Friday, October 08, 2010

Norman Wisdom


I've been reading some New Zealand history recently, and more than once have come across the phrase, 'from the cradle to the grave,' Michael Joseph Savage's slogan relating to Government assistance to people during all stages of life. Unlike the States, where it can be quite hard for people get to the money they're due if they have a disability, and where they may have to make a
disability appeal, people with disabilities in New Zealand, in general, have an easier time of it. (No doubt someone will come along and tell me I'm wrong about this, but it's my impression in general.)

It seems there are even companies in the States that help you get the right sort of disability allowance when you've come up against the bureaucracy. And talking of coming up against the bureaucracy, I've just been watching a series of film clips from the movies of Norman Wisdom.

Norman made movies that came out when I was a child, mostly, and invariably played the little feller trying to make his way against pomposity and bombast. He was ordinary, short, always wore a suit that was a couple of sizes too small for him (except in one clip where he has trousers that are much too long because he spends most of the scene on stilts - until one comes loose and he limps across the floor, one leg much longer than the other) and constantly misunderstood the things that middle-class people take for granted.

I remember my mother, with whom I went to movie after movie as a child, didn't much care for him, but looking back at these clips you can see he had a superb gift for comedy in the best tradition of Chaplin, Keaton and the like. Of course, he was seldom silent - his tongue gets him into trouble time and again - and he could put lines across with the best of great actors, and several of the scenes involve him in ridiculous repartee with one of the marvellous character actors from British movies of the fifties and sixties.

Wisdom died just recently, and you can see several clips on The Guardian website in a tribute they've written for him. There are some wonderful laugh-out-loud moments, lots of pratfalls, familiar faces everywhere, high nonsense, and even Wisdom singing - something I'd forgotten about.

Wisdom had vascular dementia in the last period of his life, which reminds me about another article I read this last week, in which we were told about a group who read poetry to people with dementia. These are part of a major charity called The Reader, volunteers who make the value of reading aloud available to all sorts of groups.

Anyone who's ever been read to as a child, will know how soothing being read to is; in fact tapes and CDs of stories are extremely appealing to people who are incapacitated in any way. My wife listens to them a great deal (even though she's not incapacitated!); it must be soothing because she often falls asleep to a story, and then has to go back listen again to catch up. Sometimes I don't think it's the story itself that's the important thing, but being read to and having a human voice, like music, working its way into your inner ears...
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