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Born and raised in London in an atmosphere of poverty and domestic violence, Wisdom’s long and colourful life was the stuff of legend, a rags to riches fairy tale that saw him leave school at 13 before taking on a series of jobs including a brief spell as a coal miner. Whilst serving in the British Army during World War Two, Wisdom became popular among his fellow soldiers for his improvised visual comedy routines and musical performances, talents he developed after the war when he decided to become a professional entertainer.
In his trademark working class flat cap and tight-fitting suit, Wisdom developed a persona as a naïve and hapless romantic that eventually caught the eye of the British film industry where he enjoyed a hugely successful career between 1953 and 1966 acting in a series of films as the bumbling Norman Pitkin, an unpretentious and dim-witted character forever in conflict with his aristocratic superiors.
Regarded at the time as nothing more than harmless romantic comedies with very little in the way of serious social comment, these films came to the attention of the Hoxha regime in Albania, and subsequently became among the few Western films allowed to be shown in the country. In the eyes of the Albanian authorities, Norman Pitkin was seen as the archetype Western proletarian exploited by his evil capitalist rulers, turning Wisdom into an unlikely star in the most unlikely of places.
A cult figure to this day in Albania and known universally as ‘Mr Pitkin’, Wisdom made his first visit to the country in 1995 and was more or less adopted as one of their own, gaining audiences with presidents, visiting children’s homes and, in 2001, travelling to the country with the English football team where he made more headlines than David Beckham and famously appeared on the pitch before the start of the game dressed in a half Albanian and half English football shirt.
Perhaps in reaction to his knighthood back in the UK, Sir Norman Wisdom was subsequently made an honorary citizen of Tirana, and his films are still show regularly on television.
Once referred to by Charlie Chaplin as his favourite clown, Norman Wisdom touched the hearts of an extraordinary diverse range of people during his lifetime, including in the most improbable of nations in the Balkans.