Norman Wisdom: Goodnight, sweet fool


Don your black cloth caps, gentlemen, for yesterday Norman Wisdom was taken from us.

In truth, he had been lost to us for some time, trapped in the embrace of that skulking coward Alzheimer's. His last few years were spent in a nursing home on his beloved Isle of Man where, it is said, he would watch his old movies but no longer recognise himself in them. (He did still enjoy them, though - which restores the smile somewhat.)

Lest it need be said: Norman was a great screen clown, though I'll admit that the films themselves were often self-destructively undisciplined. Had he been around in the thirties I think it would have been a very different story. In the fifties and sixties the film world had simply forgotten how to do this sort of thing, and as with the Martin and Lewis films, the talent is there but the handling is wrong.
American readers, I fear, will hardly recognise the name though in his day he packed out Broadway, and received an oscar nomination for The Night They Raided Minsky's. In Britain he was loved by nobody but the public, who adored him, spurring the critics on to greater and greater levels of invective and dismissal.
He was easy to resent: they hated especially the gear changes in his work, between slapstick clown, whose physical idiocy was perfectly matched by a vast repertoire of ear-splitting shrieks, and sentimental balladeer, prone to sudden bursts of inky sincerity in self-penned serenades to romantic or social failure, delivered in an almost parodyingly pitch-perfect croon. It was obvious, too, that both personae were equally unreal, and that a third Norman lay behind: a steely professional, enormously ambitious and enormously sure of himself.
His fans, especially children, saw or cared for none of this, however. They were just delighted to be able to go to the pictures and enjoy the continuing adventures of the greatest British screen imbecile since George Formby, and there is no reason to think that Chaplin and Stan Laurel were not entirely sincere in their praise of him. He was brilliant at what he did.

His screen character is the familiar, Formbyesque little man, trying to make something of himself and enduring numerous setbacks before triumphing, and falling somewhat improbably into the arms of the perky leading lady, at fade-out. His funniest trait, and the one with the strongest claim to being uniquely his, is his exaggerated obtuseness in the face of impending embarrassment, exacerbated by his complete inability to recognise class signals or signs of frustration in others. Relentlessly proletariat and crass, yet oblivious of the class system, he assumes instant and extreme familiarity with everyone he encounters. Classic examples include his mistaking his new boss for a fellow employee in Trouble In Store and encouraging him to raid his own drinks cabinet and help himself to his own cigars while Norman inanely keeps watch, the excruciating train journey in One Good Turn where he simply will not take the hint that his upper middle class fellow passengers do not want to help pass the time with a sing-song, or are likely to be amused by his belching, and the wonderful sequence in Up In The World when, as the new window cleaner at a stately home, he mistakes one of m'lady's soirees for the staff canteen, hands out pieces of cake to the distinguished guests and finishes with a raucous drum solo.

Unfortunately, as his fans aged with him, new generations did not take on the mantle of adoration, and so critics were not forced into reassessment as they were with the Carry On films. Though the man himself had been grudgingly afforded British institution status many years back, no effort has been made to reappraise, or even distinguish between the films.
The tendency to view all of his films as one big indivisible lump is shared as much by their fans as their detractors. Even Wisdom himself, when I asked him what his own favourites were, tended to rank them more in terms of the memories they evoked, or their relative box-office performance (though in truth, virtually all of them were copper-bottomed smash hits). When I offered Up In The World as my personal choice, he asked - many, many years before the onset of his memory problems - "was that the one where I drive a little toy car?" (Nope - that was the much inferior, excessively sentimental One Good Turn.)

Most of his films have something to make them worth watching, but clear distinctions can certainly be made. Up In The World was a key film of my teenage that I have watched many, many times for largely incidental reasons, but I still think it the best. Trouble In Store, his first, is not far behind.
As his career progressed, his ambition became more and more counterproductive, and many of the later films are hobbled by unhelpful evidences of it: overlength, multiple characterisations, unwise attempts at seriousness or variation.
But there's not much wrong with Just My Luck or Man of the Moment or The Bulldog Breed or The Square Peg - and it's difficult to come away from viewing any of them without some respect for the sheer energy of the man, and the infectious desire to please..
It will be interesting to see what tone the obituaries take on the films, and whether his death will have any effect at all on their standing. They deserve a fresh look, perhaps even an NFT retrospective would not be inappropriate. His reputation will, I feel certain, grow, if not among the public then surely among the custodians of such things.
If you have children, show them one of his films tonight. I suspect his tricks will still work. You may find yourself enjoying them too.