Notebook: Our oddly unloved national treasure

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The Independent Online
THE ALHAMBRA, Dunfermline; the Palace, Rosyth; the Majestic, Inverkeithing. It was at one of these cinemas with their "full supporting programmes" that I first saw Norman Wisdom in his first film, Trouble in Store. Aged seven or eight, I thought he was sensational. I remember a lot of crockery-smashing and some dangerous business on roller-skates and, of course, the too-tight suit and the cap pulled sideways.

That was in the early Fifties. By the end of decade, in the snootiness of adolescence, I no longer found him funny. Come the Nineties, he was one of those people you were surprised to find still alive.

Sardonic newspaper features sometimes described his life in retirement on the Isle of Man; reports from Albania said he he was still immensely popular there; he received the Freedom of Tirana. That was pretty well all I knew.

Then, this summer in a rented house in Perthshire, I came across his autobiography. Like most ghosted books, it would win no prizes for literature, but the story it told was compelling. Many British comedians like to describe the time they have served in the school of hard knocks, but Wisdom's childhood was horrific - Dickens in the blacking factory had an easy time by comparison. Wisdom, born in west London in 1915, had a mother who ran away from a drunken father, who beat him up and then turfed him out of the house when he was nine. He left school at 14.

He ran away to sea. He slept rough on the streets of London. When he joined the Army as a boy bandsman he measured four foot ten and a half and weighed five stone nine pounds. And then, after establishing himself as Britain's most commercial film comic (he saved Rank's bacon), his own wife runs away and he comes home from the United States (where he was having renewed success) to look after the children.

He never remarried and now he is 83. By Alan Bennett's dictum, that anybody who lives long enough in this country eventually comes to be loved, he should be treasured. But is he? This weekend the Barbican Centre in London is showing a retrospective of Wisdom films in the star's presence and on Thursday I went along to the opening night, to see him interviewed on stage by that other old trooper, Nicholas Parsons.

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THERE WAS a party beforehand. I do not know what I expected. The gathering of a new cult, perhaps: a scattering of elderly comics, a few fashionable names, younger people who had "rediscovered" him, just as Arthur Askey and Max Wall had been rediscovered in the past. This was not what I found. The news-agency photographer sent to cover the event was melancholy. There were only a couple of dozen people in the room and the only identifiable one was the actress who plays the brassy blonde in Last of the Summer Wine.

The woman who was organising the event said they had invited some big names - Max Bygraves, Bob Monkhouse - but they had all sent their regrets for perfectly genuine reasons. A tape was switched on and the sound of "Don't Laugh at Me 'Cause I'm a Fool" filled the room as Wisdom came in and began to skip lightly among us.

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WHO WERE we? I thought I saw spotted his son, a man in a spectacular shining suit and string tie, a sort of country-and- western Wisdom, but this turned out to be Glenn M. Ford from Portsmouth, who for the past 18 years has made his living as a Norman Wisdom look-alike.

And then I began to talk to a man in a blazer who I thought must be his agent, but this turned out to be his former driver, who until last year had driven Wisdom and his party around provincial England for 10 weeks every year in a coach for the summer seaside season. After the show, he said, he would sometimes drive Norman alone in the coach for an hour or so, going nowhere in particular, so that the star could unwind; it was a haunting picture - small comic, empty coach, headlights flickering across the flatlands of Great Yarmouth and Skegness.

Everybody I met said much the same thing. Norman was not snobbish, he was not grand, and he was always the same on stage and off. Stuart Burge, who directed him in There Was a Crooked Man nearly 40 years ago, smiled when I asked him if he ever stepped out of character. No, he said, "he wanted to be well thought-of and he wanted to be rich".

Wisdom himself came up at this point and exemplified all that had been said. Burge was gently reminiscing about their film when Wisdom tweaked him on the nose, then looked at his hand in mock alarm and wiped his fingers in his sleeve, as if they had been smeared with snot. What do you do in this situation? Well, you have to laugh, although it might get to be tiresome after a while.

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WE WENT down in the lift to the cinema and, first, saw an old South Bank Show devoted to Wisdom's career. He has honed his biography to a series of anecdotes - books and interviews all contain the same ones, in the same sentences - but it was a good film and it contains one truly disturbing moment. Wisdom is remembering the time, somewhere about 1930, when he sails back from Argentina to Cardiff on his ship and goes to the boys' hostel where he had made some friends during a previous stay.

It is Christmas. All the other boys have gone home, Wisdom eats sausage and mash alone. Telling this, he begins to cry on camera. Then his features change and he grins. "I'm not really crying." He has been acting, and you have been manipulated. And that, despite Melvyn Bragg's perseverance with questions about his awful childhood, is as close as he gets to an admission of the consequences of its awfulness - its utility as an acting prop.

He did more theatrical crying when he took the stage with Parsons. He was taken into the Army, he said, because he had begun to cry (falsely, he said) at the interview - and here again he demonstrated his crumpling face and choking voice. He also did lots of other business. He sang unaccompanied, he danced, he marched, he did pratfalls.

For a man of 83, it was an astonishing performance. He is a fine actor (as his few films out of character demonstrate) and in the late Forties, when he was at the height of his music-hall career, he must have dazzled audiences with the range of his skills. He could play the flute, the clarinet, the saxophone, the trumpet, the xylophone and the piano. He could sing. He could tap-dance. He could box (a pre-war Army flyweight champion).

It is difficult to think that Britain has produced a better physical comedian. The sadness may be that his film career, which he started late, when he was 38, obscured all this talent under the shade of characterisation: the stupid Norman Pipkin and his glutinous appeal to our primitive sense of what is funny and what is sad.

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I DID not stay after the interval and so missed a film of his 1961 performance with Bruce Forsyth for Sunday Night at the London Palladium. The two of them filled the entire hour because Equity was on strike. I can remember the wallpaper sketch, which he devised when he was still a music-hall turn, and did not want to puncture my fondness for it.

Nicholas Parsons, at the close of their conversation, called him "a national treasure". Perhaps he is. A few people at his party thought it a shame that he has not got a knighthood to add to his OBE. But I doubt that he can ever be fashionable. He is a remarkable piece of self-preservation and self-invention. Had he known love or even comfort all those years ago, he might never have existed in this larger sense.

As it is, his stage character seems to have eaten him up and spat nothing out. Defiantly, tiresomely, he insists on being artificially loveable. A moment of genuine tears - such is the age - might restore our childish affection, but that seems beyond him. Introspection, "moping", therapy - these would not have made him what he became. He said on stage that he owed the Army everything and that was his one statement I utterly believed. Chin up and forward march.

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