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Tuesday, 6 June, 2000, 17:20 GMT 18:20 UK
Sir Norman: Nobody's fool
Sir Norman in Last of the Summer Wine
Sir Norman continues to act the showman
By the BBC's Andrew Walker

Beyond the clowning and the slapstick, one thing is for certain: Sir Norman Wisdom is nobody's fool.

Over his 55-year career, the veteran comedian has starred in 19 movies and won a Bafta for a straight role.

A knighthood now further elevates the diminutive comic onto a footing with the likes of Sir Ralph Richardson and Sir John Gielgud.

But, Sir Norman's lofty and cherished status among the British public could never have been imagined at the time of his birth on 4 February 1915.

Forces career

Sir Norman's parents divorced when he was nine and his violent, drunken father abandoned him and his brother Fred.

Norman Wisdom in uniform as a boy soldier
Sir Norman honed his comic skills in the Army

Sir Norman headed for a career in the first the Merchant Navy and then the Army, where he found a platform for developing his showman's talents.

He became a bandsman, graduated to concert parties, and honed his comic skills.

After World War II , the British actor Rex Harrison advised Sir Norman to become a professional entertainer after seeing him in a Forces review.

He was soon touring the country as straight man to the magician David Nixon and his perennial character, The Gump, was born.

With the physicality of his act, his shrunken suit and outsized cap, Sir Norman was the perfect antidote to the bleak austerity of post-war Britain.

Sir Norman in his much-loved slapstick guise in 1955

Films like Trouble in Store dealt out laughs and tears in equal measure as Norman's little man battled against adversity, always to win the girl in the end.

Charlie Chaplin called Sir Norman his favourite clown and, between 1955 and 1966, he beat Sean Connery's James Bond to become Britain's biggest box office draw.

International appeal

The visual nature of his comedy has delighted audiences around the world.

Norman Wisdom mobbed by fans in Albania
Sir Norman was mobbed by fans in Albania

A Hong Kong cinema was besieged by film-goers during a 24-hour screening of his films. The people of Albania warmed to his film character, Norman Pitkin.

The country's rulers decreed that his films were politically acceptable, allowing their subjects a taste of the West. More recently, Sir Norman was mobbed when he visited the country to be awarded the Freedom of Tirana.

The apparent simplicity of Sir Norman's act sometimes hides his real abilities.

Those who might otherwise scoff at The Gump would however be won over by his moving Bafta-winning portrayal of a terminally-ill cancer patient in the 1978 play, Going Gently.

Sir Norman in Going Gently
Going Gently proved he could be a serious actor

America was bowled over by his Broadway performances and by a classic Wisdom routine on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Even so, life continued to play tricks on Sir Norman.

His wife of 22 years left him in 1969, and he brought up his children alone. But the stage shows, cabarets and pantomimes continued to pull in the crowds.

Now aged 85 and living in The Isle of Man, Sir Norman is still performing. He believes that the key to his success is a simple one.

"My comedy is for children from three to 93," he explains. "You do need a slightly childish sense of humour and if you haven't got that, it's very sad."

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