TELEVISION: Norman Wisdom and the Artful Hoxha on a Cultural Tour

By Thompson, Ben | The Independent (London, England), January 22, 1996 | Go to article overview
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TELEVISION: Norman Wisdom and the Artful Hoxha on a Cultural Tour


Thompson, Ben, The Independent (London, England)


"HE'S THE darling of dictators, adored by totalitarians from Albania to Iran . . . he's Norman Wisdom." There are moments when you can feel the boundaries of reality dissolve and reconstitute themselves in a better shape. Monday's Newsnight (BBC2

) was one of them. Jeremy Paxman is a great man and everything, but I'm glad Peter Snow was around to break this story. In his handling of the Norman-Wis- dom-visits-Albania-to-be-feted-by-politicians-and-public-alike saga, Snow showed what it is that makes him not just a fine broadcaster, but also the only man with the vision to shake our nation out of its moral and social malaise.

He has none of that horrid knowingness which takes all the joy out of everything. The news, even the skateboarding-duck slot, is a source of wonder to him, and if your job is to communicate the fact that Albanians know and revere Norman Wisdom as "Pitkin", a sense of wonder is an essential resource. Snow is no soft touch, either. When one of Wisdom's former co-stars suggested that his popularity in Albania might stem from the fact that he "cocked a snook at authority", he was gently but firmly reminded that this was unlikely to explain his popularity with Enver Hoxha.

The Albanian ambassador, Pauli Qesku, proved a worthier ally in Peter's quest to get to the bottom of things.

Pauli explained that Norman would be touring his country as a guest of the Minister of Culture, and strove to find an explanation for the great man's popularity with authorities and populace alike.

The state censors allowed the Wisdom oeuvre to pass uncut, believing - somewhat naively, in my opinion - that it "would not harm the mental formation of the younger generation"; as for the people, well, perhaps "in this small man, Albanians saw themselves".

Americans see themselves, in ever-increasing numbers, on Ricki Lake (C4). After a relatively short paddle in the crowded waters of the daytime talk show, the slimmed-down star of John Waters' Hairspray is leaving rivals floundering in her wake. She's even giving grand ole Oprah something to think about. Wednesday's edition, "I Can't Believe You Left Me for That", showed what. Anyone who can present such supremely exploit-ative material and come out of it looking sympathetic must be a force to be reckoned with.

The subject matter was much as the title led you to expect: "Men sit between their new partners and their ex-girlfriends, who want to know what's so special about their replacements." People often marvel at the American aptitude for doing emotional laundry on television, but there has usually been a private pre-wash. Here, the stains were fresh: in some cases, literally.

Angel - an angel of some kind, but probably not mercy - had broughtial element to all this, but there are heartening aspects, too. In the studio, people of all colours seem to get along; perhaps because the talk show is the only sphere of US society in which black Americans feel encouraged to participate as equals. I love the way the audience talk more fluent therapese than the relationship counsellors - "Do you love yourself? You are gorgeous: let him go, let him get on his horse and ride off to Texas."

"God must have a sense of humour," observed David Warner's engagingly embittered vicar in the first episode of Signs and Wonders (BBC2), "otherwise why would he have created the Church of England?

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TELEVISION: Norman Wisdom and the Artful Hoxha on a Cultural Tour
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