THE rags-to-riches cliché could have been invented for Norman Wisdom. So could a whole string of other tired lines. Dragged up by his bootstraps, poor as a church mouse, unlucky in love. In the early 60s he was Britain’s highest-earning performer with a string of hit films in which he played his famous character The Gump, the gormless, put-upon underdog who faced the uncaring world with a brave smile.
In earlier years, the 30s and 40s, top entertainer had been George Formby who played a daft Lancashire lad while strumming a rather odd banjolele. Both made the pop charts, George with Happy Go Lucky Me and Norman with Don’t Laugh at Me. Yes, they did. Honest.
How times – and tastes – change, especially tastes in comedy and music. Neither would have got out of the local club circuit these days. But the one thing that Norman Wisdom wanted above all was to be accepted as a straight actor. He knew he could hack it – as he proved late in his career.
In 1960, at the height of his fame, he decided to discard his baggy jacket and flat ‘at and go straight with an independent film, There Was a Crooked Man. It was a gamble and it didn’t go down well with his fans who just wanted to see The Gump, running around, falling down and landing in hot water.The film wasn’t given a chance which is a pity as it shows how versatile Wisdom could be. He proved it later with films and television. Probably the most memorable was Going Gently, a BBC two-hander from 1981 set in a terminal cancer ward. He was mesmerising.
In Crooked Man, sandwiched between a string of comedy hits which started in 1953 with the smash Trouble in Store, he plays a demolition expert who falls in with a bunch of crooks and gets into all sorts of scrapes. It gets very noisy. The film is particularly memorable as the first starring role for the lovely Susannah York who went on to make her mark in some of the top films of the 1960s, among them Tom Jones, A Man for All Seasons, The Killing of Sister George, Battle of Britain and They Shoot Horses Don’t They? She later did a lot of television and was kept busy till her death early in 2011 just a few weeks after Norman Wisdom’s death at the age of 95.
There Was a Crooked Man has never been released on DVD – until now. It had just one TV airing on Boxing Day 1965 and then disappeared. Many Norman Wisdom and film buffs fans can’t wait.
Harold Heys is a semi-retired journalist who has always lived in his home town of Darwen. An old boy of Darwen Grammar school, he was a journalist with the Lancashire Evening Telegraph before joining the Sunday People where he became chief sports sub-editor and production editor. He retired as editorial systems manager of Newsquest Lancashire in 2001.