A fortunate fool, all in all

A wistful Norman Wisdom talks to Paul Vallely on the eve of a festival celebrating his 50 years in cinema

They tell a story at the European Parliament - at least the Brits do - about the day a particularly pompous French politician stood up and held forth about "the Sagacity of the French". Unfortunately, the simultaneous translation in the ears of the non-French speakers rendered the pompous phrase about French Sagacity as "Norman Wisdom". The more the Brits laughed at the idea, the more the unhappy Frenchman stood on his dignity and repeated the line, and the more the Brits laughed.

Most MEPs are, as they say, of a certain age and in their cinematic memories the figure of Norman Wisdom lingers still. Today the diminutive British clown celebrates 50 years in the cinema with "a conversation with Nicholas Parsons" at the Barbican before a sell-out crowd. Over the next four days this high temple of art will be given over to a festival of films by the man whose work may have saved the Rank Organisation with his one-man box- office pull through the Fifties and Sixties, but who was pretty much sniffed at by the critics in its day. What goes round...

Norman Wisdom was having coffee with his gardener when I visited him on the Isle of Man last week. This burly chap in blue overalls looked oddly out of place on a heavily brocaded gold chair in the comedian's spacious Spanish-style living room. Beside him sat the woman Norman introduced as his "cleaning tart", a description it felt best to pass over without inquiry. For all the grandeur of his new home there was evidently nothing "la-di-dah" about Norman's relationship with his staff. Little had changed, it seemed, in his view of class relations. Of which more later.

Norman might sound a terribly over-familiar way to address an elderly gentleman - he is 83 - whom I had never met before. But there is something about his manner which offers intimacy - if only up to a carefully marked- off point.

He was cheery, and yet there was something hesitant, almost wistful, about his manner. The weekend before he had appeared, somewhat unexpectedly, in a vignette role in the BBC hospital drama Casualty. He had played a sad old man whose wife dies in the opening shots. In real life, beneath the bonhomie, there was something of the same disconsolate quality. He began by telling me a story about the extra bit he had put into the part to embellish the pathos of the script. The director had allowed him to do it, and had then cut it out. "I haven't retired, you know," his character said. "I did the National Lottery recently."

Embellishing the pathos was always a Wisdom characteristic. It was there in the act which made him, in the Forties, Britain's top variety theatre star. It was there, too, in the score of films which brought him numerous "best-loved comedy star" awards in the decades that followed. Nowhere was this more true than in the character he developed in the early years which he called The Gump (Fifties argot for a simpleton), a clumsy blundering naif whose comedy was counterpointed by a constant need to be loved. It was, inevitably, a much exaggerated version of Wisdom's perception on his own personality.

He tells the story of his life as if it were merely the framework on which to hang a succession of gags.

"I was born in very sorry circumstances. My mother was sorry and my father was sorry as well." But it was an upbringing which seems unimaginable today.

His mother left his alcoholic father when the boy was nine. With his chauffeur father working away for weeks on end the boy and his brother, who was two years older, were abandoned to their own devices. They begged and stole to live. At the age of 14 he walked from London to Cardiff in search of work and then found a position as a cabin boy on a merchant ship. The saga of hardship and deprivation ended only when he signed up with the Army, where the determination that had driven him through his childhood pushed him to learn one instrument after another in an insatiable quest for approval.

It ended only when he taught himself tap dancing, found that the officers' mess thought it hilarious, and turned it into a comedy act. "I was determined to be laughed with, not at," he said, in what might be the leitmotif for his entire career.

It was a broad slapstick which he developed - more that of the clown than the comedian. Which is perhaps why Wisdom found far more favour with audiences than with the critics: he was, as Melvyn Bragg once said, "hardly the reviewers' favourite film personality".

"They found it insufficiently sophisticated," said the elderly comic, a little edge creeping into his voice still, after all these years. "But it's always seemed to me that if you haven't got a slightly childish sense of humour then you're not a very happy person."

It was not, I have to admit, his childishness which I found irritating about Norman Wisdom's comic persona when I was a boy. It was the fact that he laughed all the time at his own jokes, which always seemed to me, in an unarticulated childish way, to be usurping the judgement of the audience. We would decide what was funny, thank you very much.

Yet, revisiting his films now, this is not the most striking element. Nor was the sentimentality of his little-man pathos. It was the way in which Wisdom unconsciously challenged the status quo of that class-ridden era. The Gump was a character who constantly misread the signals of authority, subtle and otherwise, which the upper-class figures in the films sent out. (It was this which enabled him to do things like mistaking a posh reception for his office party and misbehaving accordingly.) And he constantly misread his betters' instructions, in a way which would have been wilfully impertinent had he not been so stupid. The Gump never knew his place. It was a combination of rebellion and innocence which spoke to that post-war Cholmondley-Warner world.

"I never saw it that way," says Wisdom now. "I just thought of it as the humour of the underdog, but I suppose you can see that in it if you want." In the years that followed the Gump character modulated slightly, though Wisdom was always recognisably the same. There was the possibility of a change when Hollywood discovered him. Two of the films in the Wisdom Weekend are the US television special Androcles and the Lion (with Noel Coward), which receives its British premiere on Sunday, and The Night They Raided Minsky's, which won Wisdom critical plaudits. But at around this point Wisdom's wife left him - "she found someone taller and good- looking" is the gag he now uses to cover the old hurt - and he returned to the UK to look after his two children.

His career, from that point on, was mainly in British television and panto, as was evident when, at the end of the interview, he gave me a tour of the trophies that crowd the surfaces of his living room. There were crystal bowls and silver platters inscribed with legends from grateful managers recording how he "smashed to smithereens" box-office records at the nation's major theatres, and statuettes and sculptures bearing plaques declaring them to be "lifetime achievement" awards from various critics' circles. "They make up for some of the earlier things the press said," he said, reviewing it all. "All in all, I've been a fortunate fool, you see."

"It'll be a nice article, won't it?" he asked anxiously as he showed me to the door. "You see, there's three things about getting old; the first is that your memory goes... and I can't remember the other two." As the car pulls away from the house he springs, with remarkable fitness, to attention and then salutes a corporal's salute as the car goes past. It'll be a nice article, Norman.

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