Thursday, 7 October 2010

RIP Norman

Norman Wisdom: Frighteningly talented man

We all knew it had to happen sometime, but I for one am feeling very sad about the loss of Sir Norman Wisdom; after a childhood (and beyond) spent enjoying his antics on celluloid, the world feels a little colder without his raucous cries of "Mr Grimsdale!"

Oddly, his celebrity hasn't quite reached many of my peers. It's not "cool" to like him, the way it might be to profess undying fandom to Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. (Actually, in some circles it's not cool to like anything made before 1970, but let’s face it, those people are deeply weird.)

Somehow Norman's comic genius has gone unnoticed – maybe because he made it look so effortless. We all just assumed he really WAS that little chap with the too-small suit and wonky cap. The truth is, he was one of those annoying people who are fantastic at everything they try. (He became adept at singing, dancing, acting, and seven or eight musical instruments.) It's not surprising that he managed to work his way up to superstardom from a seriously impoverished background and miserable childhood (the perfect example of a disadvantaged background not always resulting in a miserable bugger of an adult).

Like all comedic actors, he was beloved by the public and unappreciated by critics, his skills only gaining recognition when he tried his hand at drama in later years. The funny thing is, he had ALWAYS been a consummately professional actor. Whether he was playing a pathos-inducing underdog, a camp Italian hairdresser, a confident businessman, or a victim of hypnosis who believes himself to be a toddler, he was never anything but completely convincing. He also did his own (unbelievable) stunts such as speeding down the stairs on a wheelchair, bursting through a wall and landing on a speeding ambulance – before being shot off the roof and
back into hospital via a window.

Charlie Chaplin described him as his favourite comedian. Jerry Lewis, the Hollywood-ised version of Norman, appears to be a pale imitation (in my humble opinion) and he “borrowed” some of Norman’s repertoire. (He did! He did!) You can also see Norm's influence in nail-biting physical comedy such as Some Mothers Do 'Ave Em, in which Michael Crawford’s famous roller-skating scene echoed a similar set up from Trouble in Store (Norm's first major film). Norman had actually turned down the Frank Spencer role because the humour was too lavatorial for his squeaky-clean image.

As well as being at the top of his game professionally, it seems that Mr Wisdom was simply a very lovely man. When his wife left him for another suitor, he left the USA and returned to England to take care of his children, thus missing out on numerous work opportunities. In his later years he retired to the Isle of Man, but voluntarily paid the full English tax rate.

In short, there are comedians courting fame now who aren't fit to lick his boots. (Oh Frankie Boyle, when the name of your show involves a threat to punch people in the face, one can only assume it is a pre-emptive strike. I know of few things that would be so satisfying and irresistible for me, you unfunny cretin.)

Unlike those who reek of desperation and whose only hope for publicity is shock value, Mr Wisdom had the ability to cause tears of laughter with his facial expressions alone. He also had an element of unpredictability that makes you wonder if his manager often woke up in cold sweats; he had a particular penchant for jumping out at members of the royal family to surprise them. There are not many people who have both the opportunity and the inclination to be so cheeky, or ever so slightly bonkers.

Sir Norman, we salute you.

No comments:

Post a Comment