A Tribute To Sir Norman Wisdom

Steve Bennett at the Leicester Comedy Festival event

A supporting actress from Waterloo Road warbling through showtunes, an organ voluntary, that camp bloke from the Airport reality show and a former backing singer for Showaddywaddy… you would never have guessed from this bizarre line-up that this was a tribute to Norman Wisdom.

But that’s what this variety line-up of largely aging cruise-ship-style turns was billed as. The much-loved comedian’s smiling face hung over the stage, clips were shown at the start of each half, and occasionally an act would serve up some sort of anecdote. The mother of the Showaddywaddy woman once made him egg and chips! And then he did the washing up! Fascinating.

Keyboard player Rick Wakeman, his neighbour on the Isle of Man for 15 years, was one of the guests who suggested there was another side to Wisdom, claiming they’d been banned from five pubs on the island – and the Gaiety Theatre. This could have been enlightening, but details were not forthcoming; it wasn’t that sort of night.

In fact, it’s hard to tell what sort of a night it was. If you didn’t already know, you couldn’t have guessed that Wisdom was a comedian – as almost everyone who played tribute was a musician, performing their glittery old-school acts to a largely elderly, and very sparse, audience. It would probably be cynical to point out that many of the turns were represented by Wisdom’s former manager Johnny Mans, especially as the night was designed to raise funds for the Roy Castle Fund for cancer research, The Grand Order Of Water Rats, and Leicester Comedy Festival, of which Wisdom was patron.

Jeremy Spake was compere, as unfunny as you might expect. To get an idea of the level: ‘He’s going to fiddle with his organ’ he said of opening act Richard Lennox, who indeed played the De Montford Hall’s impressive instrument after a lively Last Night Of The Proms style montage on the grand piano.

In garish Eighties suits, personable father and son comedy duo Simmons and Simmons indulged in some unashamedly old-fashioned banter, before leading a rendition of (Is This The Way To) Amarillo, the most successful of the many, many attempts to get the audience to join in with the supposed fun tonight.

Mary Lane demonstrated an impressively rich singing voice, and Lol Williams – who recorded a CD with Wisdom demonstrated his velvety tones in the Rat Pack crooner style. The same can’t be said of young Georgina Brown, who ruined a couple of numbers with her X-Factor-style histrionics failing to compensate a lack of diction or emotion.

Fellow Water Rat Nicholas Parsons paid brief tribute to Wisdom before launching into his after-dinner speech routine – which contained a surprisingly high proportion of jokes about prostitutes; while Coronation Street’s Bruce Jones, aka Les Battersby, told us what a laugh Sir Norman was on set.

Ultimate pub singer Jess Conrad seemed to be a big draw, though his egotistical preening is all part of the cheesy persona. He tried, with only limited success, to get the audience to join in with his rock-and-roll repertoire, which includes the song (Why Must I Be A) Teenager In Love? Jess Conrad is 75.

Norman Widsom impersonator Glenn Ford made a couple of awkward appearances with Spake, before using his own slot for more singing, including Wisdom’s trademark number Don’t Laugh At Me Because I’m A Fool.

Only Wakeman really broke out of the dated cabaret clichés. He has a couple of great jokes – well, he stole them from the best, such as Emo Philips – and impressively reimagined a montage of nursery rhymes as done by various composers, then applied the same technique to Eleanor Rigby; as if written by Prokofiev.

A strong end to a strange, and often strained, night. I can’t help but thinking that, friends though they might have been, Norm could have done with a better send-off than this.

Published: 14 Feb 2011

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