Com­edy king kills ’ em at the Zoo

The Irish Times Magazine - - THE TIMES WE LIVED IN - Pub­lished: June 8th 1971 Pho­to­graph: Tommy Collins Ar­minta Wallace Archive pho­to­graphs and other Ir­ish Times im­ages can be pur­chased from irish­times. com/ pho­to­s­ales

Hon­estly. You come to the zoo to have a look at the an­i­mals, only to find some plonker in a blazer act­ing the goat in pet’s corner . . . Just why the co­me­dian Nor­man Wis­dom was at Dublin Zoo on this sum­mer day in 1971, when a group of chil­dren with in­tel­lec­tual dis­abil­ity were brought to the Phoenix Park on an out­ing from Ste­wart’s Hospi­tal, Palmer­stown, re­mains a mys­tery.

The chil­dren, who ranged in age from four to 15, were joined on their bus by an Ir­ish Times re­porter and, as the ar­ti­cle en­ti­tled “At the Zoo with Nor­man Wis­dom” puts it, “three very gen­tle nurses”. Per­haps the young vis­i­tors as­sumed Wis­dom was just a reg­u­lar keeper – af­ter all, Dublin zookeep­ers nowa­days make reg­u­lar ap­pear­ances on the telly.

With his fa­mously child­like sense of hu­mour and fond­ness for vis­ual gags, Wis­dom was just the man to en­ter­tain a group of kids with­out scar­ing the horses.

His por­trayal of a mod­est Ev­ery­man strug­gling against un­seen larger forces – he liked to pre­tend to stum­ble and trip him­self up on stage – made him a su­per­star in Al­ba­nia, and ap­par­ently en­deared him to Bri­tain’s Queen El­iz­a­beth when he re­peated the trick on re­ceiv­ing a knight­hood in the year 2000.

Our photo shows him pos­ing in a pris­tine pets’ corner – where, ac­cord­ing to the ar­ti­cle, he “clowned around for the chil­dren and pre­tended to sweep up af­ter the in­no­cent goatlets, or to be ter­ri­fied of their baby horns”.

The writer, who is not named, also notes that they “saw a baby rab­bit which pleased the chil­dren more than any­thing else on dis­play”.

But there was no sign of “the com- mon or gar­den cat which used al­ways drive my mother mad when we were be­ing brought to the zoo as chil­dren, be­cause we ap­par­ently spent our whole time play­ing with it and ig­nor­ing the ex­pen­sively im­ported fauna of a more ex­otic na­ture . . .”

Does the writ­ing style seem fa­mil­iar at all? The ar­ti­cle is signed only with ini­tials: MB. But if that’s not Maeve Binchy, I’ll eat an ar­madillo.

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