Article Archive

Desert Island Disaster

It's been a good few months for Norman Wisdom: first he gets a knighthood, then a Variety Club lunch in his honour, and finally he gets a ringing endorsement of his work in last month's poll. It seems we are all prepared to overlook his faults as a performer and concentrate on the pleasure the best of his comedy work brings. Then he goes and spoils everything by appearing on Desert Island Discs.

For those who don't know the show, the format is simple. The participant is asked to imagine they are stranded alone on a desert island. They are asked which eight records they would take with them and which book and luxury. This is all an excuse for a saunter through the life and career of the participant between the music. It's a winning formula and has run on British radio for over forty years. Norman Wisdom's edition was the worst I've ever heard.

It was a fair bet that he'd choose one of his own recordings. He actually chose five! The other three came from Mario Lanza, Frank Sinatra and Gracie Fields who must feel very honoured to have replaced three Wisdom records. One of his choices, a comedy duet with Joyce Grenfell, was rather sweet; but the others were just the usual bland pap.

His singing may be annoying, but it came as a welcome relief from the interview sections. They concentrated on his difficult childhood. His father beat him, he constantly reminded us. After a spell in the services he found his niche in the entertainment business and everybody loved him. Oh, how they loved him! Gracie Fields loved him, David Nixon loved him, Broadway loved him! Most comedians want to be loved, but none are so nakedly desperate to prove they are as Norman Wisdom.

His happiest moment came during his divorce when his children chose to live with him rather than their mother. For any normal person, this happiness would have been slightly tempered by the thought of the pain his children must have gone through, but not our Norman. Throughout his life he appears to have spared no thought for anyone but himself. Every person he mentioned was mentioned in relation to him and how much they adored him.

I suspect that for many people Norman's unselfconscious openness is appealing, and a welcome relief from the reticence of most British performers. Personally I find it revolting. 

His Oscar nomination got a mention, like it does in most of his interviews. I can find no trace of any such nomination. Maybe it was an obscure one for one of his songs, but he always gives the impression it was for his performance in The Night They Raided Minsky's.

In the long history of Desert Island Discs few editions can have been as  damaging to its subject as this one. It'll be a long time before I can watch one of his films without shuddering at the memory.