Veteran comic – and Albania's favourite – Sir Norman Wisdom dies, aged 95

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The Independent Culture

Charlie Chaplin called him his "favourite clown," and generations of British filmgoers would have wholeheartedly agreed.

The death of the veteran comedian, actor and singer Sir Norman Wisdom yesterday evening brought tributes from every corner of the entertainment business he so successfully made his own during a career which spanned seven decades.

His family said he died "peacefully" at the Abbotswood Nursing Home on the Isle of Man. Sir Norman had suffered a series of strokes over the past six months, but the 95-year-old had apparently maintained a degree of independence until just a few days ago when his health went into rapid decline.

Phil Day, who served as his publicist since 1969, spoke for many when he said Sir Norman was a "lovely man".

"He never turned down any request," said Mr Day. "He never threw a tantrum. He was 100 per cent professional all of the time. Of all the artists I've ever worked with, he's been the closest. It's a sad day."

He was born Norman Wisden on 4 February 1915, and the son of a chauffeur and a dressmaker had a tough childhood growing up in Marylebone, London. His parents divorced when he was nine, and together with his elder brother he was brought up by his father – who, either because of his job or his drinking, was frequently absent. After leaving school at 13, he took a job earning 50p a week as an errand boy for Lipton Tea.

During the Second World War he worked in a London communications bunker, connecting calls to the Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

He began his own performing career in 1946 as a magician's assistant, and soon found his way on to the West End stage. Before long was appearing on TV, and went on to find instant success in the cinema too, winning a Bafta as Most Promising Newcomer after starring in 1953's Trouble in Store.

The diminutive figure – he was just 5ft 4in – became famed for his many performances as Norman Pitkin, otherwise known as "the Gump", the archetypal "little man" seemingly up against the world. Dressed shoddily in a cloth cap, skewed tie and a too-small suit, his character was forever lamenting his awkwardness with women but in the end somehow always won over the object of his attraction. His low-budget but highly popular films helped keep the Rank Organisation film company afloat, notching up box-office successes that even beat the early James Bond films. Squealing "Mr Grimsdale!" to his despairing boss time and again, he also coined a catchphrase that would enter comedy history.

But Sir Norman was capable of more sensitive performances too. In 1981 he garnered the critical acclaim that had so often passed by his earlier work, playing a retired salesman and terminally ill cancer victim in the BBC television play Going Gently.

He starred in 32 television sitcoms and 19 films in total, as well as securing his own music hits, such as Don't Laugh At Me (Cause I'm A Fool) in 1954, and The Wisdom Of A Fool in 1957. He also popped up in Last of the Summer Wine and Coronation Street.

Sir Norman married showgirl Freda Simpson in 1947 and they had two children, Nick and Jacqui. The couple divorced in 1969. His 75th birthday in 1990 was marked by retirement from television; he would not appear again, he said, because most of it was "too smutty". Ten years later he proved his sense of humour was far from extinguished, however, when he purposefully tripped in front of the Queen as he left his knighthood ceremony.

Bizarrely, Sir Norman was also immensely popular in Albania, as during the days of its Communist regime his films were the only Western movies allowed to be shown.

Click here to see his 'life in pictures'