The way I was: I didn't know my flats from my sharps: Norman Wisdom tells Nicholas Roe how the Army saved him from sleeping rough, taught him the trumpet and inspired his career as a comedian

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MY childhood? I tell you what, on only one occasion do I remember crying. That was when - it's going to be hard for me to bloody tell you this - when I signed on at Barry when I was 14 and they put me into a juvenile welfare for Christmas, a home for young boys.

It was good, and there were about 12 other boys there, but kind people had invited them all to spend the holiday in their homes and I arrived too late for that. So I sat down on Christmas Day and I had sausages and mash for dinner by myself, and I just sat there and cried. There you are, I was able to tell you that. A bloody awful experience that was.

A bit later I was sleeping rough in London and used to go to a coffee stall about 2.30 in the morning where the man would push me a hot pie and a cup of Bovril because he was sorry for me. Until eventually he said, 'Why don't you join the Army? You're 14, you can get into the band.'

I said, 'I don't know anything about music.'

He said, 'Well, bullshit 'em.'

So I went to the recruiting centre and the bandmaster said, 'You know all about music, do you?' and I said, 'Yes, Sir.'

He said, 'Well, what's a flat?'

'I don't know that one, Sir.'

He said, 'What's a sharp?'

'I don't know that one, Sir.'

He said, 'You don't know anything about music, do you?'

And I said, 'No, Sir, but I'd like a chance to learn.'

And he said, 'Why didn't you say so in the first place?'

Within a few weeks I was on my way to India, learning music in lovely sunshine. This picture was taken about a year later. It's me as a trumpeter with the 10th Royal Hussars, which is where I taught myself to dance and sing and got into a concert party, and it all started there, you see.

I remember doing a concert at the officers' mess and they began to laugh when I danced and I didn't know why, so I tripped deliberately and they laughed some more, so I fell over and they screamed . . . and as I sat on the floor I thought, Jesus, that's it, comedy. I was coming up for 17 by then and that was it.

The war broke out when we came back and I was too young to do bayonet-stabbing, so I was put into the Royal Signals but used to do shows around the hospitals. Then, when I was demobbed in '45, I went to the Collins Music Hall in Islington and asked to see the manager and said, 'I want to go on stage.'

He said, 'You don't stand a chance.'

But I became that man's shadow for three weeks. Even if he had a glass of beer in the bar, my head was under his elbow, until eventually he said, 'If I let you go on first house Monday and you're no good, will you promise to go away?'

I said, 'Fine with me,' and so I went on a week after that and stayed for the rest of the week.

On the Wednesday an agent came round to the dressing-room and asked if I was working the next week. I said no, and he booked me for the Portsmouth Coliseum.

On the Friday another agent came in and said, 'Are you booked next week?'

I said, 'Oh yes,' and he said, 'Well, I'd like to book you later,' and I said - I'll never forget it - I said, 'Well, I'll have a look in my diary . . .'

Bullshit. There's plenty of bullshit in showbusiness. You can use the word. I'm not rude normally.

Norman Wisdom's autobiography, 'Don't Laugh At Me', which has been written in collaboration with William Hall, was published this autumn by Century ( pounds 14.99 hardback).

(Photograph omitted)

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