Norman Wisdom: chirpy comedian who charmed postwar Britain

5th October 2010, Comments 0 comments

The British comedian Norman Wisdom, who died on Monday aged 95, was best known for portraying the cheery cloth-capped "Gump", who provided an antidote to the bleak austerity of post-World War II Britain.

At his peak in the mid 1960s his films regularly outperformed the early James Bond productions, and Sir Charlie Chaplin called him "my favourite clown".

Born in London on February 4, 1915, to a chauffeur and a dressmaker who often worked for West End theatres, Wisdom started acting during his time as an army bandsman.

While performing a comedy boxing routine in an army gym, the young man discovered that he had a talent for entertainment, and began to work on it.

After a charity concert in a town hall during World War II, actor Rex Harrison came backstage and urged Wisdom to become a professional entertainer.

Leaving the army in 1946, Wisdom made his debut as a professional entertainer at the age of 31. His rise to the top was phenomenally fast.

As "the Gump" he adopted the suit that would remain his trademark: tweed flat cap askew, with peak turned up, a suit at least two sizes too tight, a crumpled collar and a mangled tie.

A West-End star within two years, he made his TV debut the same year and was soon commanding enormous audiences.

Wisdom made a series of low budget comedy films for the Rank Organisation, beginning in 1953 with "Trouble in Store", which also starred Margaret Rutherford as an audacious shoplifter.

Never highly thought of by the critics, the films were very popular with domestic audiences for their cheerfulness and unpretentiousness.

They usually involved "the Gump" character - or Norman Pitkin - in some manual occupation in which he is barely competent, and in a junior position to a straight man.

They benefited from Wisdom's capacity for physical slapstick comedy and his skill at creating a sense of the character's helplessness. The series often contained a romantic subplot, highlighting "the Gump's" awkwardness with women.

Despite a move to filming in colour, by the mid-1960s Wisdom's commercial appeal was declining.

He continued late in life playing in plays and in television series such as Britain's "the Last of the Summer Wine" and "Dalziel and Pascoe" and touring the world with his successful cabaret act.

He announced his retirement from the entertainment industry on his ninetieth birthday, saying he intended to spend more time with his family, playing golf and driving aroung the Isle of Man, where he lived later in life.

In 2007 he made an exceptional return to acting in a movie directed by Kevin Powis called "Expresso".

Although Wisdom's audience was mainly British, he became a cult icon in in communist Albania, where he was the only Western actor whose films were allowed during the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha.

Visiting the country in 2001, after the fall of communism, he was mobbed by fans and proved even more popular than football star David Beckham, who was there with the England team at the same time.

"They couldn't show sex or car crashes or bad language or anything like that under the old dictator. But apparently they loved my films. Well they were good films weren't they?" he said at the time.

Wisdom was married twice and had two children with his second wife, the late Freda Isobel Simpson, who was a dancer.

© 2010 AFP

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