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EDITIONS
Friday, 30 March, 2001, 16:41 GMT 17:41 UK
Sir Norman Wisdom: Clown Prince of Albania
As the 86 year-old comic Sir Norman Wisdom is once again greeted by vast crowds in Albania, Andrew Walker of the BBC's News Profiles Unit examines the enduring magic of one of Britain's greatest clowns.

It has often been the vainglorious claim of washed-out rock bands that, although no-one bought their records in Europe any more, they were still "big in Japan".

Sir Norman Wisdom's triumphant return to Tirana, capital of Europe's poorest country, is testament to the continuing popularity of his work. He is big in Albania and, as his recent knighthood proves, he is still big in Britain, too.

Underdog

The similarities between Sir Norman and Albania are clear for all to see. Both are small and both share a well-earned reputation of being the underdog.

Where Norman contended with the strict but avuncular Mr Grimsdale, Albania had not only the Stalinist psychopath Enver Hoxha, who once dismissed a cabinet minister by the simple expedient of shooting him dead, but also the exotically-named King Zog, with an appellation more suited to a science fiction character than a monarch.

Sir Norman Wisdom clowns at the Tirana football stadium
Sir Norman: Big in Albania
It was Enver Hoxha who, paradoxically, made Sir Norman into a cult figure in Albania. During the Cold War, when the country was cut off from outside influences, Hoxha and his cronies decreed that Norman Wisdom's comedy films, like A Stitch in Time and Trouble in Store, were acceptable entertainment for Albania's citizens.

In Hoxha's warped view, proletarian Norman's ultimately victorious struggles against capitalism, personified by Mr Grimsdale and the effete aristocratic characters played by Jerry Desmonde, were a Communist parable on the class war. The Albanians, in their turn, simply found Norman Wisdom's slapstick comedy hilarious.

Charity work

"You see," explains Sir Norman, "there was no sex, no bad language, no car crashes or crime, so the authorities used to let them watch." Eat your heart out, Guy Ritchie.

Now Hoxha and his regime are no more and Sir Norman is actively involved in charity work in Albania, where poverty and terrible social problems continue to blight people's lives.

His most recent visit, to support the orphanages to which he has committed much of his time for years, coincided with the one by the England football team, which was to face Albania in a World Cup qualifying match.

Sir Norman Wisdom in shrunken jacket and flat cap
His shrunken jacket and flat cap have charmed millions
Sir Norman visited the stadium in Tirana where England were to play, and eclipsed even the team's most famous footballer, David Beckham, who was training on the pitch at the same time.

His routine, which included his trademark move of tripping himself up, went down a storm with spectators and players alike, as it did when The Queen knighted him last year for his services to charity and comedy.

Superb musical skills

Yet there was little to laugh about in Sir Norman's early life. After his parents split, he and his brother were left to fend for themselves in London and having, for a time, to sleep on a park bench.

Leaving school at 14, he joined the Army as a bandsman, where he honed his superb musical skills.

Success as an entertainer in an Army concert party brought Sir Norman to the attention of the British actor Sir Rex Harrison, of My Fair Lady fame, who advised him to pursue a career on the stage.

He signed to the Rank Organisation and made 19 films during the 1950s and 60s, each of which followed the same pattern with Norman in his shrunken jacket and flat cap defying fate, and Mr Grimsdale, to get the girl in the final frame.

Sir Norman with his insignia of knighthood
Knighted in June 2000
Some called his work childish and trite but, although his films were certainly basic, Sir Norman's breath-taking physicality and cheery manner endowed them with a charm still recognised by people of all ages.

Charlie Chaplin said Sir Norman was his favourite clown. Wisdom wowed Broadway in the 1960s and, to the delight of the normally hard-bitten stateside critics, was nominated for an Oscar for his role in The Night They Raided Minsky's, a spirited evocation of the glory days of American burlesque theatre.

Even today Sir Norman's star quality is still to be reckoned with, being cited as a formative influence by another diminutive and physical British comedian, Lee Evans.

Although he will never be recognised as a creator of high art, Sir Norman Wisdom is still a craftsman. Where some gain huge reputations, and salaries, through painting and sculpture he, along with a very select group indeed, simply makes the world smile.

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