Comedian Norman Wisdom, born in London in 1915, has been nearly forgotten in his home country, where his comedy is often seen as old-fashioned. However, in Albania he enjoys a huge following, with many seeing him as a figure of hope against some of the most brutal years of the country’s history. Culture Trip uncovers the strange story of Norman Wisdom’s progression to Mr. Pitkin, Albania’s national hero.
It’s not unusual to see Britain’s comedy exports flourish in places other than their motherland – forgotten by their home country, some have committed followings elsewhere. Consider, for example, Mr. Bean: he was Britain’s biggest-ever comedy export, with millions of fans worldwide. Yet, back home, his show was always seen as slightly (to use a British idiom) naff — that is, a little embarrassing, schmaltzy, a novelty throwback to a slapstick era without the bite that many of the British comedies popular in the domestic market have.
Consider, too, the bizarre cult that is Der 90. Geburtstag, or, to use its original British title, Dinner for One, a 15-minute forgotten music hall number featuring the even more forgotten music hall star Freddie Frinton. The film revolves around a butler and his senile employer who, on the occasion of her 90th birthday, makes him serve a dinner for her and four invisible guests. As the dinner goes on, Frinton’s character gets steadily drunker as he has to drink each of the non-existent guest’s toasts. Totally forgotten in the United Kingdom, it was filmed for German television and has now become a staple of holiday broadcasting: in addition to every single German channel showing it during Christmas, the film even has a cult following with parties organised to celebrate its airing.
But even Frinton’s strange second life pales in comparison with the adoration felt for another ex-music hall comedian in Albania. Although Wisdom’s comedy was seen as dated and old-fashioned in his home country from the advent of colour television in the early 1960s, he became a legend in Albania – to the extent that when he passed away, the government declared a national day of mourning for the comedian. This not to say, however, that the Albanians somehow lag behind the Brits in terms of comedic subtlety and nuance. To truly understand Wisdom’s popularity it is essential to consider the turbulent historical context of what is famously one of Europe’s poorest countries.
A Britain that experienced the psychedelic surrealism of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and the so-called ‘satire boom’, featuring such edgy programs as That Was The Week That Was, no longer had any time for an old guard figure like Norman Wisdom. However, at the same time, Albania was experiencing a dictatorship that violently suppressed any such satire. In the age of the Cold War, the country was controlled by Enver Hoxha, a neo-Stalinist dictator with a great hatred of the decadent, capitalist West.
Just as with other modern dictatorships, this tyranny came at the cost of art. Stalin brought an end to a thriving Russian art scene, and so too did Hoxha’s control effectively destroy culture in Albania. This attack on entertainment had two sides. On the one hand, it saw a stagnation of the Albanian cultural scene, with heavy government oversight meant that any work with even a glint of subversive content was quashed. On the other, international films were denied export into Albania, especially Hollywood productions that were seen as gleeful odes to capitalism. However, one Western man’s films were allowed into the country: those of Norman Wisdom.
To understand why, we need to look into the content of Wisdom’s most famous films, including A Stitch in Time and Trouble in Store. What Hoxha saw in the working-class Wisdom character of Mr. Pitkin (the name by which he is known to most in Albania) as he struggled against his employer Mr. Grimsdale and his aristocratic friends, was the epitome of the communist struggle, with the proletariat eventually overcoming their capitalist overlords. In fact, it was the lack of complexity in the works that led to Hoxha’s approval of them. Compared to classics of the slapstick comedy genre, especially Charlie Chaplin’s work, Wisdom’s films have little nuance or subtlety, but this also means that they deliver this apparently socialist message with Wisdom ending in complete triumph, without the bitter-sweet and multi-faceted ending of something like Chaplin’s Modern Times, which plays out the same themes as Wisdom’s films.
But where Hoxha saw obvious political commentary, the Albanian people saw something much needed in the poverty-stricken country under a repressive dictatorship: the chance to laugh at the slapstick adventures of a man thousands of miles away. Wisdom offered one of the few avenues of escapism available under such oppression, and so it is no wonder that he is still a national hero, his films still shown regularly on television – even though the dictatorship has since come to an end.
Wisdom was such a treasure, in fact, that when he accompanied the England team to the country for a match against the Albanian national team, his appearance was rapturously received, with many more (apparently) coming to see Wisdom than the match itself. Those that came to see him were not disappointed – ever since realising his mythic status there during his first visit in 1995, he had done much to ingratiate himself with the Albanians even further, famously leading him to wear a half-English, half-Albanian kit during this match.
Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip
meet our Local Insider
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A GUIDE?
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR JOB?
It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.
WHAT DESTINATION IS ON YOUR TRAVEL BUCKET-LIST?
I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!
Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.
KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?
Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world
Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.
Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.
Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.
Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.
We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.