Tuesday 5 October 2010

Goodbye, Mr Pitkin

The veteran British comic actor Norman Wisdom died yesterday at the age of 95. He had a long and memorable career starting back in the 1940s and continuing up until a few years ago, and that longevity means that in an odd way another bit of my childhood now feels gone forever.

Norman was one of the comic film actors I loved when I was young along with Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, WC Fields, The Marx Brothers, Will Hay. And I'm happy that I can still enjoy their superb comic timing and their innocent, inoffensive humour. But most of those actors were long dead before I was even born and yet Norman kept on going, still somehow running around and doing comic pratfalls well into his 80s.

The two facts that are always quoted about him are that Charlie Chaplin thought he was a better clown than himself (he was, but then again that wasn't hard) and that he was Albania's national hero. I've always hoped the latter was an urban myth, but bizarrely it was probably true. Albania didn't allow any foreign films to be shown except for Norman's films as his Mr Pitkin character represented something deep and political about the downtrodden proletariat ridiculing the ruling classes. I suppose this only goes to prove you can read anything into anything. Who knows, maybe one day the French will hail Jerry Lewis as a film auteur.

What was more obvious was that his films belonged to a bygone age that didn’t rely on gross-out humour or that feeling of smug, emperor's new clothes that I get with most of what claims to be comedy these days. The films usually involved Mr Pitkin in an ill-fitting suit falling over a lot, gurning, laughing, singing for no good reason, throwing buckets of paint around and shouting 'Mr Grimsdale' at his comic foil Eric Chapman. I can still sit down whenever one is on and I have no trouble in raising a smile, even if the films are very dated. In fact his films were deemed dated by the mid 60s. People didn’t want simple humour, apparently, even back then and so Norman made a couple of efforts at more grown-up comedy staring in The Night they raided Minsky's and an odd adult British comedy before he went into semi-retirement.

In later years he occasionally turned up in serious roles and he was always very good. Only last weekend I watched an episode of the cop show Dalziel and Pascoe where a 90 year old Norman turned up playing an old bloke in a sanatorium. Effectively playing against type he turned out to be the killer, and yet he still found time to do his trademark infectious laugh and comic fast turn away from the camera. Anyhow, RIP, Norman and one last time for old time's sake:

Mr Grimsdale! Mr Grimsdale!

1 comment:

David Barber said...

A great all round entertainer who will be greatly missed.