Norman Wisdom, tiny Cockney bigger than Sean Connery

The title under which he performed on the variety circuit said it all: "Norman Wisdom – The Successful Failure".

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Standing just over 5ft in his stockinged feet, possessing a quasi-magnetic attraction towards any obstacle in his path, resulting in slapstick acrobatics that had audiences paralysed with laughter, a Cockney lad with a gift for farce whose childhood was anything but happy, Norman Wisdom was never going to be the classic tall, dark and handsome hero of stage and screen.

Yet, so popular did he become in the 1950s and '60s that he outranked Sean Connery's James Bond at the British box office and proved himself a worthy successor to Charlie Chaplin. The title under which he performed on the variety circuit said it all: "Norman Wisdom - The Successful Failure."

Awarded an OBE for his services to the entertainment industry and beloved by Britain's royal family, he also inspired such fervour in the people of Albania that he was greeted as a hero on his visit there in 1995 and received the freedom of the capital city, Tirana. Though later generations may have found Wisdom's brand of slapstick humour outdated, he maintained a following loyal enough to keep him performing into his late eighties.

His childhood was dismal: his drunkard father beat Wisdom and his brother; periodically, they were sent to live with paid guardians after their mother abandoned her marriage and her children. From his hometown of London, by way of Kent and Cardiff, Wisdom found himself a cabin boy, at age 14, on a steamer bound for Argentina. The crew taught him the art of boxing, and in Buenos Aires he fought and won against an opponent twice his size and age. Next to be added to his list of skills was the mastering of 11 instruments. In Lucknow, India, where he played as a bandsman with the 10th Hussars, he also honed his talent for falling off a horse, to the delight of the officers' wives. Army life suited him perfectly. "I felt I belonged," he said, and the habits he formed in the six years he served stayed with him for life. His appetite for "army food" persisted, he kept himself fit into old age by running, and polished his shoes every single day, as he had been taught to do.

He got his first break in 1945 at the Collins Hall in Islington, London. His assumed persona of the maligned fool, the little man facing up to authority and cocking a snook at it, eventually crystallised around the character of "the Gump". In charity-shop clothes, with his cap askew, Wisdom played against straight men, the master of which was Jerry Desmonde, or "Mr GrimsDALE!" as he was addressed, to his infuriation.

Wisdom's film debut, Trouble in Store, came out in 1952, and a song from it, Don't Laugh at Me 'Cos I'm a Fool, sung with great pathos to his companion as the comedian twists his cap in his hands, was an immediate hit.

His first marriage was dissolved swiftly. His second, which produced a son and a daughter, was dissolved in 1969. The children chose to live with their father, and survive him. Born February 4, 1915. Died October 4, 2010.

* The National