A Portrait of the British Comic Actor Norman Wisdom

“ Good morning Norman.” “ Good morning Mr Churchill…”

Image: Daily Mirror

With the death of Norman Wisdom on Monday 4th October, 2010, aged 95, the world lost one of its funniest, most able, and most generous of comic actors. It also lost a man who, for millions of film goers, was someone who — in his ill-fitting suit and askew cloth cap — represented their own struggles in life against the grim-faced, petty bureaucrats of the 1950s and 1960s; and he usually won the girl too.

To quote Norman, from his 2002 memoir “Norman Wisdom — My Turn”:

“ I was born in very sorry circumstances. Both my parents were very sorry! That’s an old music hall gag, but in fact it wasn’t very far from the truth.

“ When I talk about my childhood, friends inevitably compare me with Oliver Twist. And that wasn’t far from the truth, either…”

But unlike Oliver Twist Norman didn’t find a Fagin, but ended up — after his mother took off — pretty much looking after himself.

Norman Wisdom was born on the 4th of February, 1915, in Marylebone, London. His father, Frederick, was a chauffeur, and his mother, Maude, a dressmaker. Their home was, by all accounts, a shabby, small one bedroom flat, with a parlour, small kitchen and a toilet, but no bathroom. The whole family slept in that one bedroom, with Norman sharing a single bed with his older brother Fred. They all washed in the kitchen sink. Norman writes that they were so poor his father repaired the family shoes with bits of old car tyres, which, he jokingly claimed, at least made him two inches taller. The chances are the large shiny Daimler car his father drove — incongruously parked outside their run-down home in a very run-down street — was probably bigger and more comfortable than the family flat. Large, flash cars (usually Rollers) would be a passion of Norman’s in later life.

Image for post
Image for post
Source: flickriver

After his parents split-up Norman had to look after himself and started mixing with older boys, usually his brother Fred’s pals, giving him a much more mature attitude to life on the streets, which meant stealing food to simply survive, with Norman becoming an expert in stealing eggs. But he soon realised that was no way to survive and quickly took on any job — running errands, or carrying passenger’s bags at Paddington Station — that might earn a penny or two.

Norman didn’t really enjoy school, with the brutality dealt out there almost as bad as the increasing beatings from his father at home. The result was that Norman went home less and less — and to school less and less — spending more and more time at a local Royal Marine depot gym. A bit later Norman joined the Sea Scouts, and soon after that managed to get a job as a delivery boy at Lipton’s Store for ten shillings a week. Soon after that, and after some nifty negotiations, he secured a similar job at the Home & Colonial Stores for fourteen shillings a week. The character of Norman Pitkin is beginning to form.

And it was while he was out delivering one day that he spotted a film crew at work. The images of the bright lights, the bustle, and not least the pretty girls stayed with him. One day, he thought, one day.

Working for the Home & Colonial soon lost its appeal with Norman moving on to the Artillery Mansions Hotel as a commie-waiter, where, at last, he had a decent room of his own, with all his meals supplied, plus twelve bob a week in wages. After two weeks Norman had bought himself a decent second-hand suit, a new pair of shoes, and a silver grey trilby hat. In his own words he was growing up fast.

At fourteen he was trying it on with the girls, but soon realised they were an expensive hobby with most not too happy with the cinema followed by egg and chips in a local greasy spoon caf.

So how could he earn more money?

It was then a pal came up with the idea of getting a job as a miner in South Wales. So, armed with a couple of sandwiches they set off to walk the 189 miles to Cardiff, which took them two weeks of forced marching, sleeping under hedges or in doorways, but they managed it. But once there Norman found himself on his own and wandered into the Hippodrome theatre where he boldly asked for a job as an entertainer. After watching him do a soft shoe shuffle the manager told him to come back when he could do just a bit more, which he did thirty odd years later starring in his own show. Now, alone and in a city he didn’t know Norman was befriended by a group of men warming themselves at a brazier who gave the young adventurer a mug of tea and a slice of bread. When Norman showed them his worn out shoes one of the men asked him if he’d like to be a cabin boy. Naturally Norman said yes, and less than twenty-four hours later he found himself peeling spuds aboard the SS Maindy Court heading west into the Atlantic Ocean.

Norman’s spell in the merchant navy meant he grew very quickly, learning to serve soup liberally spiked with sea water, and box, becoming something of an on board hero.

Just before Christmas 1929 the Maindy Court docked back in Cardiff and Norman found himself queuing at the Labour Exchange and living in a hostel. But he was now fourteen going on forty.

On New Years Day 1930 Norman, supplied with a rail ticket courtesy of the Cardiff Labour Exchange, travelled from South Wales to Henley-on-Thames to take up the position of a barman, but the landlord of the pub took one look at the pint-sized Norman and sent him on his way telling him he was too small to lug barrels of beer around.. Our future comedy hero then walked to London — a two day slog — where he managed to get a job as a scullery boy, but was fired within the hour for eating a roast chicken he’d found temptingly sitting on a plate in the pantry.

With nowhere to sleep that night, he called at his grandparents house in Kilburn, but was turned away. He then tried his father’s address in Earl’s Court, but his miserable old man told him to get lost. Norman had no choice but to sleep rough that night, and many afterwards. For many it would have been the end.

But this fourteen year old was made of sterner stuff, and with the support of a friendly coffee stall owner who, in the early hours of the morning would give him free meat pies and cups of Bovril which Norman would take back to his sleeping quarters by the warm air vents of the Savoy Hotel.

Image for post
Image for post
Savoy Hotel. Source: Another Nickel in the Machine

During the afternoons Norman headed for the local cinemas where, as people left through the side exits, he’d sneak in and hide in the toilets until the next screening started, which, in the dark, enabled him to find a seat. And there he’d stay until closing time. Only years later did Norman realise he’d been absorbing the very essence and art of cinema. It was all being stored away for later.

It also helped our young hero get a job at what later became the Odeon Cinema as a page boy at £1 a week, which meant he was allowed to take VIP guests — including a very young Joan Crawford — up in the lift.

Now that he was working Norman asked his grandmother if she would reconsider taking him in, but this time as a lodger, which she did at 15/- a week.

The fifteen year old Norman Wisdom was on his way up again and started looking round for something better to do than driving a cinema lift. He was looking for adventure.

He got his wish too when one morning a letter arrived telling him that his application to become a drummer boy in the King’s Own Royal Regiment had been accepted.

Happy as a lark he set off for the regiment’s HQ in Lichfield and an experience that would change his life.

Although the experience of serving in the army would be a life changing one for Norman, it would have to wait for a week or two. First he was to be reunited with his mother.

After just three weeks of service as a junior drummer-boy — where he spent virtually every waking moment learning the rudiments of music — Norman Wisdom, as he describes in his autobiography, was given a fortnight’s leave…

“…and decided to spend the time in London. I moved back with Grandma. One morning I answered a knock at the front, and was astonished to find the postman standing there with a parcel — addressed to me. More important, on the back was the address of the sender (‘If not delivered, please return to…’) and inside was a birthday of a hairbrush…from my mother!”

Norman was understandably taken aback because he hadn’t heard from or seen his mother in five years. The address on the back of the parcel — the Old Kent Road — was his mother’s sister’s address. Within the hour he was on a bus to his Auntie May…

“ Her mouth dropped open when she saw me — and she grabbed my hand and raced me round to the post office to send a telegram to my mother.”

Norman’s mother turned up later that day and took her son — whom she’d abandoned remember when he was only nine years old — in her arms and, as Norman expresses it “…chased the years away.”

And Maude Wisdom was no longer the down-at-heel dressmaker she had once been trying to scrape a living to keep her family together; and no one knows what kind of husband Fred was. Did he knock her about? We don’t know, but something made her run away when Norman was still a kid.

But when she took her son into her embrace Maude was a perfumed, fur-coated dress designer who now lived in Russell Square (one of the swankiest addresses in London) with her new, and pretty wealthy, husband Sydney Poulton.

Norman’s Auntie May made them all a nice cup of tea and Norman recounted tales of the life he’d been living for the last five years — although he didn’t mention about sleeping rough — and that he was now in the army. His mother reacted to that by saying that her son could do better than the army, that she would find him a job that suited his talent and lineage, forgetting that his lineage was a mother who — for whatever reason — walked out on him, and a father who beat him and refused to take him in when the boy was on the streets thieving and sleeping rough.

Anyway, within the week Norman’s mother had bought him out of the army (£35) and found him a job as a draughtsman with a huge building company. It can probably be argued that his mother was overcompensating for all the lost years and no doubt her own guilt.

Norman could draw, but he was no draughtsman, and on his first day at work was asked to look over the drawings of a new office block, checking all the measurements. He hadn’t a clue and simply walked out of the building and went straight round to Scotland Yard — just off the Embankment — and the Army Recruiting Office.

Image for post
Image for post
Scotland Yard 1890s. Source:flickriver

Norman Wisdom’s biggest fear when he entered the Army Recruiting Office next to the world famous police station was that they would recognise him and ask him if he really meant to stay in this time. No one did recognise him of course, and the recruiting officer seemed a pleasant enough sort of chap and passed him over to a bandmaster when Norman told him he wanted to be a bandsman and was already an accomplished musician.

Trying to trip him up the bandmaster started asking Norman musical questions, which he answered accurately and quickly. The bandmaster was taken aback.

“ Right, you’re in, Wisdom. India suit you?”

India suited Norman Wisdom very well and six weeks later found himself in Lucknow as a member of a cavalry regiment, the 10th Hussars, kitted out in riding breeches and facing prospect of learning to ride a very large horse and play a musical instrument at the same time.

Image for post
Image for post
Nice Horse. Source: All Posters

Lucknow had, seventy-three years earlier, in 1857 been one of the opening hotspots of the Indian Mutiny, and was still when Norman arrived a place where the British still had to tread warily. Norman just felt huge pride, as he describes in his lovely autobiography:

“ Two hundred of us had arrived from the ship to swell that particular garrison. We were there to ‘keep up the British presence’, and we would train to be ready for anything. On that first, unforgettable arrival through the old town we passed the ruins of the original fort which had been so gallantly defended against the mutineers in the legendary uprising of 1857.”

In fact Lucknow was under siege for the best part of a year and only relieved on March 15th, 1858, when the hero of the Crimea, Sir Colin Campbell, with his 31,000 men, broke the siege.

Norman goes on to write:

“ As we passed through the big iron gates, with two white-helmeted sentries snapping to salute at the guard-house, my eyes were watering — but not from the searing mid-day sun. They were tears of pride running unashamedly down my cheeks, and in that moment I was probably happier than at any time in my young life.”

Image for post
Image for post
Norman in India. Source: Kent History Forum

Poignant memories from a young man who might have ended up in prison but had, through his own strong character and determination broken out to reinvent himself.

All of the above experiences, not least his years in army in India, gave Norman the confidence, on his return to the UK, to try his hand at the entertainment industry that, in the 1950s and 1960s, made him the saviour of the British Film industry.

In many ways the rest of Norman’s story is one of success, set-back, and then more success as he almost singlehandedly restored British variety theatre to its pre-war high, topping almost every theatre bill in the UK during the 1950s and 1960s, and then likewise the British film industry. He became the darling of British cinema comedy, at the same time, most certainly in the 1950s, taking the proverbial out of the pomposity of certain elements of British society. The Carry On films could not have existed without Norman Wisdom.

Norman Wisdom almost made it big in Hollywood too, scoring one big hit with his performance in The Night They Raided Minsky’s, but then having said no to a big Hollywood producer, it all ended.

But Norman went on to conquer TV and theatre audiences, plus parts in the odd film and some serious TV drama, for the rest of his life, with his 1950s and ’60s British films reaching huge audiences in Eastern Europe.

And of course he was still touring his one man show (plus orchestra fronted by a straight man conductor) until the late 1990s. It was always the same and always brilliant.

In many ways Norman personified a very important part of the British character.

Norman was a canny investor too, with an interest in an engineering company in the Midlands, and I remember receiving a telephone call from him out of the blue one morning enquiring about oriental carpets (I was an oriental carpet buyer at the time), especially top end Chinese, of which he was something of an expert. It was quite a long, funny, and hugely interesting conversation.

Perhaps one of the proudest moments of Norman’s life was when he became, during World War Two, a confidential telephonist for politicians, especially one:

“ Good morning Norman.”

“ Good morning Mr Churchill.”

“ Put me through to President Roosevelt would you.”

Written by

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store