Much-loved en­ter­tainer’s soft spot for town

Gloucestershire Echo - - NOSTALGIA -

» 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

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