Norman left school at 14, becoming a delivery boy for Lipton’s and then a commis-waiter at a London hotel, from where he was sacked for dropping a loaded breakfast-tray down a lift shaft. He walked to Cardiff with the aim of becoming a miner, but was deserted by the friend who had promised him work, and instead embarked in a steamer bound for Argentina as a cabin boy. The crew taught him to box, and in Buenos Aires Norman (who weighed only five stone) found himself matched (for money) against an opponent twice his size and age. He won the fight, but the crew spent his prize-money.
Back in London, and still only 14, he was disowned by his father and began living rough on the streets, at first sleeping at the foot of Marshal Foch’s statue in Victoria. He would sneak into cinemas to keep warm.
He lasted two hours as a trainee draughtsman before finding his first métier as an Army bandsman. In 1930 he was sent to Lucknow, India, with the 10th Hussars. As well as learning to play 11 instruments, he also became adept at falling off a horse for the amusement of officers’ wives. It was his first solo performance. A fanatical gymnast who later performed all his own stunts, he was also for three years the Raj’s flyweight boxing champion.
Wisdom returned to England a civilian in 1936 and worked as a telephone operator, and when war broke out was seconded to work Churchill’s own switchboard…………It was silly, unsophisticated fun larded with pathos — and austerity audiences lapped it up. In Skegness one teenage schoolgirl laughed so hard that she dislocated her jaw……….“The Gump”, in a jacket three sizes too small with tie awry and cap askew, became his trademark role, the eternal schoolboy with the looks of a beaten puppy………..He collected cars, kept a 94ft yacht and lived in the Sussex house once inhabited by Anne of Cleves………..
Slightly odd to have a film star whose own life was more outrageous than any of the plots of the films he appeared in.