I woke up yesterday to the news that Norman Wisdom had died peacefully during the previous night.
This might seem a bit ‘off-topic’ for me, and there are tributes everywhere, but you have to realise that Norman was this town’s best known resident before being confined to a nursing home ‘down south’. He was also a genuinely nice guy who spoke to everyone on Parliament Street, and indeed who was on first name terms with many older locals. The bi-polar opposite to every stereotypical, tight-arsed, arrogant tax-dodging nonentity who arrived on the island after him, in fact.
And, speaking as someone who knows the hard way (from street-performing) about physical comedy, Norman was the most accomplished comic craftsman since Stan Laurel. Michael Crawford in his heyday, or maybe Jackie Chan, are the only ones who could pull off similar stunts. But their film stunts are the 99th take, while Norman could do it, live, every time.
Take my fondest memory of him, in Ramsey, in a tiny room in front of 50 pensioners.
I was there to report for the local paper on teenagers putting on a panto for pensioners at Quayle’s Hall (now, sadly, lost to the heritage racket). Norman turned up to cheer them on and something went wrong backstage. As the kids panicked, he stood up and, without missing a beat, turned as if to say something to the old dear behind then fell flat on his face with a huge crash.
Then he shot back up like a rocket, and for the next 20 minutes chairs and small objects flew about and people shrieked with laughter as he stumbled, rolled and bounced around the room like a human disaster zone. If I’d attempted the same, costumed up in my clowning prime, I’d have been black and blue, breathless, and probably sued by someone in the room for damages when a trick misfired. Norman was then 74, wearing his normal street clothes, and had gone into the entire routine unrehearsed at a second’s notice.
As the stage curtain finally parted he brushed his hair back, sat down and watched the ‘real’ show like very other pensioner in the room. Except they were fighting for breath and he wasn’t. Then afterwards, as he left, he collared me and with a wink said: “Don’t tell anyone I was here son, just give the kids a good write-up."
A comedy masterclass, for free, from a real gent. Because making folk laugh was what Norman did. Period.
Via my Dad, who’s also a real gent, I also have a report of a more recent performance. A sadder one, but it still deserves to be mentioned.
Dad, who’s been a professional musician all his life, ”forgot” to tell me he’s been lugging his accordion around the island’s retirement homes a couple of afternoons each week for the last few years to play for free. And he totally neglected to tell anyone that one of them is the one where Norman was moved by his family in 2008. Up until a few months ago the highlight of the gig, every three months or so, was Norm, increasingly disorientated but always responding to a well known cue, getting up to sing Don’t laugh at me, ‘cos I’m a fool.
Dad probably has the dubious honour of being the last person to perform with Norman, and some of his last audience probably thought they were watching him on the TV, or dreaming. But Norman always looked like he was enjoying it, and his audience certainly were.
He was making people happy all his life, almost until the day he died. What better way could you live?
3 years ago