By Jonathan Margolis
A prodigious comedic and musical talent, Norman Wisdom was for a while in the early 1960s Britain's highest- earning performer. His career spanned music hall, West End musicals, pantomime, cabaret, TV, Broadway and Hollywood – but for many people, he was most famous for being over nearly three decades the undisputed comedy favourite of Stalinist Albania.
It was not only the harmless vulnerability of the character Wisdom played in 19 films that made him "safe" and uncontroversial enough to be an officially approved entertainer in Albania and other former communist countries, such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union. He was actually touted by the regimes in such countries – albeit without particularly wanting to be – as a political icon, a depiction of the exploited worker against the ruling classes, the underdog who triumphs against capitalist evil.
The put-upon character Wisdom achieved such fame for had its roots in Scarborough in 1948, where he was playing in variety while living in his touring caravan on a site outside the town. Looking for something new to wear on stage, he happened to buy an ill-fitting suit and cap in a secondhand shop. With his diminutive physique and this pathetic outfit, he invented a chirpy comedy character he called The Gump, described as "the successful failure", a cheerful fool who somehow wins through, and thus walks the thin line between pathos and comedy.
Although The Gump – both the character and increasingly threadbare suit and cap, which Wisdom wore with the brim turned back – were to make him immensely wealthy over the decades to come, pathos was far from an affectation for Norman Wisdom. His successful career came about despite an appalling childhood. "I was born in very sorry circumstances. Both my parents were very sorry," he was fond of saying. But in his case, it was true. Wisdom's friends over the years have compared him to Oliver Twist, something which almost underplays the Dickensian nature of his early years.
Born in 1915 to Frederick, a chauffeur and Maude, a dressmaker, Wisdom had an older brother, Fred, and the family lived in a one-bed flat, which due to his father's job had a shiny Daimler outside. The marriage was unhappy, and when Wisdom was nine his mother left for a man in Willesden, and thus failed to get custody of her children – who were effectively left to their own devices while their father took jobs in Scotland and Ceylon. When he returned from these trips he was often physically violent towards his sons.
"It was either steal or starve," remembered Wisdom, who out of necessity became resourceful to the point of desperation. His money-making scams included trying to get run over by cyclists on Bayswater Road, after a lady cyclist who had genuinely crashed into him gave him sixpence.
Eventually, Wisdom Snr sent the two boys to live with guardians in Hertfordshire, an arrangement which collapsed through a combination of the boys' bad behaviour and their father failing to pay their rent. The brothers were then split up, and Norman grew up in Deal in Kent. At 14 he went to the Labour Exchange and took the first of a succession of jobs in London hotels before walking to Wales with a fellow hotel worker with the idea of working in the mines.
Once there, the friend deserted him and Wisdom got a job as cabin boy on a cargo ship bound for Argentina. On board he learned how to box and also to shadow box, a skill which would later feature in his stage routine. Many years later, Muhammad Ali would be one of his biggest fans.
Several lows followed Wisdom's return to England. The first was what he deemed the worst day of his life, when he returned from sea and spent Christmas Day in a hostel on his own. The second was when he tracked down his father, who had found another partner and simply told him to "get out". Wisdom never saw him again. Better moments came when he was reunited with his mother and, later, his brother Fred, whom he stopped by coincidence in the street to ask for directions on the way to find him.
Aged 14, at 4ft 10in and 5st 9lb, Wisdom joined the army, towards whom he retained a deep gratitude for teaching him discipline, giving him food and a surrogate for the family he never had. He became a band boy for the 8th Hussars and was posted to Lucknow in India, where he spent five years.
Later he would say these were the happiest days of his life. It was in India that he developed his comedy routine – shadow boxing and tap dancing – through being the camp jester. He also took up music and dropped his Cockney accent.
Returning to England in 1938, he met his first wife, Doreen, who worked in a chip shop, and married her in 1939. The marriage was to end swiftly when Doreen was unfaithful. Wisdom never told anyone about the marriage until the publication of his autobiography, Don't Laugh at Me, in 1992.
When the Second World War started Wisdom joined the Royal Corps of Signals and its dance band, playing saxophone. After a charity concert in Cheltenham, the actor Rex Harrison came backstage and told Wisdom he would be mad not to go professional.
When the war finished, Wisdom was 30 and desperate to get into showbusiness. His first appearance was atCollins Music Hall in Islington, a slot he got by shadowing the theatre manager for three weeks until he had worn him down. The resultant show was a mixture of mime, musical instruments and singing.
In 1953, the Gump character, having been invented for variety, in which Wisdom had been doing a double turn for five years with the conjuror David Nixon, helped launch Wisdom in his first film, Trouble in Store. This broke all box office records and earned Wisdom £5,000, a Bafta and a chart topping record, "Don't Laugh At Me 'Cos I'm A Clown".
Wisdom signed a seven-year film contract with Rank Organisation. During the 1950s he worked so hard that he would be at the film studios at 5.30am for a 12-hour day and then go to the London Palladium for two shows finishing at 11pm. After signing autographs he would arrive home at 1am. He ended up in hospital suffering from malnutrition; with this punishing schedule, he had forgotten to eat.
At the height of Wisdom's fame, the 1962 film A Stitch in Time took more money in its first two weeks than the James Bond film of the same year, From Russia With Love. Wisdom's fame was now spreading abroad. In 1965, at a film festival in Argentina, he was awarded the Golden Flame Award for The Most Popular Artist of All Nations. Wisdom's stage musical, Walking Happy, won him a New York Critics' award, and Richard Rogers cast him in Androcles and the Lion alongside Noël Coward in a TV special for NBC.
He also toured the world with Tony Fayne, his comedic sparring partner, visiting many parts of Africa, Iran, Malaysia, Australia and Canada. He was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award for Comedy in 1991, and in 1995 finally made it to Albania after the fall of communism. He was greeted there by adoring crowds, for whom his films had been the only bright spot in four decades of Enver Hoxha's isolationist rule. In 1998, the Barbican held a retrospective of Wisdom's work. Then aged 83, he was there, singing, dancing and falling about as he had throughout his career.
However despite his natural comedic prowess, Wisdom also yearned to do "real acting", once complaining that he would give "half my right arm" to play the deaf-mute in Ryan's Daughter. In 1981 he took part in Going Gently, a moving two-handed BBC TV play set in a terminal cancer ward. Wisdom said: "All I can say is when he [the director, Stephen Frears] said 'Cut!' there was a silence that seemed to go on for ever. Looking around, I saw tears in the cameraman's eyes. Frears just walked over, and without a word ruffled my hair."
Wisdom also played a gangster who crosses the Mafia in the 1991 film Double X, and enjoyed a stint in the long-running BBC comedy The Last Of The Summer Wine. He played a vicar in a short film, Expresso, in 2007. His one great unfulfilled ambition was to write and star in a film about Benny Lynch, the flyweight champion in 1935 who was found dead and destitute in a gutter 11 years later at the age of 33.
Wisdom's phenomenal physical fitness meant that he could still accept such roles into his late seventies. Well into his eighties, he astonished journalists who visited his home in the Isle of Man by suddenly standing up from his seat, dropping to the floor and turning several somersaults. (He would also let them wear and be photographed in what he said was his original Gump cap, but seemed suspiciously new when the author saw and was photographed in it.) In 2000, Wisdom brought out a fitness video aimed at youngsters in their sixties.
In his personal life, Wisdom wasunlucky. In 1947, eight years after his short-lived marriage, he met andmarried a chorus girl, Freda Simpson. They lived in a caravan parked off the Barnet by-pass. However, after 22 years of marriage, Wisdom, flush with success on Broadway, came home to find that Freda had left him for someone he described as "tall and good-looking". Wisdom's two children, Nick and Jackie, then aged 12 and 11, chose to stay with their father. Wisdom never married again.
Wisdom was a prolific songwriter and admitted that his songs had the common themes of love and loneliness, which he conceded was a reflection of both the Gump character he had created and a bit of himself, too.
In 1995 he was granted an OBEand went to collect it in morning suit and the Gump cap. He was no stranger to Royalty, having been a guestperformer at Windsor Castle andbeing told by a lady-in-waiting that the Queen found it difficult to keep a straight face when he was around. Wisdom and the cap made another visit to Buckingham Palace in 2000 to accept a knighthood.
A relentlessly jolly man, who never admitted to so much as a scintilla of depression, Norman Wisdom was proudest of two things in his life. That Charlie Chaplin once designated him the comedian who would follow in his footsteps – and the fact that he never raised his voice to anyone during his whole career.
Norman Wisdom, actor and comedian: born 4 February 1915; married 1939 Doreen Brett (marriage dissolved), 1947 Freda Simpson (marriage dissolved, died 1992; one son, one daughter); OBE 1995, Kt 2000; died Ballasalla, Isle of Man 4 October 2010.