Sir Norman's last UK show is in Norwich

JO GREEN Comic legend Sir Norman Wisdom’s announcement that he plans to retire at 90 means his final British stage appearance will be at Norwich on Sunday. The news came as a surprise to the Theatre Royal, who had booked his variety show months in advance, and sent fans flocking to buy tickets.

JO GREEN

It was an announcement that sent his fans into a spin and inspired confused scenes at Norwich's Theatre Royal that would probably have tickled slapstick comic Sir Norman Wisdom.

As news broke yesterday that Sir Norman would retire next year on his 90th birthday, the telephone ticket line at the theatre, which is hosting the comic's variety show on Sunday, was ringing off the hook.

Fans raced to buy tickets for what it turns out could be the last chance to see the comic on stage in the UK. All 1206 seats in the house have gone.

The suddenness of the announcement left theatre staff reeling but delighted that their theatre had been chosen as the venue for Sir Norman's last British stage performance.

“We're hoping to organise some kind of event to mark the occasion though at this stage we still haven't managed to speak to Sir Norman's agent to confirm this is his last show,” said the theatre's bemused spokesman Kevin Sides yesterday.

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“His answerphone has been on permanently since the story broke and I imagine he's as busy answering queries as we are.

“We certainly hadn't been aware beforehand that Sunday's show would be the last one he does in the UK before he retires. The first we heard of it was when we saw the story in the national papers and yes, it has been a surprise, although a nice one. Since the news broke we've been extremely busy.

“Our box office opened at 9.30am and by 12pm we'd sold over 200 tickets. Before today the show was already proving popular but today's sales have really been fantastic.

“People have been booking from all over the country.”

Sir Norman, who has had a hugely successful stage and screen career for well over 50 years, had been booked up months ago to do Sunday night's show and was expected to give a talk to the Friends of the theatre before the performance.

He regularly performs in East Anglia, last appearing at the Theatre Royal in 1996 and 1997 and has a strong fanbase here and with ticket prices ranging from £4 to £17.50 advance sales had been going well.

But yesterday's announcement that he plans to bow out of the spotlight and retire on February 4 – his 90th birthday – means the Norwich show will be his last and that has whipped his fans into a frenzy.

After playing at the Theatre Royal he goes on to perform on a month-long Caribbean cruise at Christmas before hanging up his flat cap for good and settling down to a quiet life with his friends and family on the Isle of Man.

Sir Norman's agent and manager, Johnny Mans, said it was a desire to enjoy his family rather than his age that had prompted Sir Norman to finally think about retiring.

Although he still loved performing, Mr Mans said Sir Norman, who was knighted four years ago, felt he should spend more time with his children and grandchildren and, with his 90th birthday approaching, this seemed the right time to stop.

“He has worked all his life, and has been in the business for over 50 years. He wants to play golf, drive around the Isle of Man where he lives, and pop across to see his kids now and again.”

Sir Norman is still healthy, walking twice a day, riding a bike and jogging.

“He still enjoys what he's doing – you can't get this business out of your system. He just doesn't want to do so many appearances.”

Although it is uncertain at this stage what form the Theatre Royal's tribute will take on Sunday, Mr Sides said it would be unthinkable not to mark Sir Norman's career with some kind of ceremony or press call.

Sir Norman, whose film career began in 1948, has described his childhood as “straight out of a Charles Dickens novel”. Born in London in 1915 his mother left when he was nine and his “brutal” and drunken father soon put him and his brother into an orphanage.

During his youth he went from job to job, but it was after joining the Army that he discovered his talent for making people laugh. One of his big breaks came when Rex Harrison spotted his talent during a charity performance and from there his career took off.

He brought his comic character, the Gump, to the cinema with immediate

success in his 1953 film, Trouble In Store and in the 1950s and '60s made a name for himself as a well-meaning half-wit with an infectious laugh.

He became the most successful clown since Charlie Chaplin and one of the most mimicked comics in history. His appeal seems to span the generations and in Albania, where his films were one of the few things not censored by the state, he is a national hero.During his career he made more than 30 films, the most recent with Kenneth Branagh in the big screen adaptation of Five Children and It.

He said in recent years: “I still regard myself as a short-arse who's been lucky, although I've worked for it.

On the ageing process, he said: “As you get older three things happen. The first is your memory goes, and I can't remember the other two . . .”

Knighted in 2000, he made his usual trip over the legs as he collected the honour from the Queen, protesting: “I couldn't help it”.

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