It’s always sad when someone dies. Unless that someone is Adolf Hitler or Joe Stalin. This week saw the passing of Sir Norman Wisdom. A genuinely lovely and likeable human being, as well as a world-class comic and Charlie Chaplin’s favourite slapstick.
I mean, Charlie Chaplin’s favourite slapstick. That in itself is a huge thing. When I was a kid, I had a fascination for slapstick comedy. I adored Chaplin, Buster Keaton, the Keystone cops, and Laurel and Hardy. And I would spend hours watching video tapes of all of them, in our new fangled top-loading Betamax.
When I was six or seven, my granddad sat me down one wet sunday afternoon and showed me Trouble In Store and I became an instant Wisdom fan. I watched them all and loved the pratfalls, double-takes, and downtrodden clown character.
As a teenager, I got to meet him. More than once. It turns out that Norman’s best friend from his days on National Service was from Newcastle. I got to know this friend through a youth theatre I was a member of. I couldn’t believe my luck. I told Patrick all about my love of Norman’s films and stage work, and probably bored him to tears with questions about the man.
We members of the youth theatre, as well as putting on our own productions (I was a technician, not an actor by the way), got to act as stewards in the main theatre performances. Show people to seats, take tickets, watch the shows. Great fun. Then one evening performance, in walked Patrick with Norman. I couldn’t believe it. I grinned from ear to ear. We talked, laughed, discussed his career, talked about Newcastle United, the team we both loved, and shared a few minutes which he would probably forget and which I never would.
The theatre doors opened and I went to say my goodbyes to Norman so I could do my stewarding thing. He asked me why I wanted rid of him and began taking people’s tickets and showing them to the wrong seats. I could see people looking confused as they handed him their tickets. I could see them thinking ‘this guy looks like Norman Wisdom but it couldn’t possibly be’. And so they would probably have continued to believe if it wasn’t for quiet, unassuming Norman’s love of an audience.
As the auditorium filled up, Norman showed a couple to their seats up a set of twenty or so steps. By now, he was getting a lot of curious glances from people. Just as soon as the couple sat down, Norman turned around and fell down the stairs just as we’d all seen him do so many times.
It was at that point that he got a big cheer and a round of applause, got up, tripped on his own feet, got up, fell up onto the stage, got up, fell off the stage and then left. It was pure magic. To see this 78-year-old man bringing joy and pleasure to the people in that little theatre, to see him jumping around like the 28-year-old in his films was an amazing thing to share.
I met him a few more times after that, and he always remembered me and always had something nice to say and always made everyone smile, and left behind nothing but happy memories. If I live to be 95, and people can say that about me, I’ll be a very happy man.
Just like everyone’s favourite clown.
Feb 4 1915 – Oct 4 2010