BOOK REVIEW / A small disaster in a gump suit: 'Don't Laugh at me: An Autobiography' - Norman Wisdom with William Hall: Century, 14.99 pounds

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'I WAS born in very sorry circumstances. Both my parents were very sorry.' That's an old music hall gag, but it wasn't very far from the truth. To say that Norman Wisdom was educated in the School of Hard Knocks would be an understatement. His brutish father once threw him so hard across the room that his head dented the ceiling; a schoolmaster, in a piece of vicious slapstick, broke his finger with a cane, causing permanent damage. As a tiny 14-year-old cabin boy he was persuaded by shipmates to fight a bruiser in a Buenos Aires fairground booth; they took the money and scarpered to the nearest bar, leaving him semi-conscious and covered in blood. A couple of years later, as a bandboy serving in India, Norman would become British Army flyweight boxing champion. He owes the Army everything, he says: it gave him a home and a chance to develop his singing, dancing and comic talents, skills that would make him the most successful British film and stage comedian of his generation. He was traffic-stoppingly popular, and has been awarded every showbiz honour. His first billing was as 'The Successful Failure', a role he played to laughter and tears throughout his career.

Norman Wisdom was born in 1915; his father was a chauffeur and his mother a dressmaker. When Norman was 12, his mother walked out, unable to take her husband's drunken violence any more. Norman and his brother Fred, neglected and beaten, became barefoot 'street urchins', forced to beg and steal food. Their father would disappear without warning and once they received a postcard from Ceylon. (Norman later tracked his mother down, and they remained on loving terms.) 'Urchin' is a key word here - Norman retained his urchin persona for his act and his film character Norman Pitkin, the little chap with the big cap and cheeky grin putting one over on toffee-nosed authority. He always got the girl (a bandbox lovely who in real life wouldn't have been seen dead with the walking disaster in the too-tight 'gump' suit), who was charmed by his kind heart and his spaniel eyes and a romantic song. One ballad which he wrote himself, 'Don't Laugh At Me ('cos I'm a fool)', his paradoxical theme song, was penned when his wife Freda left him.

But this account, although full of anecdotes, is short on Norman's inner and family life. He has two grown-up children and a grandson whom he 'loves to pieces', and he speaks generously of most people, except about Tommy Cooper's feet. Marilyn Monroe picked him up and kissed him; Churchill, Laurel and Hardy, and other luminaries too numerous to mention make guest appearances, and, in scenes where life imitates his celluloid version of it, he crashes down at Princess Margaret's feet while performing in an ice show, and breaks a priceless vase at Windsor Castle. 'You little tinker,' says the Queen Mum, catching him out in a prank. Norman Pitkin would have loved it.

While many former stars have been put out to grass on the pro-celebrity golf course, Norman Wisdom is a cult-figure playing to packed houses. A rich man, he goes touring still, living for six weeks at a time in the luxury coach that carries him and his entourage from coast to coast (a lifesize cardboard replica travels in the front seat). Chaplin named him as his successor; there is a 10-year-old lookalike, in gump suit and cap, who follows him round the country. He may one day step into Norman's size six shoes, but it will be a hard act to follow.