Last Night's TV: This is no country for funny old men
Wonderland: The Secret Life of Norman Wisdom Aged 92 3/4, BBC2
Thursday 17 January 2008
"Ooohhh... he's naughty," said Ann, shortly after being pushed on to the bed she was attempting to make by the old man she cares for. She said this with what sounded like genuine affection – difficult to believe given the wearisome juvenility of most of her charge's "jokes", but I think she really meant it. And it's quite likely that a lot of viewers will have shared her sense of fond indulgence, since the old man in question was Norman Wisdom, the subject of Lorraine Charker-Phillips's quietly lethal film about old age and self-absorption. This was, after all, how Wisdom got famous, and one of the things that had cemented the loyalty of Ann, originally the entertainer's PA and subsequently his full-time carer. At the age of 68, Ann had decided to care for herself a little and take a break from Wisdom's unremitting jocularity. Wonderland: the Secret Life of Norman Wisdom Aged 92 3/4 followed Wisdom's children as they tried to work out how best to care for their elderly father in her absence.
One of the oddities, even discomforts of the film was that Wisdom was beginning to have problems with his memory, a common enough plight but complicated here by the fact that his trademark schtick fades seamlessly into the disconnects of senility. A cluelessness that had once been carefully calculated now frequently looked as if it might be involuntary. He had to be reminded several times what the camera crew was doing in his house, for example, and yet he was never less than delighted to find them there, ready for another comic turn. And because he greeted the camera with a helpless, reflexive exhibitionism, you had the sense of a man embracing the instrument of his own humiliation. He couldn't tell any more what kind of exposure he was exposing himself too.
You can always turn off, of course, if you feel complicit in an intrusion, but it was made harder here by the film's subplot – the slow revelation of what it might do to you to grow up in the shadow of a lovable fool. Wisdom's children, for all their affection, weren't in any doubt about how demanding their father could be. "He is very self-obsessed," said his daughter Jaqui. "You've seen the size of that portrait on the Isle of Man... if that fell on someone... well, it could kill 10 people if it fell on them." You looked at the portrait again, Wisdom winking his face into a mask of hilarity, and it looked a little more sinister this time round. He didn't have a monopoly on self-obsession, though, because when it came time to decide who should move in to devote themselves to Norman's every whim, Jaqui announced that she wouldn't be eligible. Startlingly, she moved in with her brother, Nick, and her 11-year-old nephew Greg, while Nick's wife, Kim, left her husband and child in Sussex to go and live in the Isle of Man. Jaqui, who had a talent for representing her own desires as mere submission to force majeure, explained that she was too worried about her aged dog to submit him to an aircraft hold for even an hour. "I love him, I love Dad as well... but, you know, that is it at the end of the day, and the only people it does affect is Ann and Kim, and they said that's fine," she explained. Charker-Williams ruthlessly played her blithe self-justification over a shot of poor, motherless Greg doing his homework, his eyes widening as he realised that he didn't seem to count. Jaqui, tellingly, was the fiercest defendant of her father's wishes, having taken care to ensure that she was the least likely to be inconvenienced by them. Fortunately, everyone finally realised what viewers at home had been muttering at the screen from 10 minutes in: that Wisdom would actually love it in a care home for the elderly, where the audience is captive and you can tell the same gags time and time again.
The second series of the drama Torchwood started in a sprightly manner, with a large, crested alien screeching to a stop at a pelican crossing to let an old lady across. Shortly after he'd screeched off again, a black Range Rover pulled up: "Excuse me, have you seen a blowfish driving a sports car?" Old lady pointed and, watching the tail-lights of the Range Rover disappear in pursuit, muttered, "Bloody Torchwood!" Clearly, you get blasé about this sort of thing if you live on a rift in time and space. This episode concerned the upsetting arrival of Captain John, an old flame of Captain Jack's who didn't know whether to kiss him or hit him, so set about doing both. Captain Jack, meanwhile, was ignoring best-practice advice on romantic entanglements with workplace colleagues and flirting madly with an underling of each gender. It's pointless, but it's jauntily pointless, and may provide comfort for those who now find Spooks too implausible to be entertaining.
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