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One of Sir Norman Wisdom’s friends was on Radio 4 yesterday morning, talking about the death of the 95-year-old comedian. However, the fact that he remained popular with the public, both here and around the world, tells us something about the recent condition of British comedy — not least, that it has lost touch with mainstream public taste.
He recalled that pathos was a major part of Sir Norman’s success: the anguished plight of his cloth-capped character, Norman Pitkin, and indeed the pitiful childhood of Wisdom himself. Wisdom knew all about hardship and the importance of finding something to smile about, even amid despair. It is sometimes said that we British are the world champions in drollery. American visitors used to remark on the tireless jesting in British life.
The sentimental streak in Wisdom’s art, the friend said, had fallen from fashion. The Germans, with their customary thoroughness, studied our humour as a sociological discipline.
‘The critics didn’t like it.’ Modern comedy had no time for that sort of thing. They wrote post-doctoral dissertations on British mirth, just as our intellectuals love to study the tradition of pessimism in German philosophy.
For centuries we produced great satirists and nose-tweakers, comedy turns and wry versifiers.
They found a national resonance and, later, an international market when British comic plays and TV shows were exported round the globe.
He may not have been invited to London’s Comedy Store to appear alongside ‘alternative’ stand-ups.
Norman Wisdom may not have felt the warm breath of the critical world’s esteem for many a decade.