Norman Invasion

I was thrilled to find THE GIRL ON THE BOAT in a charity shop, since it looked like being an all-time low for PG Wodehouse adaptations, and I snapped it up even at the excessive price of two quid. Well, it’s charity, isn’t it?

The casting of Norman Wisdom in a Wodehouse story is just so diabolically WRONG — I mean, maybe he could make a passable Ukridge or something, but he’s hopelessly unsuitable to playing a Young Man in Spats type. While he shows a measure of versatility by dispensing with his familiar “gump” mannerisms (readers unfamiliar with this hugely successful British entertainer — he did vaguely Jerry Lewis-like knockabout comedies where he played a childlike idiot in the fifties and early sixties), what’s left is a startlingly aggressive quality that’s totally unsuitable. Discovering that his pal, Richard Briers (very right for Wodehouse) has mal de mer, Wisdom says “Try to eat something!” as a malicious joke, and laughs for about a minute when Briers looks ill. Absolutely nobody ever written by Wodehouse would behave like that, not even a villain like Roderick Spode.

Not that there’s no comic cruelty in Wodehouse: it’s very hard to be funny without somebody being a victim. But it’s generally very mild and never gratuitous: Jeeves can inflict suffering on Bertie in order to keep him in line (for his own good). Bertie’s domineering aunts will force him to perform tasks he’d sooner avoid, but they simply don’t understand his reluctance. Bertie himself, like most Wodehouse heroes, is so sweet he could never break an engagement for fear of causing distress, no matter what a pill the girl in question has proven to be.

I think it was critic Penelope Gilliat who complained of the sadism in Wisdom’s supposedly kiddie-friendly comedies, and though that’s probably too strong a word for the above instance of nastiness, it does point out a harshness that can’t exist in the Wodehouse universe without blighting its surroundings.

The movie also undercuts itself in an extraordinary way by making the titular girl an awful drip. She’s skillfully played by Millicent Martin (and Sheila Hancock also has a good time — women seem to seize their chance to be funny in Wodehouse adaptations, no matter how misguided) but it’s impossible to root for any of the men to end up with her, as she’s what Bertie Wooster would call a Gawd-help-us, obsessed with poetry and her nasty little dog.

Norman still has his fans, and not just in Albania, where his stardom lasted decades longer than anywhere else as he was the one western filmmaker whose work wasn’t banned. Nick Park of Aardman has spoken of the influence of Wisdom’s absurd, involved slapstick sequences on his work. But I find that I love Park’s claymation in a way I could never love Wisdom’s flesh and blood performances.

The DVD also comes with a commentary by Sir Norman with interviewer Robert Ross. I assumed this must have been recorded before Wisdom’s Altzheimer’s set in, but I fear not — he needs reminded what he’s here for. It’s not as awkward as Mickey Rooney’s strange, surly and disoriented interview on the Twilight Zone episode Last Night of a Jockey, which I recommend to all students of discomfort — Sir Norm is always affability itself. But it’s not brilliantly recorded and the sound of the film fights it, so I’m afraid I gave up.

A curious thing, though. Despite the allegations of sadism in Wisdom’s comedy, and the unsuitably aggressive tone here, when the comedian became ill, the result, portrayed in a moving BBC documentary, was that the octogenarian star turned into the innocent, child-like character he’d played so often. A sweet gump. At the end of that documentary, he waves goodbye to the camera crew: “Thanks ever so much for looking at me.”

You’re welcome.

7 Responses to “Norman Invasion”

  1. It is not easy to see Wisdom films in the US and I’d love to see this doc about him. But I remember, as a teen, discovering him in THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED MINSKY’S and being totally charmed. And my what an unlikely film to be directed by William Friedkin.

  2. Friedkin apparently walked away from it and denounced it, leaving editor Ralph Rosenbaum to cobble it together, a process he describes amusingly in his memoirs. “…at which point we play the Hallelujah Chorus, always a sure sign of a film in trouble.”

    I think this is the doc:

  3. Norman Wisdom starred in a musical TV special of Shaw’s “Androcles and the Lion”, music AND lyrics by Richard Rodgers. Noel Coward was Ceasar. I remember seeing it in 1967; on checking it looks like mostly Broadway talent onscreen and off. Maybe it was conceived for the stage. The soundtrack can be found; the actual show doesn’t seem to be available.

    Here in America VCI Entertainment has released batches of Wisdom films, along with Will Hay, Jessie Matthews, many of the Carry Ons and odd collections of Renown films. The Wisdoms I’ve seen are cute and disposable, much like Abbott and Costello. Like them, he seems to shoehorn in established routines here and there on thin excuse. In one, he’s the lovable handyman at an orphanage. Obliged to take a train trip, he becomes the obnoxious guy in a compartment full of respectable folk. Off the train he’s lovable again.

  4. Chuck V. Says:

    Completely off topic, but does anyone know what has become of Tom Sutpen (of the blogs Facsimile / If Charlie Parker was a Gunslinger… / Illusion Travels by Streetcar)? He’s taken all of his blogs down (except the shared podcast ones) and done the same to his google profile.

  5. Oh… he’s still on Facebook, posted a few days ago. Hope he’s OK.

  6. CHarles W. Callahan Says:

    I’m a big fan of Mr. Wisdom. Saw him on Broadway in 1967.
    A show called WALKING HAPPY based on HOBSON’S CHOICE.

    Songs by Sammy Cahn & Jimmy Van Heusen if you can imagine it. Damn fine score, too. He was great! Also wonderful in THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED MINSKY’S. Nice post. Thanks

  7. He was one of those unstoppable showmen, like Lewis or Rooney, I think. Massive energy. Must have been quite something on stage.

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