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– Norman –
Learn English – Lesson 86 – Norman
Sir Norman Joseph Wisdom was a famous English actor, comedian and singer-songwriter best known for a series of comedy films produced between 1953 and 1966. He died in 2010 at the ripe old age of 95 and remains one of Britain’s best loved comedians as well as finding fame in Albania, South America and Iran. This gifted entertainer starred in over 40 films and television shows and enjoyed immense success and abundant adoration deserved of his talents. Though his life before finding fame was far from glamorous.
Born to Frederick and Maud Wisdom in 1915, in Marylebone, London, he was the youngest of two boys. Unfortunately he and his brother grew up in abject poverty and were subject to violence at the hands of their abusive father. The death of his mother and his disownment by his father finally resulted in his placement at a children’s home in Kent, from which he ran away from at the tender age of 11. After returning home and working as an errand boy he was eventually kicked out and at the age of 14 he travelled to Cardiff and worked as a cabin boy in the Merchant Navy.
He had attempted to enlist in the King’s Own Royal Regiment, but his mother had him discharged as he was underage though he was later able to re-enlisted as a drummer boy in the 10th Royal Hussars of the British Army. He was posted as a bandsman and was able to gain an education certificate, and learn to ride horses. He became the flyweight boxing champion of the British Army in India and applied himself to learning to play the trumpet and clarinet.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, 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. Wisdom then joined the Royal Corps of Signals, and performed a similar military function at the unit headquarters based in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.
Wisdom began to develop his skills as a musician and entertainer and in 1940 he crashed an entertainment night with a humorous shadow boxing display much to the delight of his colleagues and officers. Over the next few years he developed his routine, introducing singing and slapstick, including his trademark trip-up-and-stumble. After a successful appearance at a charity concert he was urged to become a professional entertainer by the actor, Rex Harrison.
After a short stint working as a private hire car driver and a telephone operator, Norman managed to make his way into the entertainment world. His work as the straight man to the magician David Nixon helped him establish the character that would dominate his extensive film career. The character “the gump” was identified by his trademark askew tweed flat cap, with peak turned up; a suit at least two sizes too tight; a crumpled collar and a mangled tie.
Ascending the ladder of success was swift for Wisdom. Within two years he was starring in the West End and travelling, mostly, between London and Brighton for performances. He was soon commanding massive audiences and even gained the admiration of Charlie Chaplin who called Wisdom his “favourite clown”.
Almost immediately, Wisdom earned himself a BAFTA Award for Most Promising Newcomer in 1954 for his performance in “Trouble in Store” (1953). Most of his films involved “The gump” character he had developed several years before. The characters name was Norman Pitkin, a barely competent manual worker who was the bane of “the straight man”, usually the character “Mr Grimsdale”. Wisdom’s capacity for physical slapstick comedy and his ability to portray innocent incompetence endeared him to many.
After a brief stint in the US, and receiving a nomination for a Tony Award for his performance in the Broadway musical comedy, “Walking Happy”, Wisdom returned to the UK. His subsequent career was largely confined to television, and he toured the world with a successful cabaret act. From 1995 until 2004 he appeared in the role of Billy Ingleton in the BBC comedy “Last of the Summer Wine”. In 2000, Wisdom received a Knighthood for his services to entertainment, an event which saw him receive his knighthood from the Queen then perform his trademark trip-up-and-stumble much to the amusement of Her Majesty.
Wisdom announced his retirement from the entertainment industry in February 2005, he was 90 years old. He died on 4 October 2010 at Abbotswood nursing home on the Isle of Man at the age of 95 and his funeral took place on 22nd October 2010 in Douglas, Isle of Man, where he had been living for many years. His trademark cloth cap was placed on the coffin in the church.
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