Patrick Skene-Catling

Big little man

‘What a swankpot!’ Sir Norman Wisdom pseudo-modestly pseudo-rebukes himself after listing some of the trophies in a display cabinet at home on the Isle of Man. ‘But why not?’ he asks, almost disarmingly. ‘I did get ’em, didn’t I?’ This is ventriloquial star-speak by William Hall, an expert writer-with, whose credits include biographies of Michael Caine, James Dean, Frankie Howerd, Larry Adler and Dick Emery.

Wisdom’s cabinet contains a British Academy Award, seven trophies for Britain’s Top Comedian, seven engraved silver spoons from John Paddy Carstairs, one for each Norman Wisdom film he directed, emblems of the Golden Flame from Argentina and the Lifetime Achievement Award from his fellow British comics. Is Little Norm proud? Cor, not ‘arf! as Hall sometimes has him write, though Wisdom says he has learned to talk posh.

If you want to read about showbiz celebrities, you usually have to choose between biographies that are scandalously gossipy and autobiographies in which ghostly professionals conceal the warts with Max Factor Pancake. Although I have enjoyed stars’ public performances on the stage and on the big and small screens, I prefer the latter kind of books. The preference may be sentimental escapism, but that is the business the stars are in, and that is where I wish they would stay, maintaining my showbiz illusions. William Hall is very good at helping. In My Turn, he has enabled Norman Wisdom to present his public persona immaculately intact. If that is all he wants us to know, it’s OK with me.

This is a classic rags-to-riches saga. Norman was born in Marylebone in 1915 and spent his childhood in a Paddington slum house without a bathroom. His mother left his father, an alcoholic chauffeur (before the breathalyser), who kept Norman but neglected him. When Father was at home, there were many clouts around the earhole and kicks up the backside; during his frequent absences, there was often no food, except what Norman could steal.

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