Norman Wisdom

Sir Norman Wisdom

Norman Wisdom, Peel, Isle of Man, 2005
Birth name Norman Joseph Wisdom[1]
Born (1915-02-04)4 February 1915
Marylebone, London, England
Died 4 October 2010(2010-10-04) (aged 95)
Ballasalla, Isle of Man
Medium Comedian, actor, singer-songwriter
Years active 1948–2005, 2007–08
Spouse Doreen Brett (1941–46, divorced)
Freda Simpson (1947–68, divorced)

Military career

Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch Merchant Navy
British Army
Years of service 1930–46
Unit 10th Royal Hussars
Royal Corps of Signals
Battles/wars World War II

Sir Norman Joseph Wisdom,[1] OBE[2] (4 February 1915 – 4 October 2010) was an English actor, comedian, and singer-songwriter best known for a series of comedy films produced between 1953 and 1966 featuring his hapless onscreen character Norman Pitkin.[3] Wisdom gained celebrity status in lands as far apart as South America, Iran and many Eastern Bloc countries, particularly in Albania where his films were the only ones by Western actors permitted by dictator Enver Hoxha to be shown.[4] Charlie Chaplin once referred to Wisdom as his "favourite clown".[5]

Wisdom later forged a career on Broadway in New York and as a television actor, winning critical acclaim for his dramatic role of a dying cancer patient in the television play Going Gently in 1981. He toured Australia and South Africa.[3] After the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, a hospice was named in his honour.[4] In 1995 he was given the Freedom of the City of London and of Tirana.[4] The same year he received an OBE.[4]

Wisdom was knighted in 2000 and spent much of his later life on the Isle of Man. His later appearances included roles in Last of the Summer Wine and Coronation Street,[4] and he retired from acting at the age of 90 after his health deteriorated. He died on 4 October 2010, at age 95.

Early life

Norman Joseph Wisdom was born in the Marylebone district of London. His parents were Frederick, a chauffeur, and Maud Wisdom (née Targett), a dressmaker who often worked for West End theatres, and had made a dress for Queen Mary.[6] The couple married in Marylebone on 15 July 1912.[7] Wisdom had an elder brother, Frederick Thomas "Fred" Wisdom (13 December 1912 – 1 July 1971).

The family lived at 91 Fernhead Road, Maida Vale, London W9, where they slept in one room.[8] Wisdom quipped, "I was born in very sorry circumstances. Both of my parents were very sorry."[9] He and his brother were raised in extreme poverty and were frequently hit by their father.[10]

After a period in a children's home in Deal, Kent, Wisdom ran away when he was 11 but returned to become an errand boy in a grocer's shop on leaving school at 13. Having been kicked out of his home by his father and become homeless,[10] in 1929 he walked (by his own account) to Cardiff, Wales, where he became a cabin boy in the Merchant Navy. He later also worked as a coal miner, waiter and page boy.

Armed forces

Wisdom first enlisted into the King's Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster), but his mother had him discharged as he was under age. He later re-enlisted as a drummer boy in the 10th Royal Hussars of the British Army. In 1930 he was posted to Lucknow, in the United Provinces of British India, as a bandsman. There he gained an education certificate, rode horses, became the flyweight boxing champion of the British Army in India[4] and learned to play the trumpet and clarinet.[8]

Second World War

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Wisdom was sent to work in a communications centre in a command bunker in London, where he connected telephone calls from war leaders to the prime minister. He met Winston Churchill on several occasions when asked for updates on incoming calls,[8] Wisdom then joined the Royal Corps of Signals, and performed a similar military function at the unit headquarters in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.

Early career

Whilst performing a shadow boxing routine in the army gym, Wisdom discovered he had a talent for entertainment,[11] and began to develop his skills as a musician and stage entertainer.[5] In 1940 aged 25, at a NAAFI entertainment night, during a dance routine, Wisdom stepped down from his position in the orchestra pit, and started shadow boxing. Hearing his colleagues and officers giggling, he broke into a duck waddle, followed by a series of facial expressions:[12]

They were in hysterics. All the officers were falling about laughing.

Wisdom later said this was where he first patented his persona as "The Successful Failure".[12] Over the next few years, until he was demobilized in 1945, his routine included his characteristic singing and the trip-up-and-stumble. After Wisdom appeared at a charity concert at Cheltenham Town Hall, actor Rex Harrison came backstage and urged him to become a professional entertainer.[13]


After being demobilised in 1946, he worked as a private hire car driver. Having improved his diction in the army, he also took a job as a night telephone operator.[8]

Wisdom made his debut as a professional entertainer at the age of 31; his rise to the top was phenomenally fast. Initially the straight man to the magician David Nixon,[5] he had already adopted the costume 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. The character that went with this costume—known as "the Gump"— was to dominate Wisdom's film career. A West End theatre star within two years, he honed his performance skills mainly between theatres in London and Brighton:[12]

I spent virtually all of those years on the road. You could keep incredibly busy just performing in pantomimes and revues. There was a whole generation of performers who learned everything on the stage.

Wisdom made his TV debut the same year and was soon commanding enormous audiences.

Film career

Norman Wisdom promoting the movie The Early Bird (1965)

Wisdom made a series of low-budget star-vehicle comedies for the Rank Organisation, beginning with Trouble in Store in 1953.[14] This film earned him a BAFTA Award for Most Promising Newcomer to Film in 1954[15] and exhibitors voted him the tenth biggest star at the British box office the same year.[16] His films' cheerful, unpretentious appeal make them the direct descendants of those made a generation earlier by George Formby.[17] Never highly thought of by the critics, they were very popular with domestic audiences and Wisdom's films were among Britain's biggest box office successes of their day. They were also successful in some unlikely overseas markets, helping Rank stay afloat financially when their more expensive film projects were unsuccessful.

The films usually involved the Gump character, Norman Pitkin, in a manual occupation in which he is barely competent and in a junior position to a straight man, often played by Edward Chapman (as Mr Grimsdale) or Jerry Desmonde. 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; the Gump's inevitable awkwardness with women is a characteristic shared with the earlier Formby vehicles. His innocent incompetence still made him endearing to the heroine.

Later career

Norman Wisdom demonstrating a typical expression (1965)

In 1966, Wisdom went to the United States to star in a Broadway production of the Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn musical comedy Walking Happy. His performance was nominated for a Tony Award.

On 31 December 1976, Wisdom performed his theme song "Don't Laugh at Me ('cause I'm a Fool)" on BBC1's A Jubilee of Music, celebrating British pop music for Queen Elizabeth II's impending Silver Jubilee.[18] Wisdom had performed in front of the Queen at many Royal Command Performances, the first being in 1952.[19]

He also completed his first American film as a vaudeville comic in The Night They Raided Minsky's. After a typical performance on The Ed Sullivan Show,[5] further US opportunities were denied him when he had to return to London after his second wife left him. His subsequent career was largely confined to television, and he toured the world with a successful cabaret act. He won critical acclaim in 1981 for his dramatic role of a dying cancer patient in the television play Going Gently.

Wisdom became prominent again in the 1990s, helped by the young comedian Lee Evans, whose act was often compared to Wisdom's work.[20] His classic Rank films were playing to new audiences on television screens and DVD, with a growing number of new young fans in the United Kingdom and abroad. The high point of this new popularity was the knighthood he was awarded, for services to entertainment, in the 2000 New Year's honours list.[21] During the ceremony, once he had received his knighthood, he walked away and again performed his trademark trip, at which the Queen smiled and laughed.[22]

From 1995 until 2004 he appeared in the recurring role of Billy Ingleton in the long-running BBC comedy Last of the Summer Wine. The role was originally a one-off appearance, but proved so popular that he returned as the character on a number of occasions. In 1996, he received a Special Achievement Award from the London Film Critics.[23]

Wisdom was a guest on a This Is Your Life special in the year 2000 for actor and director Todd Carty. He appeared as a half-time guest at the England vs Albania 2002 World Cup qualifier at St James' Park, Newcastle upon Tyne, and scored a penalty at the Leazes End.[24]

In 2002 Wisdom filmed a cameo role as a butler in a low-budget horror film. In 2004, he made an appearance on Coronation Street, playing fitness fanatic pensioner Ernie Crabbe. In 2007 he came out of retirement to take a role in a short film called Expresso.[25]

Popularity in Albania

Wisdom was a cult figure in Albania, where he was one of the few Western actors whose films were allowed in the country during the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. From Hoxha's misconceived view, proletarian Norman's ultimately victorious struggles against capitalism, personified by Mr Grimsdale and the effete aristocratic characters played by Jerry Desmonde, were a Communist parable on the class war. He was known as "Mr Pitkin" after the character from his films. In 1995, he visited the post-Stalinist country where, to his surprise, he was greeted by many appreciative fans, including the then President, Sali Berisha. During this trip, Wisdom was filmed by Newsnight as he visited a children's project funded by ChildHope UK.[26]

On a visit in 2001, which coincided with the England football team playing Albania in the city of Tirana,[27] his appearance at the training ground overshadowed that of David Beckham. He appeared on the pitch before the start of the Albania v England match wearing a half-Albanian and half-English football shirt. He was well received by the crowd, especially when he performed one of his trademark trips on his way out to the centre circle.[28] Wisdom was made an honorary citizen of Tirana.[29]

In his book and TV series One Hit Wonderland, Tony Hawks united with Wisdom and, along with Tim Rice, released a single, "Big in Albania", in an attempt to enter the Albanian pop charts. It reached Number 18 on the Top Albania Radio chart.[30]


Whilst Norman's stage performances often involved musical numbers, he wrote few of them. He has seven songs attributed to him in the ASCAP database, which were: "Beware", "Don't Laugh at Me ('cause I'm a Fool)", "Falling in Love", "Follow a Star", "I Love You", "Please Opportunity", and "Up in the World".[31]


Wisdom announced his retirement from the entertainment industry on his 90th birthday (4 February 2005). He announced that he intended to spend more time with his family, playing golf and driving around the Isle of Man, where he was living.[32]

In 2007, Wisdom returned to acting in a feature film directed by Kevin Powis, Expresso. The film, which Wisdom later announced (reported BBC/ITV News) was to be officially his last film role, is set during one day in a coffee shop and was funded by the UK Film Council and ScreenWM. Shot in January, it premièred at the Cannes Film Festival on 27 May 2007. It was later adopted by the UK charity Macmillan and released on DVD in aid of the charity. In the film Wisdom plays a vicar plagued by a fly in a café. Producer Nigel Martin Davey gave him only a visual role so that he would not have to remember any lines, but on the day Wisdom was alert and had his performance changed to add more laughs.[33]

Personal life

Wisdom was married twice. His first wife was Doreen Brett, whom he married in 1941. By 1944 they had separated when Doreen gave birth to a son, Michael (born 1944), fathered by Albert Gerald Hardwick, a telephone engineer.[34] The marriage was dissolved in 1946.[35]

He married his second wife, Freda Isobel Simpson, a dancer, in 1947; they had two children: Nicholas (born 1953, who later played first-class cricket for Sussex) and Jacqueline (born 1954). The couple divorced in 1969,[4] with Wisdom granted full custody of the children.[36] Freda Wisdom died in Brighton in 1992.[37]

Popular in the Isle of Man, he lived for 27 years in a house in Andreas named Ballalough (Manx language for "place of the lake", though really a humorous corruption of the English "belly laugh"). A supporter of various charities including Mencap, in 2005 Wisdom starred in a video for the Manx girl group Twisted Angels, for their single "LA", in support of the local charity Project 21.[38]

During the 1960s he was involved in a famous legal case (Wisdom v Chamberlain, 1968) in which he was pursued by the Inland Revenue for tax on profits made from the sale of silver bullion he had bought when concerned about the further devaluation of sterling. He contended that it was an investment, but the court held that it had been a trading venture and was duly chargeable to income tax.[39]


Wisdom was a lifelong supporter and a former board member of football team Brighton and Hove Albion. He also liked Everton and Newcastle United.[40] He enjoyed golf,[32] and was a member of the Grand Order of Water Rats. He was a Honorary Member of the Winkle Club, a famous charity in Hastings, East Sussex.[41]

A lover of cars, his collection included a 1956 Bentley S1 Continental R Type fastback, which he first bought in 1961, and then again in the late 1980s.[42] In 1969 he purchased, after the divorce from Freda Isobel Simpson, a Shelby Cobra 427, CSX3206, in New York, which he kept until 1986, when it was sold to another car enthusiast in Brighton, UK. Until his age and declining mental health meant he failed a Department of Transport fitness-to-drive test, he owned and drove a 1987 Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit and a Jaguar S-Type, which were sold in September 2005.

In 1963, he commissioned D. J. (Rick) Richardson to design a new motor yacht. The 94 feet (29 m) long hull and superstructure were built in Spain for £80,000, before being towed to Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex for fitting-out. After three years of extensive works and sea trials, she was named M/Y Conquest and valued at £1.25 million by insurers.[12] One of the first private yachts available for charter at £6,000 a month, she was later based in ports on the Mediterranean Sea, and finally at Port Vauban, Antibes, where Wisdom sold her. Refitted and recommissioned, she is again available for charter.[43]

Health decline

In mid-2006, after he suffered an irregular heart rhythm, Wisdom was flown by helicopter to hospital in Liverpool and was fitted with a heart pacemaker.[44]

In August 2007, newspapers of the Daily Mail group and the Isle of Man Newspapers reported that Wisdom was in the Abbotswood nursing home in Ballasalla, where he had been resident from 12 July 2007.[45]

On the release of Expresso to DVD in the same month, BBC News confirmed that Wisdom lived in a care home, because of his suffering from vascular dementia.[33] It was also reported that he had granted his children power of attorney over his affairs and having sold off his flat in Epsom, Surrey, they were now in the process of selling his Isle of Man home to raise money to fund his longer term care.[46]

In an exclusive interview on 27 August 2007 with the News of the World, journalists were given access to Wisdom's room at the home. He claimed to be happy and content in a routine which his family and carers considered kept him safe in spite of the memory losses associated with his condition.[47]

On 16 January 2008,[48] BBC2 aired Wonderland: The Secret Life Of Norman Wisdom Aged 92 and 3/4.[49] The documentary highlighted the dilemma of coping with an ageing parent. His family said that Wisdom's memory loss had become so severe that he no longer recognised himself in his films.[50]


In the six months prior to his death, Wisdom suffered a series of strokes, causing a decline in his physical and mental health. He died on 4 October 2010 at Abbotswood nursing home on the Isle of Man at the age of 95.[51]

According to his publicist, Phil Day, "I have never met anyone in the profession who didn't like him, right up to royalty".[52]

His funeral took place on 22 October 2010 in Douglas, Isle of Man, and all of the island were invited.[53][54] His trademark cloth cap was placed on the coffin in the church.[54] The funeral was attended by a large number of showbusiness personalities and, at Wisdom's request, Moira Anderson sang "Who Can I Turn To,"[54] which was specially arranged for the occasion by Gordon Cree.[55]

Tributes and other references


Box office ranking

For a number of years British exhibitors voted Wisdom one of the most popular stars in the country.

Audio recordings



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