Norman Wisdom and the Cold War – Big in Albania

A friend of mine recently returned to England after an adventurous trip around south-eastern Europe, taking in the sites of Montenegro, Croatia and Albania. She was very complimentary about the first two but rather damning about the latter. My colleague is Canadian and also fairly young, having been born in the seventies, so she asked me who was this guy the Albanians kept talking about, a guy called Norman Wisdom.

A household name

Aha, I said, Sir Norman, 95 years-old and a classic British comedy icon. OK, Wisdom’s slapstick humour looks a bit dated now and not really suited to our sophisticated tastes but he remains a household name in Britain – well, to anyone over 40. And, it seems, a household name in Albania.

During the long, forty-four year rule of Stalinist dictator, Enver Hoxha, Norman Wisdom’s films were amongst the few bits of Western culture or entertainment that were allowed in this small, cut-off, forgotten country called Albania, or, to use its correct title of the time, the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania. Films like Trouble In StoreA Stitch In Time and The Early Bird, made in the fifties and early sixties, had Wisdom playing the hapless Norman Pitkin, fighting against the big men in suits smoking on cigars. Hoxha saw Pitkin as the ultimate proletarian, waging a one-man war against the capitalist world of corporations and big money. This, the dictator dictated, was appropriate communist viewing for Albania’s comedy-starved masses and, as a result, our very own Norman became a huge hit in Albania.

Albania v England

I remember watching on TV a football match between Albania (playing at home) and England in about March 1989. By this time Hoxha (pictured) was dead but the country was still a closed nation. Sir Norman came onto the pitch as a pre-match or half-time entertainment, I forget which, dressed from head-to-foot in the colours of England down one half of his body; and the Albanian colours the other half. He danced across the pitch, executing his trademark trip, and then exited to huge rounds of applause. There may have been more – I can’t remember.

In 1995, after the fall of Communism, Wisdom was granted the freedom of Albania’s capital, Tirana. And during an appearance on England’s training ground in Albania in 2001, Wisdom still managed to cause great excitement. In the post-Cold War years Wisdom did much to support the many orphanages of Albania and showed great interest as the country started on its difficult journey from communism to democracy.

Sadly, Sir Norman is very elderly and frail now. But there will be two or three generations of Albanians for whom Norman Wisdom was their sole means of humour and escape in a dark, blighted world. And for that he’ll always be cherished and remembered.

Indeed, Sir Norman starred in this rather strange self-tribute video of himself called ‘Big in Albania‘.

Rupert Colley.
STOP PRESS: Sir Norman Wisdom died exactly one month after this article, on 4 October 2010.

Rupert Colley

Read more about the Cold War in The Cold War: History In An Hour available in various digital formats and audio only 99p / $1.60.