Laurel and Hardy or Norman Wisdom?
This blog is like the No. 29 bus. You wait ages for one then two come along at once. It’s just that I need to feel a little inspired by a subject and have felt a little uninspired of late. I write this at the witching hour, which for me is between 3.00 am and 4.00 am. Woken by a very bizarre nightmare, which thankfully is rapidly fading into my murky subconscious, I realised I had been inspired by yesterday.
The Isle of Wight Steam Railway is run by people who love their jobs. I spoke a little last time about a Steam Rally where it felt as though the organisers had lost the plot and sacrificed a great idea to the money god. Well the opposite is true at Haven Street on the Isle of Wight, home of the Isle of Wight Steam Railway. Here the love of those who work and volunteer filters down to everyone. This simple phenomenon has created a real haven for everyone who visits.
Yesterday, despite the occasional, poorly-timed deluge, visitors had a splendid day riding steam trains, making rope, holding owls, listening to Victorian singers, doing Victorian dances and watching Mr Alexander. From the look on their faces and the kind comments made they were caught in the spell of love for what was being woven. My good friends, the re-enactors, the Victorians were there too, all in full regalia and in good spirits (as they always are!). A grand time was enjoyed by all!
As the Victorians were staying on site, I had promised an evening film show for them. At some events I drop a screen on the stage and show films. I love the occasion of it. A warm evening, the sun just set, and the flickering images on the screen slowly defining themselves as the darkness grows. A classic film. It was to be Norman Wisdom, A Square Peg.
As a curtain raiser, I put on a firm favourite of mine, Way Out West with Laurel and Hardy. See it again before you die. It has every element of joy, every trick of early cinema, and classic moments of great hilarity, created, as they always were, by artistry, dedication and hard work. The audience of Victorians, now in mufti, fell about and the occasion was made even more wonderful by one of their number, Pauline, dressed in 50s usherette costume, giving out free popcorn and ice lollies in the interval. You have the idea.
Come the Big Feature. What a disappointment. It seems almost heretical to say it, but Norman Wisdom’s supposed masterpiece was not very funny. Hardly a single laugh greeted what became an endurance test for most present. Of course they were far too kind to say so, but A Square Peg was definitely in a round hole. Apart from a lovely cameo by the ample Hattie Jacques, the rest was pretty dire. What did we find so funny in just post-second world war? It felt lame and uninspired, certainly by comparison and just after the classic from twenty years earlier. Perhaps it was just a trick of history. Way Out West was from a very different era, and maybe we needed that distance to find it funny. A Square Peg was somehow too modern, yet not somehow modern enough to benefit from all the current awareness and artistry of today’s screen magic workers.
I have been lying here thinking of what else made the two so different. It has something to do with the magic of the relationship between Stan and Ol. The wonderful difference of their status that makes their classic clowning so riveting. The relationship between Pitkin and ever-present Mr Grimsdale pales into inconsequence by comparison. And Norman’s physical clowning skills, sad to say, are not a patch on the wonderful Oliver Hardy, whose huge girth seems no obstacle to his delicate and dancer’s finesse of movement. Even the sad clown moment when Norman’s diminutive anti-hero declares his love for a young Honor Blackman was lame and a bit embarrassing. From the first film though, the haunting, gentle dance Stan and Ol give us to the close harmony of a cowboy choir will remain one of my top ten film moments of all time. The sequence with the rope and the donkey is sheer comic genius.
Seek out Way Out West from your local film library. It is an hour of heaven. Leave Norman Wisdom to your memory of him. He’s better off there.
All the best from a road near you,