You’ve heard of movie stars breaking America, and we know some obscure entertainment acts often make it big in Japan, but have you ever heard of anyone being big in Albania? The little country in the Eastern Bloc only has a population of 2.7 million, so they’re not exactly known for producing homegrown talent that shines on the international stage. But little Norman Wisdom – the British comedy actor who Charlie Chaplin once called “my favourite clown” – was a bona fide entertainment legend in Albania. He was even awarded the Freedom of Tirana, the country’s capital city. But why?
Albania wasn’t really a fun place to live in the second half of the 20th century. The country was ruled by the dictatorship of communist leader Enver Hoxha for 40 years between 1944 and 1985. His secret police kept the country controlled by fear; political opponents were jailed; use of the death penalty was not uncommon.
Western culture, in particular the burgeoning Hollywood scene, was viewed with suspicion. Hoxha banned Western movies from Albanian life, meaning film stars were practically non-existent in their corner of the Eastern Bloc. All except one London-born slapstick actor called Norman.
It’s easy to forget how big a phenomenon Norman Wisdom was back in his heyday. This is a man who was a bigger British box-office draw than James Bond in the 1960s. A uniquely British clown, who had perfected the art of the pratfall, Wisdom’s comedy was universal, and his antics found great acclaim across the globe, exported as far and wide as Hong Kong, South America and Iran. But Albania had a special place in their heart for him: to them, he represented the entire Western world.
The exact reasons Enver Hoxha allowed Norman Wisdom movies to be played in Albania are not known, but the story goes that he saw Wisdom’s characters’ perennial struggles against ‘The Man’ as a communist parable on class war – the effete corporate figure of Mr Grimsdale was, apparently, capitalism personified.
So, by virtue of the fact that they were among the only English-language movies allowed to be broadcast, Norman Wisdom comedies like ‘Trouble In Store’ and ‘A Stitch In Time’ quickly became beloved among the Albanian public, and Norman himself became a cult figure. He was known as simply “Mr Pitkin”, his character from the Rank Organisation movies. “There was no sex, no bad language, no car crashes or crime, so the authorities used to let them watch,” Wisdom said.
Wisdom first visited Albania in 1995 on a mission to help fund an orphanage, and he was shocked to find that he still had such fervent followers; when asked why he thought he was still so famous in Albania, Wisdom replied: “They must be raving mad”. Wisdom visited again in 2001, when the England football team flew to Tirana to play a World Cup qualifier.
The crowd erupted in applause when Wisdom – wearing a half-England, half-Albania football shirt – was led out to the centre of the pitch, prat-falling on the way. David Beckham, who later took to the pitch as part of the England team, only got half as warm a welcome. A year later, Wisdom charted at number 18 in the Albanian Radio Chart, with a song (written by Tim Rice) called ‘Big in Albania’.
Knighted in 2001, Sir Norman Wisdom announced his retirement from comedy in 2005 on his 90th birthday, and sadly lived out his last few years in a care home in the Isle of Man. He died aged 95 in 2010, and the whole world mourned the loss of a true comedy legend.
Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha led the tributes. “I was deeply saddened to hear about the death of one of the greatest actors of world comedy, a particular favourite of Albanian audiences and one of the dearest friends of our nation, Sir Norman Wisdom. He used to be a cult figure in Albania and the Albanian public welcomed him as such. The Albanians followed his entertaining comedies with great interest.”
Norman Wisdom’s affect on Albanian culture could not be understated. “During the Communist regime, when life was harsh and we were very isolated, he was the only window we had into Western culture,” says Testa Starova, deputy head of the Albanian Embassy in London. “Through his films, Albanians learned to appreciate British humour. Lines from his films became part of everyday life. For us, he was as big as Charlie Chaplin.”
Watch Norman in action below…