Sir Norman Wisdom

Clowning Around

Norman Wisdom has been making people laugh for years. Let's face it, he only has to walk on stage and even the most unsmiling, insipid, mirthless members of an audience will be reduced to a gibbering, steaming ball of hilarity in the time it takes to shout "Mr.Grimsdale"!

It was an entertaining evening when Nick and I went to interview the diminutive mirth maker at Leicester's De Montfort Hall, not least because the editor was suffering from an attack of the wobblies in anticipation of meeting one of the great legends of comedy. God only knows how long he spent on the bog beforehand. Then when we get there, we are informed that the whole thing is being filmed by BBC Northwest to go out sometime at the beginning of March! Oddly enough, this seemed to calm the 'ed' down, and this was the resulting conversation:

NJ: Mumble mumble mumble. Mumble mumble.

NW Ay?? I'm not mutton, but come on!

NJ: Erm...As a boy coming from such a hard background, how is it that you've managed to keep smiling, becoming the man you are today?

NW: Because I've been very lucky, and I've got away with it. Yes, I had a tough childhood. I was born in very sorry circumstances. Both of my parents were VERY sorry. I was born in London, and went to school in Scotland - I used to be dead tired when I got home at night. But no, I've just been very lucky. But I've worked hard, and the harder you work, the luckier you seem to get.

T: Having read your autobiography, "'Cos I'm A Fool", it's very apparent that you're a big sports fan. So, if Sir Norman Wisdom, or Norman Pitkin was in charge of Leicester City Football Club, how would he attempt to pull them out of their current predicament?

NW: Well, easy enough I suppose, if I knew what their predicament was...

T: They're bottom of the premiership.

NW: Are they? Ah well, I think that, erm, I think, er..I don’t know! What would you do? I can't help you! I'd be useless, I think I'd tell them to pack up straight away!

NJ: Who would you say has had the biggest influence on your career?

NW: That would be a gentleman called Billy Marsh, who sadly is no longer with us, but he was the agent who chose me. He came to me after I'd done a charity show at Victoria Palace and he was the one who took me under his wing in the early days. I suppose he was the one who put me where I am today.

NJ: Would you say he was your mentor?

NW: What? Would I say he was MENTAL??

NJ: Er...your...mentor?

NW: Oh. Yes, I suppose you could say that. We went through a lot of things together, and he was always so loyal to me. He got me a lot of work, I went all around the world with him and he always had a sense of humour. He became a really good friend to me over the years and was so much more than just an agent. I repaid his loyalty in the early days when I'd only been with him a couple of weeks. Val Parnell, the top man in the administration of showbusiness at that time had sent for me. I was very flattered when he told me he wanted to make me a star and put me on at the London Palladium, but then he told me I would have to sign for an agent of his own choosing. I knew I couldn't just brush Billy aside like that after a fortnight, so I declined. I think Billy appreciated that and he more than repaid the loyalty I showed him.

T: More recently, you gave a heart rending performance as a cancer victim for a BBC Playhouse production called "Going Gently". How did you prepare for such a role and what did you make of the experience?

NW: That wasn’t recently. That was years ago now. I remember going to lunch with Innes Lloyd, who was the one who had approached Billy about me playing the part, and Stephen Frears. Afterwards, Stephen asked me to come to his office to talk some more about it. He told me that there was to be absolutely no humour whatsoever in the play. I got the impression that he didn't think I was up to the task, so I said "Oh I knew you'd say that, but what if, for instance, when I get up, I catch my hospital gown on a bed spring, and as it pulls me back I get my foot caught in the chamberpot? Now THAT would be funny wouldn't it?" Anyway, by now I could see the steam coming out of his ears as he told me bluntly that this was a serious production and there was to be NO humour at all. So I stood up and I said...and I'm afraid at this point I used a profanity…do you mind if I use it now?

T: Go ahead.

NW: I yelled "What the bloody hell did you send for me for then? I don't have time to be messed about with the likes of you, wasting my time you know." Stephen looked shocked and asked me to calm down, still taken aback at my outburst. So I replied with a smirk on my face "I already AM calm - but how was THAT for acting?" After that he took my point and we went ahead with it. It was a wonderful production.

NJ: Do you think you could attempt to describe your audience?

NW: My what? My audience? Well if I was going to describe my audience, it's going to take longer than you'd ever expect, hundreds of years in fact, because there's many of them, all over the world. I'm a lucky little devil you see. There are people who like just ordinary comedy fun, and making mistakes - which I do easily - and then there are people who like the falling over. It's a difficult question you've asked, and I think if you asked them, they wouldn't be able to answer it. Then we'd all be in trouble.

T: Why do you refer to your time in the army as the happiest time of your life?

NW: Because, before I joined, when I was only fourteen, I'd been sleeping rough and I was starving. I had nowhere to sleep, my parents had divorced and left home, and I had nowhere to live. I was all by myself for a long time. Then I was sleeping behind the Victoria Station. I used to get up at one thirty in the morning and go to a coffee stall which was just over the road. I used to just go and look over the counter, and the owner started to ask me questions, and was sorry for me, so he would push me a hot pie and a cup of Bovril. That went on for about 8 or 9 nights and then he said to me "Why don't you join the army?"  I said "I can't get into the army at my size, and anyway I'm only fourteen". Then he told me they took boys of my age in the army band, so I said "But I don't know anything about music" and he said "Well bluff 'em then!"
So I went to Scotland Yard, and after the guard had let me sleep in the garden overnight I went for a medical. I was four feet ten and a half inches. I'm now four feet ten and three quarters!  I had an interview with the bandleader in Whitehall in the afternoon. He asked me to explain what a sharp was, so I said "I'm sorry Sir I haven't come across that one", so he asked me to explain what a flat was. I said the same thing. Eventually he said "You don't know anything at all about music do you?" and I knew he was going to tell me to get out and forget it, so Iturned to him on the way out and I put on the best act I ever did in my life, whether it be the London Palladium, or films, or whatever, and I put on this pathetic, pleading voice and said: "No Sir. I'm sorry. To be totally honest, I was hoping to bluff my way in and learn. And as I grow up and can learn more and earn a living, perhaps get some money, and please, I really WOULD like to get in the army."  That comment eventually got me accepted as a drummer boy and, well, after years of sleeping rough, having no money or food, all of a sudden I was travelling the world with lots of other like minded people, I was learning music, had somewhere to live and was being paid regularly. It was the first time I had really felt like I was part of family, and I got to visit places as far afield as India.

And all too soon, the interview was over, which was a pity, as we still hadn’t gotten around to our questions about Albania or his knighthood.  Or my favourite Norm story, about how, years ago, he got annoyed by one of the other acts on a variety show he was appearing on, who would constantly walk on during his act. It annoyed him so much in fact, that Norman, bless him, laid him flat out on the floor with a left hook. The stage manager was fuming, so much in fact, that Norman laid him out too, with another mean blow. You just can’t fault people like that can you? So ladies and gentleman, please raise your glasses to Sir Norman Wisdom, a comedy legend. Even when he isn’t trying to be.

We would like to offer a special thank you to Sally Williams and her team at BBC, Close Up UK Closeup UK and Phil Woolley of Black Cat Books, Leicester and last but not least, Mark Merrifield, at De Montfort Hall, for helping us set this item up.

Interview by Nick James and Tone E.

Transcript by Tone E.






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