When Laurel and Hardy met Norman Wisdom

Written by A.J Marriot
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There is a very strong, indefinable spiritual bond that binds comedians together, one which makes them want to seek out each other's company – regardless of the distance or hardship involved.

Thus it was that the lives of the three greatest screen clowns that England has ever produced were destined to cross. Such was the impact of these meetings, that the lives of at least two of them were changed and sustained during their formative comedy years.

With the first two, namely Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, there is no doubting that Laurel benefitted immensely from his work with, and studies of, Chaplin; even going on to imitate him when touring in Vaudeville. Of the other relationship, we shall speak more of, here.

When first coming to England to play on the London stage in 1947, Laurel and Hardy were former film comedians whose star was in the descendency, whilst at a nearby theatre was a young, unknown English comedian, who had yet to find his way into films. An appearance on a charity show was to place him on the first rung towards that climb. On Sunday 27th of April, the ‘Grand Order of Water Rats’ staged the Rats' Revel, at the Victoria Palace. This unknown comedian may have started the show unknown but, after finishing his act, wasn't to remain so much longer. The reaction he received was ecstatic. His name – is Norman Wisdom. Below, Norman takes up the story:

Norman Wisdom 1I was in a show at the Hackney Empire. The producer asked me if I would do a charity concert on the forthcoming Sunday. I immediately said 'yes', as at that time I would have done anything to get on stage. I would have made the tea if they'd asked me. On Sunday morning, I turned up for rehearsals, and there were all these big stars: George Doonan, Vera Lynn, Will Fyffe, and Laurel & Hardy. I did my rehearsal on about two foot of stage, and nobody took a blind bit of notice. Amongst all these stars, I wasn't known by Adam. In the evening, though – if I say so myself – I went extremely well, and had to take several bows.

The reviews certainly bear out Norman's recollections. The Performer said:
Then came one of the outstanding hits of the evening, young Norman Wisdom, who bounced himself up one more rung of the ladder towards stardom with yet another exhibition of uproarious foolishness.

The Stage said:
Vera Lynn, Laurel & Hardy, and Will Fyffe all provided of their best in this half of the show, but it was newcomer, Norman Wisdom, who took the house by storm with some of the funniest business possible.

Stan Laurel's immediate response was to approach agent Billy Marsh and say: ‘You want to sign this man up. He's a great clown.’

The three comedians' next chance meeting was in Belgium. Laurel and Hardy had completed a twenty-five-week tour of England and Scotland and were now acceding to European theatre demands. Stan and Ollie weren't due to appear at the Alhambra, in Brussels, until 19th December 1947 but, between December 10th and December 18th, spent time rehearsing there. Norman was appearing in the then-current show, Piccadilly Nights, part of which was a paper-hanging sketch. One night Norman's partner in the sketch slipped off the ladder, which had become slippery with wallpaper paste, and hurt his ankle. The following day, Stan, who stayed on to chat with Norman before each show, immediately volunteered to take over the role. Nothing could have thrilled Norman more, but it only served to horrify the theatre manager, who wasn't going to risk his following week's headliner getting injured. The thought of ‘Laurel and Wisdom’ has, however, continued to fill Norman with warmth and pride to this day. 

Stan Laurel Oliver Hardy Norman Wisdom.2.

A couple of years later, Norman himself had metaphorically slipped down the ladder and felt that his fortune lay in America. Putting together all the money he had, which amounted to little more than the airfare, he flew to Hollywood and started to do the rounds of agents and studios. Getting nowhere he thought he would at least salvage something, and visit his idol, Stan Laurel. Stan was delighted to receive the phone call, and told Norman: ‘Yeh! come on over. Jump in a cab. I'm only just round the corner.’ Stan's definition of ‘just round the corner’ worried the heck out of Norman as the cab just kept going and going, and the meter kept running and running. Checking the cash in his pocket, Norman was all for abandoning the cab upon realising that the fare exceeded his resources. Thus it was, upon his finally arriving, that Norman had to rush inside Stan's apartment and borrow the excess.

Another two years on and we find Laurel, and Hardy too, returning to England after finding that Hollywood doesn't always recognise genius. The two comic legends disembarked from the Queen Mary at Southampton, on Monday 28th January 1952, and went immediately to London. The following night they were given a reception, hosted by Bernard Delfont, at the Washington Hotel; where several show-business acts came for an audience with the two superstars. Norman was appearing as 'Buttons' in the pantomime Cinderella, at the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, but somehow managed to get down to London for the reception. Time and distance weren't going to stop his reunion with his all-time greats.

/Stan Laurel Oliver Hardy Norman Wisdom2.On Sunday 5th October 1952 the ‘Water Rats’ held a dinner at the Park Lane Hotel, in London. Amongst those present was Charlie Chaplin, and the highlights of the evening were shown on television. Laurel and Hardy, for whom the occasion would have been an ideal farewell, did not attend. With the Boys conspicuous by their absence, it is strange to learn that the following night they were in London – at the Prince of Wales Theatre. It was a few minutes before the start of the show spotted them sitting in the audience but, when he did, he ad-libbed his way into coming off the stage and doing some comic business with them. Needless to say, the house was in an uproar.

After the show, Stan and Babe went backstage to congratulate the comic genius on his fantastic success. In 1947, the comedian had been taking his first faltering steps into comedy. Now, only five years later, he was headlining a show which was to run for over eighteen months. What was lovely to see was that, after their own phenomenal career, Laurel and Hardy's last gesture before they left Britain, was to go and pass on their best wishes to him. Norman Wisdom had come a long way.
So, next time you say the name ‘Norman Wisdom,’ says: ‘SIR.’
Article by ‘A.J’ Marriot – author of LAUREL & HARDY – The British tours

The full fascinating story of how Hollywood film legends Laurel and Hardy came to spend their last years making THREE tours of Variety theatres, throughout Britain and Ireland, can be found in the book: "LAUREL & HARDY - The British Tours."
To purchase this, and other books by A.J Marriot, CLICK ON THE LINK BELOW

Read 369 times Last modified on Monday, 25 April 2022 16:10
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