Norman Wisdom revisited
A Sussex-born one-man show is recreating the vintage comic's act and telling his incredible life story with help from his family
From the 1950s onwards, Norman Wisdom entertained millions with his hapless slapstick routines on stage and screen. Jack Lane has brought the star’s crazy clowning back into the spotlight in Wisdom of a Fool, wearing the actual ill-fitting ‘gump’ suit that Norman wore, loaned by Wisdom’s Sussex-based family. More than a tribute, it tells Norman’s incredible and moving life story and it’s been getting standing ovations. See it for yourself when it returns to Horsham on Fri 28 Sept.
Muddy caught up with Jack to find out more.
How did the show come about?
I’m only 31 but I grew up on all the old comedies for some reason, Dad’s Army, Morecambe & Wise, Steptoe & Son… and my mum gave me this video one day of Norman Wisdom…
I learned about his life and what he’d been through and I found that fascinating and noone had written a play about him and I thought that was incredible. He came from a Dickensian childhood, stealing food to eat, to headlining at the Palladium and appearing in films. He basically saved the Rank organisation from bankruptcy. It was phenomenal.
I emailed his son Nick, who lives in Haywards Heath. He was charming and answered all my questions. Norman himself lived in West Chiltington in Sussex for 20 years.
I just had this burning fire to tell this story. I’d never acted and I workshopped it for weeks at The Capitol [Nick had worked backstage there for years], it was my base. I thought, ‘it’s no good just doing impressions, it’s got to have the heart there’.
…and you ended up borrowing Norman’s famous gump suit?
I’m nearly his size, and I think the family liked that I was giving it another life. There’s a scene in the play where I put on the suit and it’s really emotional. The first one he had he found in a secondhand shop in Scarborough.
Did the family give you any guidance?
They’ve obviously got Norman’s traits and people often joke that Nick is a carbon copy of him. In fact, one day, he was walking down the street and a lorry driver called out the window “you walk like Norman Wisdom!” His daughter, Jaqui, doesn’t realise just how much like her dad she is in her energy and the way she laughs.
It was nerve-wracking having them see the play. One day I was in a technical rehearsal, I went backstage and thought “it’s no good, I can’t do this,” and my phone rang and it was Jaqui and she was lovely. She’s seen it three times now and cried.
What’s the style of the show?
I play Norman and a host of other people including his father who was violent to him. I don’t do his whole life, I zoom in on the section of it till he rose to fame. You can see his influences in his work, from the army to boxing, all echoes of his life.
I play him the whole time, he’s narrating but I go into little scenarios of him having a conversation with someone, like his mother telling him off. It’s very fast paced – one minute you’re laughing, the next you’re blubbing your eyes out.
Norman was a very physical performer, do you find it exhausting?
I’m absolutely useless at the end of it, I come off drenched in sweat and collapse in the wings. There’s not only the physicality, you’re telling a high octane story. When I first opened the show I was black and blue with bruises on my legs. He was a very fit man and I was using muscles I’d never used before. You have to keep your legs tense to do his walk.
Norman was surprisingly huge in Albania in later years. Any plans to tour there?
If I was approached to, yes, but the cost and logistics of touring it there would be huge. Maybe it will happen one day. I was telling a technician from Albania what I was doing and he said “Norman Wisdom is a god in my country!” Norman’s were the only Western films that Albania’s former dictator allowed.
What is your audience here?
Naturally it’s predominently older people but I’ve had right down to children too. It just shows you the longevity of him, the legacy that he’s left behind when you see seven and eight year-olds beaming at you.
Wisdom of a Fool is at the Capitol Theatre, Horsham on Fri 28 Sept. Tickets are £18.50. thecapitolhorhsam.com