Sunday, August 21, 2011

Norman Wisdom - The Bulldog Breed

Norman Wisdom, British Cinema, Comedy

I have always looked back with huge fondness to my childhood holidays on the Isle of Man. I remember seeing Jaws, Live And Let Die, The Island On Top Of The World and Orca - Killer Whale in the cinema there at the time. Also the professional wrestling at the Villa Marina and the most politically incorrect waxworks in history. More than anything else though I remember the sheer numbers of people who were holidaying in July and August. From the Fifties right through to the late Seventies it was a hugely popular destination for people from all over the British Isles and, in the older days, with certain cities predominating the makeup of visitors depending on the summer week that the factories traditionally shut down.

In general though the island has always maintained a low profile - even the horrific Summerland disaster of 1973 which left 50 people dead is barely referenced let alone mentioned these days. The Isle of Man is probably most famous for its retention of corporal punishment by birching up to 1976, its tax haven status and as being the home of Norman Wisdom for the latter period of his life.

Wisdom - comedian of choice for Charlie Chaplin and the people of Albania - appeared in around twenty feature films during his career. The movies themselves have naturally dated but the sheer talent of the man cannot be doubted right from the Class War classic Trouble In Store of 1953 to the final What's Good For The Goose in 1969 where Norman the banker leaves his dreary life of suburban hell with his frigid wife to hook up with teenage hippy girls and dance along to The Pretty Things at the Screaming Apple Club in groovy Southport.

1954's One Good Turn contains punk anarchy on the Brighton train which predates The Ramones' first album by 22 years and Jimmy the Mod in the Quadrophenia movie by a quarter of a century. The scene in The Early Bird where he eats an apple spiked with drugs and begins to hallucinate is one of the truly classic moments of British comedy to rate with Harold Steptoe berating his elderly father for using such words as "rape", "vibrators", "spunk" "cock", "nipple" and "bristols" in an innocent family game of Scrabble up Oil Drum Lane. Steptoe Senior's commentary on the changing face of London in the October 1965 episode Crossed Swords may well not see the light of day in broadcasting compliance terms ever again.

Norman Wisdom's 1992 autobiograpy My Turn is an often extraordinary read with regard to the poverty of his London upbringing, brutal beatings from his father, walking to Wales to look for a job down a mine and spending Christmas Day alone and unloved as a 14-year-old in a boy's hostel.

Alike with George Best, the public tributes on various websites following his death were of blanket affection. One gentleman noted that his movies were the solitary moments of happiness in a childhood destroyed by sexual abuse at the hands of his father. Likewise that Norman's valiant character who always stood up to the snobs, managers, bullies and general wankers of this world inspired him on to a successful career in the Royal Navy. This was certainly not the only comment of its nature from people remembering unhappy childhoods that he managed to brighten up for an hour and a half.

Norman Wisdom was not dissimilar to Ulster's James Young in his rare ability to blend pathos with quick-witted and fast-paced humour. They had a talent that was utterly unique and crossed the generations in terms of appeal. Likewise they came from a time and place - and an industrial world grounded on brutal life practicalities  - that now seems to have been obliterated down to the last physical and metaphorical atom.

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