Sir Norman Joseph Wisdom,[1] OBE[2] (4 February 1915 – 4 October 2010) was an English actor, comedian, musician and singer best known for a series of comedy films produced between 1953 and 1966 featuring a hapless character called Norman Pitkin.[3] He was awarded the 1953 BAFTA Award for Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles following the release of Trouble in Store, his first film in a lead role.

Norman Wisdom
Wisdom in 1965
Birth nameNorman Joseph Wisdom[1]
Born(1915-02-04)4 February 1915
Marylebone, London, England
Died4 October 2010(2010-10-04) (aged 95)
Ballasalla, Isle of Man
Resting placeKirk Bride Churchyard, Bride, Isle of Man
  • Comedian
  • actor
  • singer
Years active1946–2008
Doreen Naomi Brett
(m. 1941; div. 1946)
Freda Simpson
(m. 1947; div. 1969)
Children3, including Nicholas Wisdom
Military career
Allegiance United Kingdom
Service/branchMerchant Navy
British Army
Years of service1930–1946
Unit10th Royal Hussars
Royal Corps of Signals
Battles/warsSecond World War

Wisdom gained celebrity status in lands as far apart as South America, Iran and many Eastern Bloc countries, particularly in Albania where his films were the only ones with Western actors permitted to be shown by dictator Enver Hoxha.[4] Charlie Chaplin once referred to Wisdom as his "favourite clown".[5]

Wisdom later forged a career on Broadway in New York City, alongside stars such as Mandy Patinkin and as a television actor, winning critical acclaim for his dramatic role of a dying cancer patient in the television play Going Gently in 1981. He toured Australia and South Africa.[3] After the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, a hospice was named in his honour.[4] In 1995, he was given the Freedom of the City of London and of Tirana.[4] The same year, he was appointed OBE and was knighted five years later.[4]

Early life


Norman Joseph Wisdom was born in the Marylebone district of London.[6] His parents were Frederick, a chauffeur, and Maud Wisdom (née Targett), a dressmaker who often worked for West End theatres, and had made a dress for Queen Mary.[7] The couple married in Marylebone on 15 July 1912. Wisdom had an elder brother, Frederick Thomas "Fred" Wisdom (13 December 1912 – 1 July 1971).[citation needed]

The family lived at 91 Fernhead Road, Maida Vale, London W9, where they slept in one room.[8] He and his brother were brought up in extreme poverty and were frequently hit by their alcoholic father, who would pick them up and throw them across the room.[9][4]

After his parents' separation, Wisdom and his brother were "farmed out to paid guardians",[4] but his father didn’t pay and he was turned out. After unsuccessful fostering elsewhere he was generously taken in by a couple. Wisdom got work as an errand boy in a grocer's shop despite not knowing how to ride a bicycle. Having been kicked out of his home by his father he became homeless and slept rough in London,.[9] At 13 he worked long shifts in a hotel. A fellow boy worker convinced him to walk to Cardiff and become a miner, however the boy’s family wouldn’t house him. So he became a cabin boy in the Merchant Navy. He sailed to Argentina learning to box on board. In Argentina he survived 3 rounds of boxing for prize money but was badly beaten and had to fight off some sexual advances by a fellow sailor. On return to Cardiff he had no job and returned to London, where he was advised to join the army which took band recruits from age 14. Though knowing no music he turned on the tears to the recruiting officer and was successful.

Military service


In 1930, he was posted to Lucknow, in the United Provinces of British India,[4] as a band boy.[10]

He rode horses, became the flyweight boxing champion of the British Army in India[4] and taught himself to play the piano, trumpet, saxophone, flute, drums, bugle and clarinet.[8]

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Wisdom was sent to work in a communications centre in a command bunker in London, where he connected telephone calls from war leaders to the prime minister. He met Winston Churchill on several occasions when asked for updates on incoming calls.[8] Wisdom then joined the Royal Corps of Signals, and performed a similar military function at the unit headquarters in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.

Whilst performing a shadow boxing routine in an army gym, Wisdom discovered he had a talent for entertainment,[11] and began to develop his skills as a musician and stage entertainer.[5] In 1940 aged 25, at a NAAFI entertainment night, during a dance routine, Wisdom stepped down from his position in the orchestra pit, and started shadow boxing. Hearing his colleagues and officers giggling, he broke into a duck waddle, followed by a series of facial expressions. He later described the reaction as: "They were in hysterics. All the officers were falling about laughing."[12]

Wisdom later said this was where he first patented his persona as "The Successful Failure".[12] Over the next few years, until he was demobilised in 1945, his routine included his characteristic singing and the trip-up-and-stumble. After Wisdom appeared at a charity concert at Cheltenham Town Hall on 31 August 1944,[13] actor Rex Harrison came backstage and urged him to become a professional entertainer.[14]

Comic entertainer


After being demobilised Wisdom worked as a private hire car driver. Having improved his diction in the army, he also took a job as a night telephone operator.[8]

Wisdom made his debut as a professional entertainer at the age of 31 still calling himself "The Successful Failure". In the anonymity of small suburban music halls he built an act out of his shyness, his ability to fall and his multi-instrumental music skills and singing talent where the theatre band constantly changed key and he could never keep up until pulling out his virtuosity and beating them at their own game. One outstanding review in August 1946 read, "An unusual and most versatile comedian, Norman Wisdom, contributes two remarkable turns. He is an accomplished pianist, a pleasing singer, a talented instrumentalist, a clever mimer, and withal, a true humourist.".[15] His rise to the top was relatively fast. A very successful run at the London Casino in April 1948,[16] led to a summer season in "Out of the Blue" in Scarborough. Magician David Nixon was also part of the cast and the two worked together so well that they went on to continue the act on other variety stages starting at the London Casino in September 1948.[17] Christmas 1948 saw him in the pantomime "Robinson Crusoe" at Birmingham's Alexandra Theatre.[18] Wisdom had already adopted the costume that would remain his trademark: tweed flat cap askew, with peak turned up; a suit at least two sizes too tight; a crumpled collar and a mangled tie. The character that went with this costume — known as the Gump — was to dominate Wisdom's film career. A West End theatre star within two years, he honed his act into a star turn mainly between theatres in London and Brighton:[12]

I spent virtually all of those years on the road. You could keep incredibly busy just performing in pantomimes and revues. There was a whole generation of performers who learned everything on the stage.

Wisdom made his TV debut in 1948 and was soon commanding enormous audiences and had a small film role in A Date with a Dream released in the same year.

Starring film roles for the Rank Organisation


Wisdom made a series of low-budget star-vehicle comedies for the Rank Organisation, beginning with Trouble in Store (1953).[19] This film earned him a BAFTA Award for Most Promising Newcomer to Film in 1954.[20] It was the second most popular film at the British box-office in 1954 and exhibitors voted him the tenth biggest star at the British box office the same year.[21]

His films' cheerful, unpretentious appeal make them the direct descendants of those made a generation earlier by George Formby.[22] Never highly thought of by the critics, they were very popular with domestic audiences and Wisdom's films were among Britain's biggest box-office successes of their day. They were also successful in some unlikely overseas markets, helping Rank stay afloat financially when their more expensive film projects were unsuccessful.[citation needed]

The films usually involved the Gump character, usually called Norman, in a manual occupation in which he is barely competent and in a junior position to a straight man, often played by Edward Chapman (as Mr Grimsdale) or Jerry Desmonde. They benefited from Wisdom's capacity for physical slapstick comedy and his skill at creating a sense of the character's helplessness. The series often contained a romantic subplot; the Gump's inevitable awkwardness with women is a characteristic shared with the earlier Formby vehicles. His innocent incompetence still made him endearing to the heroine.

Wisdom's second film as star, One Good Turn (1955), was the seventh most popular movie of 1955 in Britain.[23] He made a cameo in As Long as They're Happy (1955), then returned in Man of the Moment (1955). He was the 6th most popular star of 1955.[24]

Wisdom was a window cleaner in Up in the World (1956) and worked in a jewellery store in Just My Luck (1957). The box office receipts of these last few films had declined from previous Wisdom films but The Square Peg (1959), an army comedy, reversed the trend and was one of the year's biggest hits. The film was the 7th most popular movie at the British box office in 1959.[25] Less successful was Follow a Star (1959). There Was a Crooked Man (1960) was an attempt to change Wisdom's image away from Rank Organisation. The Bulldog Breed (1960) was more conventional. The film also starred a young Michael Caine who later recalled he did not enjoy working with Wisdom because he "wasn't very nice to support-part actors".[26] Wisdom remained the 10th biggest star at the British box office.

Wisdom was in The Girl on the Boat (1961) from a novel by P. G. Wodehouse, a second film away from the Rank formula. On the Beat (1962) as a car cleaner and A Stitch in Time (1963), in which he was cast as an apprentice butcher, returned him to the regular format.

The Early Bird (1965), his first colour film, had Wisdom as a milkman. After a cameo in The Sandwich Man (1966), Wisdom starred in Press for Time (1966), the last film in this sequence of starring vehicles. Wisdom was still voted the 5th most popular star at the British box office.[27]

Whilst Wisdom's stage performances often involved musical numbers, he wrote only a few of them. He has seven songs attributed to him in the ASCAP database, which are: "Beware", "Don't Laugh at Me ('cause I'm a Fool)", "Falling in Love", "Follow a Star", "I Love You", "Please Opportunity", and "Up in the World".[28]

Later career

Norman Wisdom demonstrating a typical expression (1965)

In 1966, Wisdom spent a short period in the United States to star in the Broadway production of the Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn musical comedy Walking Happy based on the play Hobson's Choice by Harold Brighouse. His performance as Will Mosop was nominated for a Tony Award.

This led to Wisdom's being cast in his first Hollywood film, The Night They Raided Minsky's (1968) and in the US Television musical of George Bernard Shaw's Androcles and The Lion (1967) with songs by Richard Rogers and co-starring Noël Coward.

After a typical performance on The Ed Sullivan Show,[4] further US opportunities were denied him when he had to return to London after his second wife left him. His subsequent career was largely confined to television, and he toured the world with a successful cabaret act. He won critical acclaim in 1981 for his dramatic role of a dying cancer patient in the television play Going Gently.

Wisdom was one of several actors initially considered for the role of Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em. However, he turned the role down and it eventually went to Michael Crawford. The creator of the series Raymond Allen later stated "Norman Wisdom was offered the role but turned it down because he didn't find it funny".[29]

On 31 December 1976, Wisdom performed his theme song "Don't Laugh at Me ('cause I'm a Fool)" on BBC1's A Jubilee of Music, celebrating British pop music for Queen Elizabeth II's impending Silver Jubilee.[30] Wisdom had performed in front of the Queen at many Royal Command Performances, the first being in 1952.[31]

After touring South Africa, Zimbabwe and Australia with some success, his appearances in Britain became more infrequent. He spent much of the 1980s in seclusion on the Isle of Man.[32]

Wisdom's career revived in the 1990s, helped by the young comedian Lee Evans, whose act was often compared to Wisdom's work.[33] The high point of this new popularity was the knighthood he was awarded, for services to entertainment, in the 2000 New Year's honours list.[34] During the ceremony, once he had received his knighthood, he walked away and again performed his trademark trip, at which the Queen smiled and laughed.[35]

From 1995 until 2004 he appeared in the recurring role of Billy Ingleton in the long-running BBC comedy Last of the Summer Wine.

In 1996, he received a Special Achievement Award from the London Film Critics.[36]

Wisdom was a guest on a This Is Your Life special in 2000 for actor and director Todd Carty. He appeared as a half-time guest at the England vs Albania 2002 World Cup qualifier at St James' Park, Newcastle upon Tyne, and scored a penalty at the Leazes End.[37]

In 2002 Wisdom filmed a cameo role as a butler in a low-budget horror film. In 2004, he made an appearance on Coronation Street, playing fitness fanatic pensioner Ernie Crabbe. In 2007 he came out of retirement to take a role in a short film called Expresso.[38]

Popularity in Albania


Wisdom became a cultural icon in Albania, where he was one of the few Western actors whose films were allowed in the country under Enver Hoxha. According to Hoxha's dialectical materialist viewpoint, proletarian Norman's ultimately victorious struggles against capitalism, personified by Mr Grimsdale and the effete aristocratic characters played by Jerry Desmonde, were a Communist parable on the class war. He was known as Mr Pitkin after the character from his films. In 1995, he visited the post-Stalinist country where, to his surprise, he was greeted by many appreciative fans, including the then President, Sali Berisha. During this trip, Wisdom was filmed by Newsnight as he visited a children's project funded by ChildHope UK.[39]

On a visit in 2001, which coincided with the England football team playing Albania in the city of Tirana,[40] his appearance at the training ground overshadowed that of David Beckham. He appeared on the pitch before the start of the Albania v England match wearing a half-Albanian and half-English football shirt. He was well received by the crowd, especially when he performed one of his trademark trips on his way out to the centre circle.[41] In 1995 Wisdom was made an honorary citizen of Tirana.[42]

In his book and TV series One Hit Wonderland, Tony Hawks united with Wisdom and, along with Tim Rice, released a single, "Big in Albania", in an attempt to enter the Albanian pop charts. It reached number 18 on the Top Albania Radio chart.[43]


Wisdom in Peel, Isle of Man, in 2005

In October 2004, Wisdom announced he would retire from the entertainment industry on his 90th birthday (4 February 2005). He announced that he intended to spend more time with his family, playing golf and driving around the Isle of Man, where he was living.[44]

In 2007, Wisdom returned to acting in a short film directed by Kevin Powis, Expresso. The film, which Wisdom later announced (reported BBC/ITV News) was to be officially his last film role, is set during one day in a coffee shop and was funded by the UK Film Council and ScreenWM. Shot in January, it premièred at the Cannes Film Festival on 27 May 2007. It was later adopted by the UK charity Macmillan and released on DVD in aid of the charity.

In the film, Wisdom plays a vicar plagued by a fly in a café. Producer Nigel Martin Davey gave him only a visual role so that he would not have to remember any lines, but on the day, Wisdom was alert and had his performance changed to add more laughs.[45]

Personal life


Wisdom was married twice. His first wife was Doreen Brett, whom he married in 1941. By 1944 they had separated when Doreen gave birth to a son, Michael (born 1944), fathered by Albert Gerald Hardwick, a telephone engineer.[citation needed] The marriage was dissolved in 1946.[citation needed]

He married his second wife, Freda Isobel Simpson, in 1947;[4] they had two children: Nicholas (born 1953, who later played first-class cricket for Sussex)[46] and Jacqueline (born 1954).[47] The couple divorced in 1969,[4] with Wisdom granted full custody of the children.[6] Freda Wisdom died in Brighton in 1992.[citation needed]

Popular in the Isle of Man, he lived for 27 years in a house in Andreas named Ballalough (Manx for "lake farm", also a humorous corruption of the English "belly laugh"). He supported various charities and charitable works, including orphanages in Albania.[48] In 2005, Wisdom starred in a video for the Manx girl group Twisted Angels, for their single "LA", in support of the local charity Project 21.[49]

During the 1960s, he was involved in a famous legal case (Wisdom v Chamberlain, 1968) in which he was pursued by the Inland Revenue for tax on profits made from the sale of silver bullion he had bought when concerned about the further devaluation of sterling. He contended that it was an investment, but the court held that it had been a trading venture and was duly chargeable to income tax.[50]



Wisdom was a lifelong supporter and a former board member of football team Brighton & Hove Albion. He also liked Everton and Newcastle United.[51] He enjoyed golf,[44] and was a member of the Grand Order of Water Rats.[52] He was an honorary member of the Winkle Club, a charity in Hastings, East Sussex.[53]

A lover of cars, his collection included a 1956 Bentley S1 Continental R Type fastback, which he first bought in 1961, and then again in the late 1980s.[54] In 1969, he purchased, after the divorce from Freda Simpson, a Shelby Cobra 427, CSX3206, in New York, which he kept until 1986, when it was sold to another car enthusiast in Brighton, UK. Until his age and declining mental health meant he failed a Department of Transport fitness-to-drive test, he owned and drove a 1987 Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit and a Jaguar S-Type, which were sold in September 2005.[citation needed]

In 1963, he bought a new motor yacht. The 94 feet (29 m) long hull and superstructure were built in Spain for £80,000, before being towed to Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex, for fitting out. After three years of extensive works and sea trials, she was named M/Y Conquest and valued at £1.25 million by insurers. It was available for charter at £6,000 a month but Wisdom later sold it, saying that he was "no sailor".[12]

Health decline


In mid-2006, after he suffered an irregular heart rhythm, Wisdom was flown by helicopter to hospital in Liverpool and he was fitted with a heart pacemaker.[55]

Wisdom resided in the Abbotswood nursing home in Ballasalla, where he had been resident from 12 July 2007 to 4 October 2010.[56]

On the release of Expresso to DVD in the same month, BBC News confirmed that Wisdom lived in a care home, because of his suffering from vascular dementia.[45] It was also reported that he had granted his children power of attorney over his affairs and, having sold off his flat in Epsom, Surrey, they were now in the process of selling his Isle of Man home to raise money to fund his longer-term care.[57]

On 16 January 2008,[58] BBC2 aired Wonderland: The Secret Life Of Norman Wisdom Aged 92 and 3/4.[59] The documentary highlighted the dilemma of coping with an ageing parent. His family said that Wisdom's memory loss had become so severe that he no longer recognised himself in his films.



In the six months prior to his death, Wisdom suffered a series of strokes, causing a decline in his physical and mental health. He died on 4 October 2010 at Abbotswood nursing home on the Isle of Man at the age of 95.[60]

His funeral took place on 22 October 2010 in Douglas, Isle of Man, and all of the island were invited.[61][62] His trademark cloth cap was placed on the coffin in the church.[62] The funeral was attended by a large number of showbusiness personalities and, at Wisdom's request, Moira Anderson sang "Who Can I Turn To",[62] which was specially arranged for the occasion by Gordon Cree.[63] Wisdom's body was buried at Kirk Bride Churchyard, Bride, Isle of Man.

Tributes and other references

  • In 2007, a Norman Wisdom-themed bar opened at the Sefton Hotel, Douglas, called Sir Norman's. It has stills from his many films on the walls and TV screens playing some clips of his old films. The bronze statue of Wisdom, which used to be on a bench outside Douglas Town Hall, has been moved to the steps leading into the hotel bar on Harris Promenade.[62][64]
  • Wisdom featured on the BBC Radio 4 series Desert Island Discs in August 2000. Of the eight songs he chose, four were performed by Wisdom himself (including his favourite, 'Don't Laugh at Me 'Cos I'm a Fool'), while a fifth was a duet with Joyce Grenfell.[65]
  • The 2011 film My Week with Marilyn features impersonator Glenn Michael Ford playing Norman Wisdom in a background scene.
  • A Wetherspoon pub in Deal, Kent, where Wisdom ran away from the children's home, was named The Sir Norman Wisdom in his honour when it opened in March 2013.[66]
  • In 2015 Wisdom of a Fool, a new one-man play based on the life of Norman Wisdom opened at The Capitol Theatre, Horsham, in Wisdom's centenary year, on 17 September. A UK tour began at Guildford's Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in 2016 and continues into 2018.[67][68]
  • Wisdom is mentioned in the song The Things That Dreams Are Made Of by the Human League, while the gatefold sleeve of their Hysteria album shows the group in a large room with a scene from The Early Bird on the TV.


Year Film Role Director Notes
1948 A Date with a Dream Shadow Boxer Dicky Leeman
1948-1950 Wit and Wisdom TV series
1953 Trouble in Store Norman John Paddy Carstairs
1955 One Good Turn Norman John Paddy Carstairs
1955 As Long as They're Happy Norman – Cameo Appearance J. Lee Thompson uncredited
1955 Man of the Moment Norman John Paddy Carstairs
1956 Up in the World Norman John Paddy Carstairs
1957 Just My Luck Norman Hackett John Paddy Carstairs
1958 The Square Peg Norman Pitkin / General Schreiber John Paddy Carstairs
1959 Follow a Star Norman Truscott Robert Asher
1960 There Was a Crooked Man Davy Cooper Stuart Burge
1960 The Bulldog Breed Norman Puckle Robert Asher
1961 The Girl on the Boat Sam Marlowe Henry Kaplan
1962 On the Beat Norman Pitkin / Giulio Napolitani Robert Asher
1963 A Stitch in Time Norman Pitkin Robert Asher
1965 The Early Bird Norman Pitkin Robert Asher
1966 The Sandwich Man Boxing Vicar Robert Hartford-Davis
1966 Press for Time Norman Shields / Emily, his mother / Wilfred, his grandfather Robert Asher
1967 Androcles and the Lion Androcles TV movie
1968 The Night They Raided Minsky's Chick Williams William Friedkin USA
1969 What's Good for the Goose Timothy Bartlett Menahem Golan
1970 Norman Norman Wilkins Alan Tarrant TV series
1970 Music Hall TV
1973 Nobody Is Norman Wisdom Nobody TV series
1974 A Little Bit of Wisdom Norman TV series
1981 BBC2 Playhouse: Going Gently Bernard Flood TV play; BAFTA Best Single Play, 1982
1983 Bergerac Vincent TV series
1988 The 1950s: Music, Memories & Milestones TV
1992 Double X, Run Rabbit Run Arthur Clutten
1995-2004 Last of the Summer Wine TV series
1998 Where on Earth Is ... Katy Manning Self documentary
1998 Casualty Mr. Cole TV series
2001 Junfans Attic
2002 Dalziel and Pascoe Bernie Marks TV series
2003 The Last Detective Lofty Brock TV series
2003 Between the Sheets Maurice Hardy TV Mini-Series
2004 Coronation Street Ernie Crabbe TV series
2004 Five Children and It Nesbitt John Stephenson
2007 Expresso The Vicar Kevin Powis Short; Buzz
2008 Wonderland: The Secret Life Of Norman Wisdom Aged 92 and 3/4 TV series

Box office ranking


For a number of years British exhibitors voted Wisdom one of the most popular stars in the country.

  • 1954 – 10th most popular star (3rd most popular British star)[21]
  • 1955 – 6th most popular star (3rd most popular British star)[24]
  • 1956 – 5th biggest British star[69]
  • 1957 – 9th most popular star (5th most popular British star)[70]
  • 1958 – 7th most popular British star
  • 1959 – 3rd most popular British star[71]
  • 1963 – 10th most popular star[72]
  • 1966 – 5th most popular star[27]

Audio recordings

  • I Would Like to Put on Record
  • Jingle Jangle
  • The Very Best of Norman Wisdom
  • Androcles and the Lion US Television, Original Cast Recording.
  • Where's Charley? London Cast Recording.
  • Wisdom of a Fool
  • Nobody's Fool
  • Follow a Star
  • 1957 Original Chart Hits
  • Walking Happy Original Broadway Cast Recording.
  • The Night They Raided Minsky's Motion Picture Soundtrack recording.
  • Follow a Star/Give Me a Night in June
  • Happy Ending/The Wisdom of a Fool
  • Big in Albania – One Hit Wonderland
  • They Didn't Believe Me


  • Lucky Little Devil: Norman Wisdom on the Island He's Made His Home (2004)
  • Norman Wisdom, William Hall (2003). My Turn. Arrow Books. ISBN 978-0-09-944676-7.
  • Don't Laugh at Me, Cos I'm a Fool (1992) (two volumes of autobiography)
  • Trouble in Store (1991)


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  2. ^ "No. 54066". The London Gazette (Supplement). 17 June 1995. p. 14.
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  22. ^ McFarlane, Brian; Slide, Anthony (2003). The Encyclopedia of British Film. London, UK: Methuen Publishing Ltd. p. 230. ISBN 978-0-413-77301-2. Retrieved 22 October 2010.
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  33. ^ Rees, Jasper (25 October 2004). "All I've ever felt on stage is pain". The Daily Telegraph. London, UK. Archived from the original on 24 December 2012. Retrieved 11 October 2010. I saw his films as a kid. It surprises me because if you watch my act it's nothing like his really.
  34. ^ "No. 55710". The London Gazette (Supplement). 30 December 1999. p. 2.
  35. ^ Adetunji, Jo (4 October 2010). "Norman Wisdom dies aged 95". The Guardian. London, UK. Retrieved 5 October 2010.
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  42. ^ "Per Dhenien e Titullit "Qytetar Nderi I Qytetit Te Tiranes"" [For Issue of Title "Honorary Citizen of the city of Tirana"] (PDF). Tirana Municipal Council (in Albanian). 18 January 1995. Archived from the original (PDF) on 24 March 2012.
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