Norman Wisdom. ‘Coo! Wasn’t He OLD?’

Asked in an interview what he would like on his tombstone, Wisdom immediately said:
‘Coo, Wasn’t He Old?’ 
Which is really what everyone wants, and a very wise thing to say, and possibly the funniest tombstone ever, beating Spike Milligan’s lame effort by several laughter-cramps.
There will be much sniping in the marsh about Wisdom. The mawkishness, the gawkishness, the apparent willingness to cash in on the foibles of mad dictators like Enver Hoxha and Margaret Thatcher. The residency on the Isle of Man. The self-pity. The endless golf. But all missing the point by miles.
In his three key films, ‘On the Beat’, ‘The Early Bird’, and ‘The Bulldog Breed’,  he not only provides some of the tightest visual comedy on film, and some of the cutest innuendo (‘wire wool?’) but also a fair dissection of class-ridden British society in post-war transition. It wasn’t ‘Beyond the Fringe’, but it did much the same job, to a much wider audience. And while he maintained the conventional pose of the political illiterate, his 50’s trilogy belied it. Jerry Desmonde, Pitkin’s perpetual arch enemy, is also an early premonition of Thatcherite power-worship, especially in ‘The Early Bird’. The ruthless ‘Associated Dairies’ conglomerate, determined to crush the silly little family business and send Nellie to the glue-works, is almost an object lesson in Chicago School economics – until Pitkin turns up in his giant fireman’s helmet and irrepressible spirit and reduces the vast monolithic HQ to ruins. How we cheered at that act of blatant terrorism.
Wisdom’s life-story will also get a repeat hearing. The classic journey from total deprivation to fame and fortune shared with many popular entertainers. He is a classic example of the fact that most of C20th pop culture is a flight from squalor. A survival mechanism with a series of messages more sincere than ten years of training in a conservatory, and therefore more artistic. Or at least, more immediate to its audience. The wisdom everyone wants.

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