Pitkin: The Life and Films of Norman Wisdom
by Eamonn McCusker.
Norman Wisdom was born in February 1915 into a family that fell apart when he was nine. His father was violent and abusive and when his mother left in 1924, Norman and his brother were left in charge of the family but after being thrown out of their home, were placed into care. His father remarried but Norman was never accepted back into his life and at the age of thirteen, Norman and a friend walked from London to Cardiff to get a job down the mines. From then until joining the army a year later, Norman Wisdom worked in a variety of jobs including stints as a waiter, an errand boy and a cabin-boy but with the army he started his life as an entertainer, learning to dance, play a variety of instruments and develop the physical comedy with which he would later become famous.
After leaving the army in 1946 and aged thirty-one, Norman Wisdom started his life as a professional entertainer, appearing in variety shows throughout Britain. It was during this time that he developed his trademark character – a well-meaning but incompetent clown wearing a tweed cap with a turned-up peak, an ill-fitting jacket and a pair of trousers just an inch too short. The crowds throughout the country and particularly in the West End wouldn’t get enough of him and, with a ready-made audience, Rank contracted him for a series of films starting in 1953 with Trouble In Store.
Rank tried to ensure Trouble In Store was as close as they could get to a guaranteed success by enlisting Norman Wisdom’s regular straight-man (Jerry Desmonde), a beautiful leading lady (Lana Morris) and a comedy equal (Margaret Rutherford) and when the film subsequently became a box-office hit, Rank ensured that Wisdom produce a comedy at the rate of one a year, at least until the end of the decade. With his regular character now named Norman Pitkin and often accompanied by the officious Mr. Grimsdale (Edward Chapman), each Norman Wisdom comedy was very loosely based on the template established by Trouble In Store, with Pitkin (or equivalent) attempting to find love, impress his superiors and become a success in his chosen field but through his own incompetence, always managing to blow what chance he had.
The Early Bird Norman Wisdom stuck to black and white for as long as possible but eventually moved across to filming in colour in 1966 for The Early Bird but by then the public had tired of his comedy and the film offers soon stopped coming.
It has long been a popular claim of bands that no matter how close to the dumper they are positioned, they are still big in Japan. So Norman Wisdom, not so popular in Britain in the late-60s, was finding fame behind the Iron Curtain in Albania. During the many years of Communist rule, Albania was ruled by King Zog and Stalinist dictator, Enver Hoxha, a man who dismissed a cabinet minister by simply shooting him dead. Hoxha, however, decreed that the films of Norman Wisdom were the type of films that would best entertain his people as well as providing them with a socialist parable on the plight of the proletariat and their fight against the aristocracy. In Hoxha’s view, Norman Pitkin was a representative of the workers, struggling against capitalism, which was embodied by the characters played by Jerry Desmonde and Edward Chapman including the pompous Mr. Grimsdale.
How successful this was as unknown but the Albanians grew to love Norman Wisdom’s slapstick and following the fall of Communism, Norman Wisdom (commonly known only as Pitkin) became increasingly involved in charity work in Albania, particularly in raising money for orphanages there. Indeed, such is his celebrity status there that on one recent visit, which coincided with a visit to Tirana by the English football team, Pitkin made an appearance within the stadium as the team were in training. Oblivious to the football stars around him, the crowd cheered and laughed as Pitkins tripped himself up, posed for photographs and shouted, "Mr. Grimsdale!".
In 1995, Norman Wisdom received an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list and a Knighthood in 2000, failing to halt his career. He has since appeared in Last Of The Summer Wine, Casualty and makes regular chat show appearances, even at the age of eighty-eight. Age has not stopped his charity work and he is still involved with Mencap on his adopted home of the Isle Of Man.
Copyright © 2003 by Eamonn McCusker. Article reproduced courtesy of DVD Times.