The entire population of the Isle of Man, the adopted home of the comedian Norman Wisdom, has been invited to his funeral today.
All 80,000 residents are unlikely to make it – fortunately for the sanity of the staff at Sir Norman’s Bar at the Sefton Hotel in Douglas, named in his honour, where mourners are invited to toast his memory – but hundreds are expected in the church, joining showbusiness figures including Michael Grade, the former chairman of BBC and ITV. Many more will line the streets along the route of the horse-drawn hearse to St George’s church, undoubtedly hoping that the coffin bearers will stumble, a passing seagull will add its tribute, or the horses will disgrace themselves, in true Pitkinish style.
“He was just a bundle of fun,” his son Nick said, issuing the recklessly general invitation.
Wisdom died peacefully in his sleep on 4 October, aged 95, in the nursing home on the island where he had lived after becoming too frail to stay in the antiques-filled house he designed himself and lived in for 30 years.
“He was my mate,” his son said on Manx radio this morning.
Enid and Malcolm Watson, who owned a filling station on the island, recalled him marching out on to the forecourt and serving customers. “We would dash out and say ‘Norman, you can’t be doing that’ and the customers would often do a double take and say, ‘You look like Norman Wisdom’ to which he would reply, ‘Do I?’”
His life on the island – after decades as one of Britain’s most beloved stage and film comedians and a superstar in Albania, where his were the only western films allowed under the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha – was in startling contrast to his early years in London.
After his parents divorced, he and his brother lived on their wits, so hungry they sometimes survived by stealing food. He left school at 13 to become a delivery boy, and only realised his talent as an entertainer during his years in the army.
The burial after the church service will be a private family event, but a memorial service is being organised for St Paul’s Cathedral in London in February on what would have been his 96th birthday.
Among the more well known faces were Scottish singer Moira Anderson, actors Todd Carty, Ricky Tomlinson and former BBC Chairman, Michael Grade.
But it was anything but a showbiz affair as Sir Norman’s family had extended the invitation to the whole of the Island.
His son Nicholas insisted that his father would have wanted it that way.
St George’s Church was packed with people of all ages and all backgrounds but far from being a sombre affair, the atmosphere was one of celebration.
One group of children raised flags in honour of Sir Norman’s life. Many had met him at various charity functions over the years.
They may not have known the comedy and film work which propelled Sir Norman to international fame but they did know him from his many appearances around the island.
It seems Sir Norman’s popularity on the island had more to do with his generosity of spirit than his international stardom.