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Pitkin behind the Iron Curtain

British comedian Norman Wisdom signing autographs in the Red Square in Moscow, Russian on July 18, 1965. (AP Photo)

It was an unusually busy October for His Excellency Zef Mazi. Rarely does the Albanian ambassador to the UK have to deal with scores of urgent requests from the media. But when the news came through that Sir Norman Wisdom had died, his office went into overdrive.

Telegrams detailing the grief of the Albanian people had to be sent and TV interviews from the likes of BBC News had to be accommodated. Even the Albanian president was called into action, with a personal statement published on the embassy’s website next to a picture of him embracing a frail-looking Wisdom.

In his home country, Wisdom was affectionately seen as a lovable fool – the rubber-faced funnyman who made post-war Britain laugh by falling down gracefully, an anachronism from the faded music hall past. Even his most famous tribute, that he was Charlie Chaplin’s favourite clown, was delivered as if it were a back-handed compliment.

Yet those who grew up on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War have a very different view of Wisdom and his downtrodden alter ego Pitkin. From Moscow to Zagreb, he was one of the few Western film stars allowed to be seen by the public. This virtual monopoly saw him revered as the most unlikely of class warriors, an allegorical everyman who used humour and humanity to pull off small but unlikely victories over the petty impositions of those in authority. And nowhere did Wisdom’s films strike such a chord as in Albania, Europe’s most isolated and ideologically
pure Communist dictatorship, run by the hard-line, paranoid Enver Hoxha.

“We had the typical life of a country that was under Communist rule… and over time things got a lot harder,” explains Ambassador Mazi. “Lack of freedom of movement and expression, no human rights. People would risk their lives for expressing the concerns of the market. People went to jail for eight years for saying: ‘How come we can’t have olive oil?’”

“The common people saw the code: Pitkin was one of them, against the directors”

But for the isolationist Albanian government, which viewed even China as being too politically liberal, there was one major threat to their rule: foreign TV networks. Albania is sandwiched between Italy and Greece, and the Communist Party was constantly battling a public which used hidden TV aerials to find out what was going on in the outside world. By the 1970s the regime officially blocked all outside signals, sanctioning the broadcast of only those foreign films that posed no political threat. When the censors came across Norman Wisdom, he appeared to tick all the right boxes.

“Norman Wisdom’s films were shown because it was decided they were typical English humour that could do no damage,” Mazi recalls. “They were not films that could contribute to bringing down the system. Rather they would amuse people. Then the regime could say: ‘OK, we are even showing Western films here.’”

Whilst the Communist Party saw Wisdom’s films as a fig leaf for its repression of foreign artistic influences, the Albanian people immediately connected with Pitkin’s struggles against seemingly unbeatable foes. “The Albanian people have a very good sense of humour, very similar to the British, and we immediately got the message from the films of Norman Wisdom,” says Mazi. “Pitkin’s role playing tricks on policemen, and on his boss Mr Grimsdale and so on. And getting away with it! People liked this because it was how they cheated their own system. There was a joke we had back then [about the Communist Party] that summed it up: ‘You pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.’”

The official imprimatur on Wisdom’s films saw him become one of the country’s most popular stars, embraced by even highbrow critics. Rudolf Marku is one of Albania’s greatest living poets and a former editor of the the officially sanctioned culture newspaper Drita (“Light”). “One of my books had been banned for ‘ideological errors’ and I was sent to the countryside for re-education,” he explains. “I don’t know if you’ve seen the film ‘Cinema Paradiso’, but this was a small town with the cinema at its centre. In the cinema you could see the world outside the walls.”

It was here that he saw his first Wisdom film. “Such beautiful films, and he was immediately attached to the viewers. Why? Norman had the human touch and was always on the side of the vulnerable people. He tried to make fun out of those in power. The government showed the films but the common people saw the code: he was one of them, against the directors, the police. In translation, for the common people, it was to be against the government.”

When Enver Hoxha died in 1985, sparking the beginning of the end of the regime, Wisdom’s popularity endured. On his first visit to Albania in 1995 he was mobbed everywhere he went. In 2001 when he returned and made an
appearance with David Beckham at a football match between Albania and England, it was perhaps the first and last time Beckham was overshadowed at a public appearance.

Whilst in the UK Wisdom’s death was met with the usual glib obituaries proffered to the elder statesmen of entertainment, in Albania his passing was met with sadness across the country. “People really loved him as a human being, an actor, a comedian who touched a chord in those difficult times,” says Mazi. “He gave our people a reason to laugh at a time in our history when it wasn’t very easy to laugh.”

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