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A funny man from a different time

October 6, 2010

The death of comic actor Norman Wisdom, following on from the earlier loss of Tony Curtis, reminded us that, like the first World War, the great names who established the twentieth century entertainment industry will soon be confined to recorded history rather than the memories of those who were actually there.

As a comic, and like many of his ilk, Wisdom seemed to attract affection and opprobrium in equal measure. Comedy is a strange beast and God knows why we laugh at what we do. I found Norman’s antics as Norman Pitkin daft to the point of hilarity, while others just found him plain annoying. And I can’t explain why Wisdom’s pratfalls made me laugh whereas his later acolyte, Michael Crawford, as Frank Spencer, irritated the hell out of me. Maybe it’s something to do with what lies behind the humour. Crawford was an established stage and screen actor when he took the role of Frank Spencer – it was just another job for him, albeit hugely successful. Wisdom, on the other hand, always seemed to blur the line between the pathetic clown he played for laughs and his own personality which had been built on a rather desperate childhood.

And, it has to be said, the public love a comic with a touch of misery about him. The recent versions of the self hating lives of Frankie Howerd and Kenneth Williams have been welcomed with great acclaim, but the doyen of the tragic clown in our times must be the late lamented Tony Hancock. In fact, it has got to the stage that Hancock is probably more famous to younger generations for his decline and miserable end than for his classic comic talent.

Norman Wisdom though always seemed to live a pluckily cheerful life and never cashed in on his unfortunate start in life – so that when he revealed his origins, near the end of his active performing life, most of his audience were totally surprised. Hancock, on the other hand, came from a comfortable background, but had to face the twin demons of his obsession with perfecting his comedy and the resultant alcohol addiction. You might say that while Wisdom sought to optimistically outgrow his origins, Hancock suffered from having had the security to self reflect, and was capsized by what he found.

There is a common link between these two great twentieth century comics though, and that is the attempt to shed their original screen personae and adopt a more mature and thoughtful relationship with their comedy.

For Hancock, it was the result of merciless tinkering with his genius, to try and keep improving it. He felt smothered by ‘The Lad from East Cheam’ and, in his attempt to throw off the shackles, was ruthless in his demolition of partners, writers and associates who could have guided his course better and more surely than he was able himself to do.

His two big screen moments – ‘The Rebel’ and ‘The Punch and Judy Man’ – were patchy in execution, but had enough brilliant moments to suggest that, with more self belief and better guidance, Hancock could well have reached the heights of Tati. The last four minutes of the clip below, from the Brighton-based ‘Punch and Judy Man’ are a clear illustration of that.

Norman Wisdom was in a slightly different position. He was grounded enough to realise the effect of what he did best – not least through the adulation he received in the simplistic society fostered by the isolationist Albania for many years. For all that, it was also clear to him that, as he got older, and tastes changed, Norman Pitkin had had his day.

As it happened, his attempt to bury Pitkin and change his approach also took place at the seaside, though in his case, the venue was very convenient for me as a 15 year old.

Birkdale, in Lancashire, where I lived for ten years in the sixties, is chiefly famous for its Open venue golf course, but, as a suburb of Southport, was originally a place for ‘sea bathing’, as they put it in the 19th century. When, in mid century, Victoria put it about that she was seeking a ‘summer palace’ by the sea, a number of tycoons made it their business to build grand hotels on the coast, hoping they would be the chosen site, and, on that basis, Birkdale got its Palace Hotel.

It was 200 feet long, with 1000 rooms and over 200 bedrooms and suites. It had its own station and guests could fly into the adjacent Birkdale sands aerodrome. Through its history it provided all the expected delights of a Hydropathic establishment: croquet, horse riding, tennis, billiards, dancing, conference facilities, but the failure of the old Queen to honour it with her presence meant it always struggled to survive. From 20s to 40s it had its moments, with Clark Gable and Sinatra staying there, but by the sixties it was hopelessly outdated and impossible to maintain. The Hungarian football team made it their base for the 1966 World Cup, but when they left without paying their bills the receiver was called in.

Enter Norman Wisdom – or to be more precise, well known British film producer Tony Tenser and director Menahem Golan. Tensers production company, Tigon Films, leased the hotel and, in 1967-68 made two films there. The second of these was The Haunted House of Horror, after which Tenser approached the local council with the idea of a joint purchase of the hotel to establish a film studio, which they rejected. However, the first film made at ‘Birkdale Palace Studios’ was scripted by its star – Norman Wisdom, and called ‘What’s Good for the Goose’.
In this very dated film, Norman plays a bored and boring bank employee, who, having give a lift to a couple of ‘ravers’ on his way to a conference, sheds his inhibitions and embarks on an affair with a very young Sally Geeson.
This was 1967, of course, and Wisdom may have felt it the perfect time to shed Norman Pitkin, wave farewell to Mr Grimsdale and leap into bed with a dolly bird. However, the public, though they may have been tiring of Pitkin, weren’t ready for this change of direction by the star, even though the relationship didn’t seem quite as sleazy at the time as it does to us today. Unfortunately, the film was mediocre at best, as this clip of the opening scenes vividly illustrates,

It was the last film Wisdom starred in and he took some time to recover from the panning it received. Happily, his endeavour to be received as a serious actor did bear fruit, albeit more than twenty years later, when he did win recognition as a talented straight performer.

Like most folk, though, I prefer to honour him for the laughs he gave as hapless Norman Pitkin, and I still remember fondly the months he spent at the bottom of our road making his bid for serious acceptance as an actor.
He represents a time when perhaps we looked for humour that was more simple than cutting, more gentle than brutal and he gave a lot of people pleasure during a long life.

His signature tune ran ‘Don’t laugh at me because I’m a fool’, but he was anything but that; a funny man from a different time.

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