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 in to films. An appearance on a charity show was to place him on the first rung towards that climb. On Sunday 27th 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 - Norman Wisdom. Below, Norman takes up the story:
The reviews certainly bear out Norman's recollections. The Performer said:
The Stage said:
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. [For anyone who wishes to visualise what Stan's part in the sketch would have been, you need only get hold of a copy of the 1961 'Sunday Night at the London Palladium' television special, in which Norman performed the said sketch with Bruce Forsyth.]
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 air fare, 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.
Photo shows STAN LAUREL, NORMAN
WISDOM, and OLIVER
NORMAN comes off-stage to meet his comic idols.
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.
WISDOM with LAUREL &
Next time you say the name Norman Wisdom, say: 'SIR'.
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