SIR Norman Wisdom will always be remembered as the comical star of slapstick, creator of the hapless Norman Pitkin.
He was loved by millions, a showbiz legend with a long and successful career. But few people know what he was like behind closed doors, away from the cameras.
Ann Axe saw the man behind the mirth. She befriended Norman when they met on a cruise liner back in 1993 and went on to spend years by his side as his personal assistant and carer, providing his meals, doing his washing and keeping him company.
Now Ann, who lives in Gosport, has written a book about her experiences called Pitkin’s P.A - My Life with Sir Norman Wisdom.
She says: ‘Some people don’t know what a nice man and caring man he was. He was a legend. It was really important for me to write the book and I felt really honoured to be a part of his life.’
Ann was living in Southsea when she got divorced. She decided she needed a break and went on a cruise around the Mediterranean and on to the Caribbean. It was here that she first met Norman.
‘I was a bit fed up so I went on a solos holiday,’ says Ann, 71.
‘They were good. You met a lot of men who could dance. It was very good company.
‘Somebody said to me ‘‘did you know Norman Wisdom is on the ship?’’. I remembered seeing him on television when I was about 12, so when we got to Madeira I thought I would go to the front of the ship to have a look.
As I was coming back Norman was coming the other way.
‘He asked me if I wanted to go to the Reeds Hotel with him, but I said I couldn’t because I was going with somebody else.’
But Ann, Norman and his friend Patrick became close friends whilst on the cruise, often dining together and going for drinks.
As they docked at their final port of call in Caracas in Venezuela, Ann made a comment to Norman which would change her life.
She recalls: ‘I said ‘‘if you ever need a new secretary, I will come and work for you’’. I don’t know if I meant it, but I said it and then it happened within a few months.’
When they returned to the UK, Norman invited Ann to watch him on tour in Worthing. At the end of the show she went backstage where she was approached by Barbara, Norman’s PA at the time. She asked Ann if she would be interested in taking over her role.
So Ann packed up and moved to his home, called Ballalaugh, on the Isle of Man, while her son moved into her house in Southsea where he looked after her dogs, poodles Hobo and Tramp.
Ann used to take care of Norman’s meals, clean and iron his clothes and sort out his mail – with hundreds of letters arriving from fans, he wanted to ensure that they all got a reply.
She says: ‘He wanted to read all his letters. He didn’t used to call them his fans, he would call them his chums.
‘If anybody knocked at the door, even if he was asleep, he would wake up and come out and say hello. He was just a very nice man. He really used to make me laugh.’
She would accompany him to performances around the UK and often to charity golf events. They would also go walking together around the Isle of Man.
Ann says: ‘He was a lovely man. I was so sure he would live to be 100. He had had a hard life and he appreciated that he had done well for himself.
‘He had to fight hard for what he got. He made time for people. People loved him, and I loved him. He was like a grandad to my grandchildren.’
Ann began to work for Norman in 1994. She was his PA for five years, until she decided she needed a break and she returned to Southsea. But it wasn’t to be the end of her time with him.
‘I went back four times after that,’ she says.
‘It was on and off. He would ring me up saying ‘‘when are you coming back?’’
‘But it just gave me a break. It was a 24/7 job. It was like living out of suitcases. We were always on the road doing something. We went on six or eight-week tours.’
Ann has many highlights of her time with Norman. As she speaks about him, she can’t help but smile as she remembers the happy times they had together.
She tells how she was in bed once and he opened her bedroom door and threw his socks at her to wake her up.
Ann recalls when Norman was a guest on the TV show Noel’s House Party, alongside Ronnie Corbett and the Spice Girls.
Ann’s grandaughter Sadie was a big fan of the Spice Girls and she’d asked them for an autograph for her.
But they were so excited to meet Norman that they asked for his autograph.
She also clearly recalls going on An Audience With Bruce Forsyth.
‘If they had dropped a bomb in the room that night, there would be nobody left in showbusiness. Everybody was there.’
Norman loved children and would often visit children’s hospices across the country. Norman and Ann went to Westminster Abbey for the Bravest Children Awards.
It was only when Ann went back to the Isle of Man for her final stint caring for Norman in 2005 that she began to notice his health had deteriorated.
He was no longer allowed to drive as he had become erratic behind the wheel. His memory had also begun to fade.
‘I left a very fit man, and I came back to a very unfit man,’ says Ann.
‘He used to be really fit, but then when I went back he did nothing. But he still had a sense of humour.’
In August 2007, Norman was moved into a care home on the Isle of Man, as he battled with dementia.
Ann continued to visit him at least once a year, when they would go out together.
But sadly, on October 4 last year, he died aged 95.
‘I was devastated,’ adds Ann.
‘I had been to see him the year before and he was so witty. But he had a wonderful life. Not many people live to be that age.’
His funeral was attended by hundreds of close family and friends and figures from the world of showbiz.
Ann says: ‘I felt very privileged at the funeral because the family invited me to go in the car.’
Now, Ann’s book will allow other people to have a glimpse into the world of Norman Wisdom.
‘It was great working for him,’ she adds.
Ann had already decided she wanted to write a book about her time with Norman Wisdom before he died.
She never kept a diary of their time together, so everything was written from memory. The book, called Pitkin’s P.A - My Life with Sir Norman Wisdom, was released last month.
‘I wanted to do this book as a tribute to Norman,’ she says.
To buy the book, which is priced at £6.99, go to lilypublications.co.uk