, what a genuine no airs or graces guy he was and a better golfer than me too. A big loss to comedy and his family and friends and anyone lucky enough to have met him.
Tony Cheek
9   Posted 06/10/2010 at 05:30:10

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Will always remember him... laughed my socks off at his films when I was a kid... RIP.
Jonathan Tasker
10   Posted 06/10/2010 at 08:39:15

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He was brilliant.

I hope they show lots of his films as a tribute so I can show them to my kids.
Peter Laing
11   Posted 06/10/2010 at 13:00:00

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Comic genius and total gentleman. From an era when comedy was usually about self deprecation, as opposed to today's usual attempt at bland humour that largely centres around nihilistic views and the defamation of others. R.I.P Norman
Andy Riley
12   Posted 06/10/2010 at 14:44:35

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Was Norman Wisdom an Evertonian?
Larry Boner
13   Posted 06/10/2010 at 16:15:53

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I dont know if Sir Norman was a bluenose, but even if he was a red I would still think he was a brilliant comedian, like Laurel and Hardy, Hicks and Gillette etc.
The likes of Tarbuck, Boardman totally unfunny and redshite as well, it doesnt get any worse than that for a scouser.
Dennis Stevens
14   Posted 06/10/2010 at 18:58:14

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Brighton & Hove Albion was Sir Norman Wisdom's team - he was on the Board there at one time. However, he did say that he also liked Newcastle United & Everton - not just because of his friendship with Bill Kenwright, apparently.
Andy Crooks
15   Posted 07/10/2010 at 19:28:50

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Larry, I thought Stan Boardman was an Evertonian. If I'm wrong it will be like a new signing.
Mike Dolan
16   Posted 08/10/2010 at 00:58:58

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The Hotel in Southport was the Palace. I worked for a day or two as an extra. I believe Barry Walmersley and Rhythm+ Blues Incorporated. featured in one of the scenes. That is the only connection to the real Blues that I can think of. Funny man though
Rob Hollis
17   Posted 08/10/2010 at 10:00:33

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Norman Wisdom may not have been an Evertonian but we all owe him a great debt.

He has obviously inspired much of our play since 1987.
Brian Denton
18   Posted 08/10/2010 at 19:22:51

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Jon Cox (post #3) if you were in that film, does that mean you got to meet my fantasy (as a 12 year old !) woman, Sally Geeson ? She was the only reason I ever had cause to seek out that film - as you say, it was a 'departure' for Norman to be in a film getting his leg over ..........
Jon Cox
19   Posted 08/10/2010 at 19:36:35

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Brian I did get to meet Sally Geeson. I spent the whole day with her, Sir Norman and my mum. The thing that strikes me now thinking back was the fact that my Ma and me were invited to a party hosted by the producer called Tony Tenser after shooting had finished. Guess what dad put his foot down and we never went.

By the way I was payed the Monaco rate of £35 for my efforts. Not that I ever saw the money, GRR.

It was good fun and I still remember how hot the lights were. PLEASE GIVE ME WATER.

Bit of history for you, the guy who designed the hotel (I thought it was called the Grand but it may have been the Palace) actually hung himself because the whole building was erected back to front. The main doors were facing away from the sea.

Exploring the coridoors I found the building to be very very spooky even more so than the "Overlook".
But you would aged twelve.
Jon Cox
20   Posted 08/10/2010 at 19:51:01

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Mike (16) Tell me, how did it happen for you? An interesting thing. How old were you at the time. What did you do? Did you meet any of the cast?

Do you still live in Southport? Did you audition at the Scarisbrick hotel on that glorious Saturday?

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