Norman Wisdom

Norman Wisdom
Norman Wisdom

Norman Wisdom, Peel, Isle of Man, 2005
Birth name Norman Joseph Wisdom
Born 4 February 1915(1915-02-04)
Marylebone, London, England
Died 4 October 2010(2010-10-04) (aged 95)
Ballasalla, Isle of Man
Medium Comedian, actor, singer-songwriter
Nationality British
Years active 1948–2005, 2007–08
Spouse Doreen Brett (1941–46, divorced)
Freda Simpson (1947–68, divorced)
BAFTA Awards
Most Promising Newcomer to Film
1954 Trouble in Store
Other awards:
London Film Critics Circle:
Special Achievement Award

1996: For services to comedy

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. These films initially made more money than the James Bond film series,[3] and secured Wisdom a celebrity status in lands as far apart as South America, Iran and many Eastern Bloc countries, particularly in Albania where his films were permitted by Enver Hoxha – Wisdom was the only Western actor to enjoy this privilege.[4] Charlie Chaplin famously referred to Wisdom as his "favourite clown".[5]

Wisdom later forged a career on Broadway 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. It was broadcast on 5 June that year. 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. Some of 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.


Early and personal 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. The couple married in Marylebone on 15 July 1912.[6] Wisdom had an elder brother, Frederick Thomas "Fred" Wisdom (13 December 1912 – 1 July 1971). The family resided at 91 Fernhead Road, London W9, where they slept in one room.[7] Wisdom quipped, "I was born in very sorry circumstances. Both of my parents were very sorry."[8]

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.[9] The marriage was dissolved in 1946.[10] 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[11] and Wisdom was granted full custody of the children.[12] Freda Wisdom died in Brighton in 1992.[13]

Wisdom was a lifelong supporter and a former board member of football team Brighton and Hove Albion. However he also liked Everton and Newcastle United,[14] first declaring his support for the Merseyside club when appearing in the matchday programme in an interview in 1974. He enjoyed golf[15] and was a member of the Grand Order of Water Rats. 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"). He was an Honorary Member of the Winkle Club, a famous charity in Hastings, East Sussex.[16]

A lover of cars, he owned a 1987 Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit and a Jaguar S-Type, until his age and declining mental health meant he failed a Department of Transport fitness-to-drive test and they were sold in September 2005. 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.[17]

During the 1960s he was involved in a famous legal case (Wisdom v Chamberlain) in which he was pursued by the Inland Revenue for tax on profits made from the sale of silver bullion he had bought as he was concerned about the further devaluation of sterling. He had contended that it was an investment but the court held that it had been a trading venture and was duly chargeable to income tax.[18]

Armed forces

Norman Wisdom
Born 4 February 1915 (1915-02-04)
London, United Kingdom
Died 4 October 2010 (2010-10-05) (aged 95)
Ballasalla, Isle of Man
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
Other work Actor

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 on leaving school at 13. In 1929, he walked (by his own account) to Cardiff, Wales, where he became a cabin boy in the Merchant Navy. Wisdom had been kicked out of his home by his father. He also worked as a coal miner, waiter and page boy. He first enlisted into the King's Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster) but his mother got him "unenlisted" as he was under age. He later re-enlisted as a drummer boy in the 10th Royal Hussars of the British Army and in 1930 was posted to Lucknow, in the United Provinces of British India, as a bandsman. There he gained an education certificate, rode horses, was the flyweight boxing champion of the British Army in India[19] and learned to play the trumpet and clarinet.[7] While performing a comedy boxing routine in an army gym, Wisdom discovered he had a talent for entertainment[20] and began to develop his skills as a musician and stage entertainer.[5] After leaving the army he learned to drive and worked as a private hire car driver and having improved his diction in the army he also took a job as a night telephone operator.[7]

World War II

At the outbreak of World War II 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 [7]and once was disciplined for calling him Winnie.[21] He then joined the Royal Corps of Signals and performed a similar function with a military unit based in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. After Wisdom appeared at a charity concert at the Cheltenham Town Hall actor Rex Harrison came backstage and urged him to become a professional entertainer.[22]


Leaving the army in 1946, Wisdom made his debut as a professional entertainer at the age of 31 and 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 star within two years, he made his TV debut the same year and was soon commanding enormous audiences. Charlie Chaplin called Wisdom his "favourite clown".[5]

Film career

Wisdom made a series of low-budget star-vehicle comedies for the Rank Organisation, beginning with Trouble in Store in 1953.[23] This film earned him a BAFTA Award for Most Promising Newcomer to Film in 1954.[24]

Their cheerful, unpretentious appeal make them the direct descendants of the films made a generation earlier by George Formby.[25] 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, and were 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 but in which his innocent incompetence made him endearing to the heroine.

Despite a move to filming in colour, by the mid-1960s Wisdom's commercial film appeal was in eclipse. The obvious incongruity of a fifty-year old man playing the prime minister's grandson in Press for Time (1966) counted against him; Wisdom's age was inaccurately reported for many years.

Later career

In 1966, Wisdom went to the United States to star in a Broadway production of the James 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.[26] Wisdom had performed in front of the Queen at many Royal Command Performances, the first being in 1952.[27]

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 his successful cabaret act. He won critical acclaim in 1981 for his dramatic role of a dying cancer patient in the television play Going Gently.

He became prominent again in the 1990s, helped by the young comedian Lee Evans, whose act was often compared to Wisdom's work.[28] 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 highpoint of this new popularity was the knighthood he was awarded, for services to entertainment, in the 2000 new year's honours list.[29] During the ceremony, once he had received his knighthood, he walked away and again performed his trademark trip which the Queen smiled and laughed at.[30]

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 became recipient of a Special Achievement Award from the London Film Critics.[31]

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.[32]

In 2002 Wisdom filmed a very tiny role as a butler in a low budget horror film, In 2004, he made a cameo appearance in 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.[33]

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. 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 of Albania, Sali Berisha. During this trip, Wisdom was also filmed by Newsnight visiting a children's project funded by ChildHope UK.[34] On a visit in 2001, which coincided with the England football team playing Albania in the city of Tirana (of which Wisdom was granted the freedom in 1995),[35][36] his presence at the training ground eclipsed even 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.[37] Wisdom was an honorary citizen of Tirana.[38]

In his book and TV series One Hit Wonderland, Tony Hawks united with Wisdom and, along with Sir 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.[39]


Whilst Norman's stage performances often involved musical numbers, few of them were penned by him. 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.[40]

After his death some confusion was caused by an unsubstantiated Wikipedia claim that he provided lyrics for the song popular during the Second World War, (There'll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover (actually written by Walter Kent and Nat Burton). Three British newspapers reported this supposed fact:[41] The Guardian,[42] The Independent,[43] and The Daily Mirror.[44] All three publications later retracted this, The Guardian issued an apology,[45] although The Independent and the The Daily Mirror merely changed the text of their webpages without any indication of the error[citation needed]. The Guardian also retracted that "he was nominated for an Oscar for The Night They Raided Minsky's",[45] whilst The Daily Mirror retains this attribution (item 6 of their "10 Things you need to know..")[44]


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.[15]

In 2007, he made a singular return 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 he would not have to remember any lines, but on the day Wisdom was alert and had his performance changed to add more laughs.[46]

Health decline

In mid-2006, after he suffered an irregular heart rhythm, Wisdom was flown by helicopter to hospital in Liverpool and after a few days was fitted with a heart pacemaker.[47]

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.[48]

On the release of Expresso to DVD in the same month, BBC News confirmed that Wisdom lived in a care home, due to his suffering from vascular dementia.[46] 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.[49]

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.[50]

On 16 January 2008,[51] BBC2 aired Wonderland: The Secret Life Of Norman Wisdom Aged 92 and 3/4,[52] a documentary highlighting the dilemma of coping with an ageing parent. In a spoken trailer on BBC Radio 5 Live for the programme and in later publicity interviews undertaken by his family, it was stated that Wisdom's memory loss had become so severe that he no longer recognised himself in his own films.[53]

Premature obituary

On 28 December 2008, Sky News announced that Wisdom had died, running a pre-recorded obituary, both as part of its rolling broadcast coverage and on its website. Shortly afterwards, when it became apparent that other news sites were not carrying the story, Sky dropped the story, stating that it had been published in error in response to e-mail queries.[54]


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 at 6:46 pm on 4 October 2010 at Abbotswood nursing home on the Isle of Man at the age of 95.[55]

According to his publicist, Phil Day, "I have never met anyone in the profession who didn't like him, right up to royalty".[42]

His funeral took place on 22 October 2010 in Douglas, Isle of Man and all of the Isle of Man were invited.[56][57] His well known cloth cap was placed on the coffin in the church.[57]

Tributes and other references

  • In 2007, a Norman Wisdom-themed bar opened at the Sefton Hotel, Douglas, called Sir Norman's. It has stills from his many films on the walls and TV screens playing some of his old films. The bronze statue of Wisdom, which used to be on a bench outside Douglas Town Hall, has been moved to the steps leading into the bar.[citation needed]
  • In September 1991 a French speaker in an agriculture committee in the European Communities called for the communities to show "la sagesse des Normands" (the wisdom of the Normans), which was translated into English as calling for Norman Wisdom to sort out Europe's problems.[58]


Audio recordings

  • I Would Like to Put on Record
  • Jingle Jangle
  • The Very Best of Norman Wisdom
  • Androcles and the Lion
  • Where's Charley?
  • Wisdom of a Fool
  • Nobody's Fool
  • Follow a Star
  • 1957 Original Chart Hits
  • Follow a Star/Give Me a Night in June
  • Happy Ending/The Wisdom Of A Fool
  • Big in Albania – One Hit Wonderland


  • Lucky Little Devil:Norman Wisdom on the Island He's Made His Home (2004)
  • Norman Wisdom, William Hall (2003). My Turn. Arrow Books. ISBN 978-0099446767. 
  • Don't Laugh At Me, Cos I'm a Fool (1992) (two volumes of autobiography)
  • Trouble in Store (1991)


  1. ^ "Birth Index entry". FreeBMD. ONS. Retrieved 28 December 2008. 
  2. ^ London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 54066. p. 14. 17 June 1995. Retrieved 5 October 2010.
  3. ^ a b Dixon, Stephen (5 October 2010). "Sir Norman Wisdom obituary". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 6 October 2010. 
  4. ^ a b c d e "Sir Norman Wisdom". Telegraph (London). 5 October 2010. Retrieved 6 October 2010. 
  5. ^ a b c d e "Sir Norman: Nobody's fool". BBC News. 6 June 2000. Retrieved 7 October 2010. 
  6. ^ "Marriage Index entry". FreeBMD. ONS. Retrieved 7 October 2010. 
  7. ^ a b c d Wisdom, Norman; Hall, William (2003). My Turn. Arrow Books. ISBN 978-0099446767. 
  8. ^ "Norman Wisdom Quotes". BrainyQuote. Retrieved 24 February 2011. 
  9. ^ "Michael Gerald,date=22 March 2011". 
  10. ^ Thornton, Michael (6 October 2010). "How Norman Wisdom really did laugh all the way to his grave". The Daily Mail (London). Retrieved 8 October 2010. 
  11. ^ "Sir Norman Wisdom". Telegraph (London). 5 October 2010. Retrieved 7 October 2010. 
  12. ^ Sheridan, Emily; Bentley, Paul (5 October 2010). "Sir Norman Wisdom, the beloved comic who spent a lifetime playing the fool, dies at 95". The Daily Mail (London). Retrieved 8 October 2010. 
  13. ^ "England & Wales, Death Index: 1916–2005 about Freda Isobel Wisdom". Retrieved 10 October 2010. (subscription required)
  14. ^ White, Clive; Harris, Nick (17 April 1999). "The Sweeper:My Teams Norman Wisdom Everton and Newcastle". The Independent (UK). Retrieved 10 October 2010. 
  15. ^ a b "Sir Norman Wisdom to retire at 90". BBC News. 11 October 2004. Retrieved 10 October 2010. 
  16. ^ "Hastings Winkle Club – Famous Winklers". Hastings Winkle Club. Retrieved 7 February 2010. 
  17. ^ "Sir Norman 'launches punk career'". BBC News (BBC). 23 September 2005. Retrieved 10 October 2010. 
  18. ^ Wisdom -v- Chamberlain (Inspector of Taxes) [1968] 2 All ER 714; [1968] 1 WLR 1230 
  19. ^ "Sir Norman Wisdom". The Daily Telegraph (UK). 5 October 2010. Retrieved 10 October 2010. 
  20. ^ "Sir Norman takes final stage bow". BBC News. 18 October 2004. Retrieved 10 October 2010. 
  21. ^ Sadler, Toby (5 October 2010). "Tributes to Norman Wisdom, a “true icon” and forces veteran". British Forces News. Retrieved 8 November 2011. 
  22. ^ "Plaque marks comic's time in forces". BBC News. 6 September 2003. Retrieved 11 October 2010. 
  23. ^ McFarlane, Brian; Slide, Anthony (2003). The Encyclopedia of British Film. London: Methuen Publishing Ltd. p. 736. ISBN 0-413-77301-9. Retrieved 22 October 2010. 
  24. ^ "Film Nominations 1953". British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Retrieved 11 October 2010. 
  25. ^ McFarlane, Brian; Slide, Anthony (2003). The Encyclopedia of British Film. London: Methuen Publishing Ltd. p. 230. ISBN 0-413-77301-9. Retrieved 22 October 2010. 
  26. ^ "In pictures: Sir Norman Wisdom". BBC News (BBC). 4 February 2005. Retrieved 11 October 2010. 
  27. ^ "1952, London Palladium". The Royal Variety Performance. Entertainment Artistes' Benevolent Fund. Retrieved 11 October 2010. 
  28. ^ Rees, Jasper (25 October 2004). "All I've ever felt on stage is pain". Daily Telegraph (UK). Retrieved 11 October 2010. "I saw his films as a kid. It surprises me because if you watch my act it's nothing like his really." 
  29. ^ London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 55710. p. 2. 30 December 1999. Retrieved 5 October 2010.
  30. ^ Adetunji, Jo (4 October 2010). "Norman Wisdom dies aged 95". The Guardian (UK: Guardian News and Media Limited). Retrieved 5 October 2010. 
  31. ^ "Film – Special Awards". London Film Critics Circle official site. Retrieved 11 October 2010. 
  32. ^ Labes, Lucinda (31 July 2002). "Albania: Stormin' Norman". Daily Telegraph (London). Retrieved 5 February 2009. 
  33. ^ "New film: Expresso". Where I Live – Black County. BBC. 7 May 2007. Retrieved 27 December 2008. 
  34. ^ "Norman Wisdom mobbed by Albanian fans on 1995 trip". Newsnight (BBC). 5 October 2010. Retrieved 11 October 2010. 
  35. ^ "Sir Norman: Nobody's fool". BBC News (BBC). 6 June 2000. Retrieved 24 June 2009. 
  36. ^ Udall, Elizabeth (22 September 1996). "How We Met: Rick Wakeman and Norman Wisdom". The Independent (UK). Retrieved 24 June 2009. 
  37. ^ "Sir Norman Wisdom: Clown Prince of Albania". BBC News. 30 March 2001. Retrieved 11 October 2010. 
  38. ^[dead link]
  39. ^ Stuart, Julia (16 July 2002). "Tony Hawks: Big in Albania". The Independent (London). Retrieved 29 December 2008. 
  40. ^ "Works Written by Wisdom Norman". The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.,s,w,p,b,v&results_pp=25&start=1. Retrieved 11 October 2010. 
  41. ^ Anon, 2010. Street of Shame. Private Eye, 1273, p.6
  42. ^ a b Kennedy, Maev (5 October 2010). "Norman Wisdom, last survivor of the music halls, dies aged 95". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 6 October 2010. 
  43. ^ Hastings, Rob (5 October 2010). "Veteran comic – and Albania's favourite – Sir Norman Wisdom dies, aged 95". The Independent (London). Retrieved 9 October 2010. 
  44. ^ a b Gripper, Ann (6 October 2010). "Norman Wisdom 1915–2010: 10 things you need to know about the comedy actor". The Daily Mirror. Retrieved 6 October 2010. 
  45. ^ a b "Corrections and clarifications". The Guardian (London). 6 October 2010. Retrieved 13 October 2010. 
  46. ^ a b "Sir Norman's swansong is released". BBC News. 27 August 2007. Retrieved 11 October 2010. 
  47. ^ "Comedian recovers after heart op". BBC News (BBC). 10 July 2006. Retrieved 12 October 2010. 
  48. ^ "Comic legend needs time to settle in home, says son". (Johnston Press Digital Publishing). 12 August 2007. Retrieved 11 October 2010. 
  49. ^ "Comedy legend leaves Epsom flat for good". Surrey Comet (Newsquest Media Group). 18 August 2007. Retrieved 11 October 2010. 
  50. ^ Tate, Chris. "Grim? Not Me! I'm happy in my care home, legend Norman tells fans". News of the World. [dead link]
  51. ^ "Wisdom family makes care decision". BBC News (BBC). 15 January 2008. Retrieved 16 January 2008. 
  52. ^ Hemley, Matthew (9 October 2007). "Wisdom to feature in BBC2 documentary". The Stage. Retrieved 16 January 2008. 
  53. ^ Durrant, Sabine (15 January 2008). "Norman Wisdom's family reveal how dementia has left him not knowing who he is". Daily Mail (London). Retrieved 16 January 2008. 
  54. ^ "Norman Wisdom NOT dead". Retrieved 29 December 2008. [dead link]
  55. ^ "Comedy actor Sir Norman Wisdom dies aged 95". BBC News. 5 October 2010. Retrieved 12 October 2010. 
  56. ^ "Open invitation to funeral service". Manx Radio News (Manx Radio). 7 October 2010. Retrieved 12 October 2010. 
  57. ^ a b "Manx residents honour Sir Norman Wisdom". BBC News. 22 October 2010. Retrieved 22 October 2010. 
  58. ^ "EC agriculture committee". The Times. 19 September 1991. 

External links

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