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Norman Wisdom: From Cockney Comic To Albanian Hero
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Norman Wisdom: From Cockney Comic To Albanian Hero

Picture of Samuel Spencer
Updated: 24 October 2016
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.

Norman Wisdom on the beat
Norman Wisdom in ‘On the Beat’ (1962) | © Stuart Axe/flickr

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.