Much-loved entertainer’s soft spot for town
» NORMAN Wisdom, who died this week nine years ago in 2010 at the age of 95, had a soft spot for Cheltenham.
During the Second World War he was stationed in the town. The entertainer served in the Royal Corps of Signals, which commandeered the Moray House Hotel, later called the Carlton Hotel and now the Hotel Du Vin in Bayshill Road, as its HQ from 194345.
While billeted in the town, Norman fronted a dance band which played at local hospitals and forces’ bases and while doing so developed the physical slapstick comedy that became his hallmark in 1950s British movies such as The Bulldog Breed and made him Britain’s most bankable movie star.
The versatile clown’s autobiography Don’t Laugh At Me, published in 1992 by Arrow Books, revealed that he bought the saxophone he played in his act right through his long career at a second-hand shop in Cheltenham’s High Street, while he was living with his first wife in a flat over a Bath Road shop.
Towards the end of the war Norman was posted to India. When he returned to Cheltenham to serve in a top-secret communications establishment known as CNW (Cheltenham Network), he took part in a charity show at the Town Hall.
The actor Rex Harrison appeared on the same bill and after the show advised Norman to become a professional entertainer when he was demobbed.
Norman lived for the latter years of his life in the Isle of Man, but continued to return annually for 60 years to Cheltenham to meet up with old chums from his service days.
In 2003 the star unveiled a blue plaque, sponsored by Cheltenham Civic Society, on the wall of the Hotel Du Vin to commemorate his wartime years in the town.
Despite his advanced years, Norman entertained those at the ceremony with slapstick routines and one-liner gags.
“I’ve been asked to say a few words, so I will – cheese, wood, butter. I know several of them,” he quipped. “I was born in very sorry circumstances. My parents were very sorry. I was born in London and went to school in Scotland. I was very tired when I got in.”
In 1995 Norman was awarded the OBE, then in 2000 he was knighted.
In the latter stages of his career he found renewed success as a straight actor and, curiously, enjoyed huge popularity in Albania.
His knock-about films that depicted him as the little man who takes on and beats faceless corporations were the only western movies allowed by that country’s totalitarian regime.
He even had a number one hit record in Albania alongside the comedian Tony Hawkes and lyricist Tim Rice.
Norman’s passing meant that the Leckhampton Players, one of Cheltenham’s longest established amateur dramatic groups, had to find a new patron.
But no doubt his signed photograph will remain proudly on display in the village hall, where the group presents its well-regarded productions, for years to come.
In his book Tales Of The Red Triangle, which tells the story of the YMCA in Cheltenham, Peter Worsley recalled that Norman was a member of the association in the town.
He played football for the YMCA and can be seen second from the left on the front row of the wartime picture you see below.
Peter also revealed that Norman admitted siphoning petrol from his CO’S car, which is how he obtained the fuel to ride his AJS motorbike around town.
Norman Wisdom with his blue plaque in Cheltenham
Norman Wisdom in the YMCA football team, second left in the front row
Norman Wisdom rode his AJS motorcycle around Cheltenham
Norman Wisdom was a massive film star in the 1950s