Norman Wisdom big in Albania

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

LISA MULLINS: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World. The British comic actor Norman Wisdom has died. Wisdom entertained moviegoers in the 1950s and �60s with his portrayal of bumbling characters, one in particular.

MALE SPEAKER: What is your name?

NORMAN WISDOM: Pitkin, sir.

MULLINS: Norman Wisdom's portrayal of Pitkin won fans not only in Britain but in the unlikeliest of places. His movies were huge in then-Communist Albania, at a time when few other Western imports were permitted there. Bill Hamilton was the first BBC correspondent to get into the Balkan nation during the Communist regime. He is now retired, but we reached him at his home in Saint Albans, England. Bill Hamilton, you went to Albania with Sir Norman Wisdom twice in 1995 and 2001. How popular was he there?

BILL HAMILTON: Huge. He had one unfulfilled ambition in life, you see. And that was to visit the country where he'd become a household name, but he had to wait until he was in his 80s. Now, what had happened was during the 45 years of the [INDISCERNIBLE] Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, God, God was abolished from the country. He actually went further than either Stalin or Hitler in doing so. But Pitkin was seen as acceptable viewing for the masses. Now Norman put his appeal down to the absence of sex, violence and crime in his films. But for Hoxha it was the struggles of the working-class hero Pitkin that we heard just now on your clip against his boss Mr. Grimsdale that served to replicate the glorious revolutionary victory of the proletariat and that's why he, of course, was so popular because his films were seen 20 times over by the entire population raising the few laughs that were around in the times of the repression.

MULLINS: I see. So they could see, the population of Albania could see this comedian through Norman Wisdom as not only the voice of the proletariat, but also as a comedian. I mean they could laugh at him.

HAMILTON: Oh, yes, they could laugh at him. And laugh they did. And we had just got into the country the first time round and I said to him, look, I'll take you into a theater here, you sit in the front row of the audience and you can see what the Albanians can do on the stage. Two seconds later, I looked to my left and the seat was empty because by then Norman had jumped onto the stage, knocked the comic off his microphone, taken it over. Then he removed the pianist from his seat and sat down and began to accompany his own singing of Don't Laugh At Me �Cause I'm A Fool. Absolutely amazing.

MULLINS: That was his famous song in the UK.

HAMILTON: It was indeed, yes.

MULLINS: And all the Albanians knew it?

HAMILTON: Oh, they knew everything about Norman. And thousands of people turned out to greet him in the main streets and twice it looked as if he was going to be involved in a stampede and we had to call the police to evacuate him, which was quite something.

MULLINS: Now, let me ask you about something else. Sir Norman Wisdom actually released a song called Big In Albania that made it to number 18 in the Albanian charts. This is just about 8 years ago. Did you ever hear the song?

HAMILTON: Well, now, that will show you just how popular he was because that song wouldn't have got anywhere near the top 20 in the UK.

MULLINS: I just want to play for you a bit of this song. Now, by the way, did you ever hear this song yourself, Big In Albania?

HAMILTON: I didn't, but I'm dying to hear it now.

MULLINS: I'm so glad you said that. Give a listen. What did you think of that?

HAMILTON: I don't think the lyrics were all that exciting were they? But it did give the message out quite clearly about just how much the people there appreciated his timeless humor.

MULLINS: That's right, no where's more devoted than Albania, they've got Normania. I mean it's darn good he good think of something to rhyme with Albania.

HAMILTON: Yeah, that's true. That's true. Wherever he went, he said where are we going next? Where are we going next? I'm the luckiest little devil in the world. Isn't is nice to think you could live life to the full like that and enjoy every second of every day?

MULLINS: And it sounds like that's exactly what he did until the age of 95 when British comic actor Norman Wisdom died. And thank you so much Bill Hamilton, the first BBC correspondent allowed to enter Albania during the Communist regime there. You travelled, in fact, with Sir Norman Wisdom. Thank you for telling us the stories about him as well.

HAMILTON: Lovely talking to you.

MULLINS: Norman Wisdom was hilarious. You can see for yourself in a video of that song, Big In Albania. It's at TheWorld.org.