Pitkin: The life and films of Norman Wisdom

Norman Wisdom was born in February 1915 into a family that fell apart when he was nine. His father was violent and abusive and when his mother left in 1924, Norman and his brother were left in charge of the family but after being thrown out of their home, were placed into care. His father remarried but Norman was never accepted back into his life and at the age of thirteen, Norman and a friend walked from London to Cardiff to get a job down the mines. From then until joining the army a year later, Norman Wisdom worked in a variety of jobs including stints as a waiter, an errand boy and a cabin-boy but with the army he started his life as an entertainer, learning to dance, play a variety of instruments and develop the physical comedy with which he would later become famous.

After leaving the army in 1946 and aged thirty-one, Norman Wisdom started his life as a professional entertainer, appearing in variety shows throughout Britain. It was during this time that he developed his trademark character - a well-meaning but incompetent clown wearing a tweed cap with a turned-up peak, an ill-fitting jacket and a pair of trousers just an inch too short. The crowds throughout the country and particularly in the West End wouldn't get enough of him and, with a ready-made audience, Rank contracted him for a series of films starting in 1953 with Trouble In Store.

The Pitkin Comedies

Rank tried to ensure Trouble In Store was as close as they could get to a guaranteed success by enlisting Norman Wisdom's regular straight-man (Jerry Desmonde), a beautiful leading lady (Lana Morris) and a comedy equal (Margaret Rutherford) and when the film subsequently became a box-office hit, Rank ensured that Wisdom produce a comedy at the rate of one a year, at least until the end of the decade.

With his regular character now named Norman Pitkin and often accompanied by the officious Mr Grimsdale (Edward Chapman), each Norman Wisdom comedy was very loosely based on the template established by Trouble In Store, with Pitkin (or equivalent) attempting to find love, impress his superiours and become a success in his chosen field but through his own incompentence, always managing to blow what chance he had.

Norman Wisdom stuck to black and white for as long as possible but eventually moved across to filming in colour in 1966 for The Early Bird but by then the public had tired of his comedy and the film offers soon stopped coming.

Big In Albania

It has long been a popular claim of bands that no matter how close to the dumper they are positioned, they are still big in Japan. So Norman Wisdom, not so popular in Britain in the late-60s, was finding fame behind the Iron Curtain in Albania. During the many years of Communist rule, Albania was ruled by King Zog and Stalinist dictator, Enver Hoxha, a man who dismissed a cabinet minister by simply shooting him dead. Hoxha, however, decreed that the films of Norman Wisdom were the type of films that woud best entertain his people as well as providing them with a socialist parable on the plight of the proletariat and their fight against the aristocracy. In Hoxha's view, Norman Pitkin was a representative of the workers, struggling against capitalism, which was embodied by the characters played by Jerry Desmonde and Edward Chapman including the pompous Mr Grimsdale.

How successful this was as unknown but the Albanians grew to love Norman Wisdom's slapstick and following the fall of Communism, Norman Wisdom (commonly known only as Pitkin) became increasingly involved in charity work in Albania, particularly in raising money for orphanages there. Indeed, such is his celebrity status there that on one recent visit, which coincided with a visit to Tirana by the English football team, Pitkin made an appearance within the stadium as the team were in training. Oblivious to the football stars around him, the crowd cheered and laughed as Pitkins tripped himself up, posed for photographs and shouted, "Mr Grimsdale!".

A Knighthood To The Present

In 1995, Norman Wisdom received an OBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours list and a Knighthood in 2000, failing to halt his career. He has since appeared in Last Of The Summer Wine, Casualty and makes regular chatshow appearances, even at the age of eighty-eight. Age has not stopped his charity work and he is still involved with Mencap on his adopted home of the Isle Of Man.

The Norman Wisdom Collection

On the 12 May 2003, Carlton are publishing the The Norman Wisdom Collection, a box set of six DVD doubles, which are also on sale individually, containing his Pitkin/Little Man comedies.

Trouble In Store/Up in the World: In the first film, Norman's ambition is to become a window dresser in the magnificent department store where he works but an encounter with shoplifter Margaret Rutherford ends in disaster! Meanwhile, Up in the World sees Wisdom play a window cleaner for eccentric Lady Banderville. Her foolhardy son, Sir Reginald, makes life difficult for poor Norman with his constant pranks and practical jokes.

To read Noel Megahey's review of Trouble In Store/Up in the World, click here.

The Bulldog Breed/One Good Turn: The Bulldog Breed sees Norman as an unlucky in love grocer who decides to join the navy with hilarious results and also gets involved in the space race! Co-starring John Le Mesurier (Dad's Army). The second film in the set has Norman play a children's home employee who promises to buy an orphan a model motorcar. Unfortunately they are not cheap, and Norman must devise various ways of making money.

To read Eamonn McCusker's review of The Bulldog Breed/One Good Turn, click here.

On The Beat/Man of the Moment: Norman wants to follow in his Dad's footsteps and become a policeman, but unfortunately he is too short. In his place of lodging, however, he is mistaken for a top dog at the Yard. In the second film in the set, Norman is a paper pusher in Whitehall who must pose as a top-level diplomat during a UN briefing. He unexpectedly comes to the rescue of a Pacific island, to the fury of the super powers.

To read Eamonn McCusker's review of On The Beat/Man of the Moment, click here for Eamonn McCusker's review.

A Stitch In Time/Just My Luck: Norman is an assistant to Mr Grimsdale, an old-fashioned butcher. When a robbery lands the pair in hospital, Norman believes he has found his true calling - the medical profession. Just My Luck, however, sees jeweller's assistant Norman is in love but his desire to win the object of his affection with a ruby pendant leads him into the shady world of gambling. Leslie Phillips co-stars as a bookkeeper.

To read Eamonn McCusker's review of A Stitch In Time/Just My Luck, click here.

The Square Peg/Follow A Star: It is the Second World War and Norman is proud of his role in the war effort. He is a road mender for the council until he is recruited into the Pioneer Corps. Follow A Star sees Norman too shy to realise his dreams of becoming a singing star. Instead he lets someone else mime to his vocals. A great supporting cast includes Hattie Jacques and (uncredited) Dick Emery.

To read Eamonn McCusker's review of The Square Peg/Follow A Star, click here.

The Early Bird/Press For Time: Wisdom's first colour film sees our hero as a milkman who is trying to protect his small dairy against the advances of big business. It features the catchphrase "Mr. Grimsdale!" In Press For Time, Wisdom plays four different characters in the last of his "little man" comedies. A suffragette, her son, a sewer-man and the Prime Minister!

To read Mark Campbell's review of The Early Bird/Press For Time, click here.

Did you enjoy the article above? If so please help us by sharing it to your social networks with the buttons below...

Category Feature

Latest Articles