George Formby

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George Formby
Georgeformby.jpg
Publicity photo of Formby possibly taken in the 1940s
Background information
Birth name George Hoy Booth
Also known as George Hoy
Born (1904-05-26)26 May 1904
Wigan, Lancashire, England,
United Kingdom
Died 6 March 1961(1961-03-06) (aged 56)
Preston, Lancashire, England,
United Kingdom
Genres Oldies, swing, dance-hall, easy listening
Occupations Musician, singer-songwriter, comedian, actor, entertainer
Instruments Vocals, ukulele, banjulele
Years active 1921 (1921)–61 (61)
Labels Various[1][2][3][4][5][6][7]
Associated acts George Formby, Sr.

George Formby, OBE (26 May 1904 – 6 March 1961), was a British actor, singer-songwriter and comedian. He sang light, comical songs, usually playing the ukulele or banjolele. He was a major star of stage and screen in the 1930s and '40s, when Formby became the UK's highest-paid entertainer. His songs such as When I'm Cleaning Windows were particularly popular during the Second World War (1939–45).

When he and his wife travelled throughout the war, creating improvised lyrics to songs to fit the situation, they delighted their audiences. It was estimated that they played before three million Allied servicemen and women.

His 1937 song, "With My Little Stick Of Blackpool Rock", was banned by the BBC because of its suggestive lyrics. Formby's cheerful, innocent demeanour and nasal, high-pitched Lancashire accent neutralised the shock value of the lyrics; a more aggressive comedian such as Max Miller would have delivered the same lyrics with a bawdy leer.

His best-known catchphrase was probably "It's turned out nice again!". In 1960, his last recorded song "Happy Go Lucky Me" / "Banjo Boy", peaked at number 40 in the UK Singles Chart. Since his death in 1961, a remix version of When I'm Cleaning Windows by 2 In A Tent charted in the early 1990s.

Biography[edit]

Early life[edit]

Formby was born George Hoy Booth at 3 Westminster Street, Wigan, Lancashire. The eldest of seven surviving children, Formby was born blind because of an obstructive caul. His sight was restored during a violent coughing fit or sneeze when he was a few months old.[8][9] His father, James Booth used the stage name George Formby, adopted from the town of Formby, Lancashire. He was one of the great music hall comedians of his day, fully the equal of his son's later success. His father, not wishing him to watch his performances, moved the family to Atherton Road in Hindley. It was from there that the younger Formby was apprenticed as a jockey when he was seven. He rode his first professional race at 10, when he weighed less than 4 stone (56 lb; 25 kg).

The family next moved to Stockton Heath, Cheshire, in a home on London Road. It was from there that the young George began his career as an entertainer.

Stage career[edit]

In 1921, three months after the death of his father, Formby abandoned his career as a jockey and began appearing in music halls using his father's material. At first he called himself George Hoy, using the name of his maternal grandfather, who came from Newmarket, Suffolk, where the family was engaged in racehorse training.

In 1923 while he was appearing in music hall in Castleford, Yorkshire he met Beryl Ingham (born in 1901 in Accrington,[10] Lancashire), a champion clogdancer and actress, who had won All England Step Dancing title at the age of 11 and had formed a dancing act with her sister, May, called "The Two Violets".[11] They married in Formby's birth town of Wigan, Lancashire the following year.[12]

The couple worked together as a variety act until 1932, when she became his full-time manager and mentor, though she appeared in two of his films for which Formby was paid up to £35,000 per performance. It was Beryl's business skill and tough character [13] that guided Formby to be the UK's highest-paid entertainer.

Formby endeared himself to his audiences with his cheeky Lancashire humour and folksy North of England persona. In film and on stage, he generally adopted the character of an honest, good-hearted but accident-prone innocent who used the phrases: "It's turned out nice again!" as an opening line; "Ooh, mother!" when escaping from trouble; and a timid "Never touched me!" after losing a fight of almost any description.

What made him stand out, however, was his unique and often mimicked musical style. He sang comic songs, full of double entendre, to his own accompaniment on the banjolele, for which he developed a catchy and complicated musical syncopated style that became his trademark, and which he had allegedly taken up as a hobby and first played it on stage for a bet. His best-known song, "Leaning on a Lamp Post" was written by Noel Gay. He recorded two more Noel Gay songs, "The Left-Hand Side of Egypt" and "Who Are You A-Shoving Of?" Over two hundred of the songs he performed, many of which were recorded, were written by Fred Cliffe and Harry Gifford, either in collaboration or separately, and Formby was included in the credits of a number of them, including "When I'm Cleaning Windows".

Some of his songs were considered too rude for broadcasting. His 1937 song, "With My Little Stick Of Blackpool Rock" was banned by the BBC because of its suggestive lyrics.[14] Formby's songs are rife with sly humour, as in "Mr Wu's A Window Cleaner Now" where Formby is about to sing "ladies' knickers" and suddenly changes it to "ladies' garters"; and in 1940's "On the Wigan Boat Express," in which a lady passenger "was feeling shocks in her signal box." Formby's cheerful, innocent demeanour and nasal, high-pitched Lancashire accent neutralised the shock value of the lyrics.

World War II[edit]

Formby was in high demand to entertain troops during the Second War. He and his wife, Beryl, were the first variety entertainers sent to France to provide diversions. They were the last entertainers out when the lines collapsed forcing the British to evacuate. The duo continued to travel throughout the war, creating improvised lyrics to songs to fit the situation much to the delight of the audiences. It was estimated that they played before over three million Allied service members. It was this effort that earned him the Order of the British Empire in the 1946 King's Birthday Honours List.[15]

Film career[edit]

Formby had been making gramophone records as early as 1926; his first successful records came in 1932 with the Jack Hylton Band, and his first sound film Boots! Boots! in 1934 (Formby had appeared in a sole silent film in 1915). The film was successful and he signed a contract to make a further 11 films with Associated Talking Pictures, earning him a then astronomical £100,000 (roughly USD 4 million in 2009 terms) per year, despite the fact that studio head Michael Balcon reportedly considered Formby "an odd and not particularly loveable character".[16] Between 1934 and 1945 Formby was the top comedian in British cinema, and at the height of his film popularity (1939, when he was Britain's number-one film star of all genres[17]), his film Let George Do It was exported to America. Although his films always did well in Britain and Canada, they never caught on in the United States. Columbia Pictures hired him for a series, with a handsome contract worth £500,000, but decided not to circulate his films in the US.

George Formby and his wife entertaining the crew of the Headquarters ship HMS AMBITIOUS, off the Normandy coast in 1944

Formby appeared in the 1937 Royal Variety Performance,[18] and entertained troops with Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) in Europe and North Africa during World War II. He was appointed an OBE in 1946.[19] His most popular film, still regarded as probably his best, is the espionage comedy Let George Do It, in which he is a member of a concert party, takes the wrong ship by mistake during a blackout, and finds himself in Norway (mistaking Bergen for Blackpool) as a secret agent. In one dream sequence he punches Hitler on the nose and addresses him as a "windbag".

In 1946 Beryl and George toured South Africa shortly before formal racial apartheid was introduced, where they refused to play racially-segregated venues. According to Formby's biographer, when George was cheered by a black audience after embracing a small black girl who had presented his wife with a box of chocolates, National Party leader Daniel François Malan (who later introduced apartheid) phoned to complain; Beryl replied "Why don't you piss off, you horrible little man?"[20]

Formby would usually be chauffeur-driven to the studios and music halls in various prestige cars, including a Lanchester, a Rolls-Royce, a Bentley and a Jaguar.

Formby suffered his first heart attack in 1952, during the run of his successful stage musical "Zip Goes a Million". He withdrew from the show, and confined his performances to occasional guest appearances on stage and TV. In July 1960, he scored a chart hit with "Happy Go Lucky Me" / "Banjo Boy", which peaked at number 40 in the UK Singles Chart.[21] His final television appearance, broadcast in December 1960, was a 35-minute solo spot on BBC Television's The Friday Show.

Death[edit]

Beryl continued to manage Formby's career until she contracted leukaemia; she died on 24 December 1960 in Blackpool, Lancashire. After her death, Formby publicly confessed that "My life with Beryl was hell".[22] Two months later he became engaged to Pat Howson, a 36-year-old schoolteacher whom he had known since the 1930s, declaring that he had achieved a happiness which had never existed with Beryl.[22]

Formby suffered a second heart attack and died in hospital on 6 March 1961. His funeral was held in St. Charles's Church in Aigburth, Liverpool. Because of his close association with Formby, local undertaker Bruce Williams (who as Eddie Latta had written songs for Formby) was chosen to make the funeral arrangements.[23] An estimated 100,000 mourners lined the route as his coffin was driven to Warrington Cemetery, where he was buried in the Booth family grave. Pat Howson was well provided for in Formby's will, but died in 1971 after a long legal battle with Formby's family, who contested the will.

Playing styles[edit]

Formby's trademark was playing the ukulele-banjo in a highly syncopated style, referred to as the 'Formby style'.

Among the several syncopated techniques that he used, the most commonly emulated stroke of Formby's is a rhythmic technique called the "Split stroke", which produces a musical rhythm easily recognised as Formby's. He sang in his own Lancashire accent. Other strokes in Formby's repertoire include the triple, the fan and the shake. In his act, Formby often had several ukuleles on stage tuned in different keys.

On Formby's last television appearance, in The Friday Show, he modestly told the audience that he could play in only one key. Research has shown that this statement is false, as Formby played transposed ukulele parts on songs such as "Banjo Boy", a melodic solo on "I Told my Baby with the Ukulele", and many more musically complex solos.

Tributes[edit]

There is a bronze statue of Formby leaning on a lamp-post on Ridgeway Street, close to the intersection with Lord Street, in Douglas, Isle of Man. On 15 September 2007, another bronze statue was unveiled in Formby's birthtown of Wigan, Lancashire in the Grand Arcade shopping centre.

When Formby died in 1961, a small group of fans met together in the Imperial Hotel Blackpool to form the George Formby Society. The first meeting drew a lot of attention and many celebrities of the day were there, including Arthur Askey. In 2011 the 'GFS' celebrated its Golden Jubilee, and today it has over 1300 members worldwide. George Harrison was a huge fan of Formby, a member of the Society and an advocate of the ukulele.[24]

In 2004, Formby was inducted into the Ukulele Hall of Fame, a non-profit organization for the preservation of ukulele history. His citation reads, in part: "He won such love and respect for his charismatic stage presence, technical skill and playful lyrics that he remains popular forty years after his death."[25]

Many stage tributes have been paid to Formby since his death, most notably by Alan Randall, who starred in a musical play about his life, and Andy Eastwood, who portrays Formby in variety and nostalgia shows, using one of Formby's original banjoleles. Paul E Casper another tribute act since 2005 is renowned for his most uncanny resemblance to Formby.George must have had a secret lovechild that we were unaware of- as quote by former George Formby Appreciation Society President, Dennis Taylor.[26]

In June 2012, a Blackpool Boat Car tram, number 604, was repainted and returned to service with sponsorship from the GFS. The tram was named "GEORGE FORMBY OBE" and images of the late entertainer were affixed within the trolley tower. The tram was also renumbered back to its pre-1968 fleet number of 230.

In popular culture[edit]

  • In the BBC comedy series The Day Today, a mock news story sees Formby playing Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" in a video which casts doubt on Dylan's legacy.[27]
  • Mark Williams had previously been seen doing his Formby impression in the 1980s BBC comedy show Alexei Sayle's Stuff, where he sang a song entitled "E=MC2" in grainy 'black and white'.
  • In the ITV soap opera, Coronation Street one of the wards in the Weatherfield General Hospital is named after Formby.
  • In a BBC TV series Goodnight Sweetheart, series 3 episode 6, Formby's achievements at entertaining the masses are recognised.
  • The Thursday Next series of books by Jasper Fforde feature an octogenarian Formby as President of an alternative Britain; the character works to confront the traitorous politician Kaine.
  • Comedian and entertainer Frank Skinner plays the banjo ukulele and is a huge admirer of George Formby. He hosted a BBC Four TV documentary, Frank Skinner on George Formby, which aired on 27 October 2010.

Selected songs[edit]

  • "Chinese Laundry Blues" (1932)
  • "The Isle of Man" (1932)
  • "With My Little Ukulele in My Hand" (1933)
  • "The Window Cleaner"/"When I'm Cleaning Windows" (1936)
  • "Leaning on a Lamppost" (1937)
  • "Hi Tiddly Hi Ti Island" (1937)
  • "The Lancashire Toreador" (1937)
  • "With My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock" (1937)
  • "Tan Tan Tivvy Tally-Ho!" (1938, written by Arthur Le Clerq)
  • "They Can't Fool Me" (1938)
  • "Mother, What'll I do Now?" (1938)
  • "Our Sergeant Major" (1938)
  • "Imagine Me on the Maginot Line" (1939)
  • "It's Turned Out Nice Again" (1939)
  • "Mr Wu's a Window Cleaner Now" (1939)
  • "My Grandad's Flannelette Nightshirt" (1939) (written by Eddie Latta)
  • "Count Your Blessings And Smile" (1940)
  • "Auntie Maggie's Remedy" (1941) (written by Eddie Latta)
  • "Bless 'Em All" (1941)
  • "Mr Wu's An Air Raid Warden Now" (1942) (written by Eddie Latta)
  • "You Don't Need A Licence For That" (1946)
  • "Happy Go Lucky Me" (1960) [UK No40 hit]
  • "When I'm Cleaning Windows" (2 In A Tent tribute to George Formby, 1994) [1994 UK No24 hit]

Filmography[edit]

See also[edit]

Box office rating[edit]

For a number of years, British film exhibitors voted him among the top ten British stars at the box office via an annual poll in the Motion Picture Herald.

  • 1936 – 4th[28]
  • 1937 – 2nd (5th most popular overall)[29]
  • 1938 – 1st[30]
  • 1939 – 1st[31]
  • 1940 – 1st (5th most popular star over all)[32]
  • 1943 – 1st[33]
  • 1945 – 9th[34]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "The George Formby Discography". George Formby Society. Retrieved 13 May 2012. 
  2. ^ "The George Formby Discography". George Formby Society. Retrieved 13 May 2012. 
  3. ^ "The George Formby Discography". George Formby Society. Retrieved 13 May 2012. 
  4. ^ "The George Formby Discography". George Formby Society. Retrieved 13 May 2012. 
  5. ^ "The George Formby Discography". George Formby Society. Retrieved 13 May 2012. 
  6. ^ "The George Formby Discography". George Formby Society. Retrieved 13 May 2012. 
  7. ^ "The George Formby Discography". George Formby Society. Retrieved 13 May 2012. 
  8. ^ "George Formby, 1922". flickr. 11 May 2008. Retrieved 17 October 2009. 
  9. ^ "George Formby". Michael Gradwell Photography. Retrieved 17 October 2009. 
  10. ^ Lancashire Births Marriages & Deaths. Lancashirebmd.org.uk Retrieved on 16th January 2011.
  11. ^ Beryl Formby
  12. ^ Lancashire Births Marriages & Deaths. Lancashirebmd.org.uk (8 August 2002). Retrieved on 5 August 2011.
  13. ^ 2013 BBC documentary
  14. ^ "Ban this George Formby filth ... how 30s comic fell victim to censors". Chortle.co.uk. 17 December 2007. Retrieved 17 December 2007. 
  15. ^ Whitcomb, Ian (2012). Ukulele Heroes: The Golden Age. Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Hal Leonard Books. p. 83. ISBN 978-1-4584-1654-4. 
  16. ^ Matthew Sweet, Shepparton Babylon: The Lost Worlds of British Cinema (Faber & Faber, London, 2005), p.134
  17. ^ "FORMBY IS POPULAR ACTOR.". The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954) (Hobart, Tas.: National Library of Australia). 25 February 1939. p. 5. Retrieved 24 April 2012. 
  18. ^ 1937, London Palladium. Eabf.org.uk (15 November 1937). Retrieved on 5 August 2011.
  19. ^ "For services to the Forces.". London Gazette. 24 June 1946. Retrieved 14 June 2009. 
  20. ^ Louvish, Simon (6 December 2002). "That lad will go far!". The Guardian (London). 
  21. ^ Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. p. 208. ISBN 1-904994-10-5. 
  22. ^ a b McKinstry, Leo (15 March 2011). "Adored by millions, but George Formby's buck-toothed smile hid a life of misery at the hands of his frigid, domineering wife". Daily Mail (London). 
  23. ^ Latta on the George Formby Society website
  24. ^ Tranquada, Jim (2012). The Ukulele: a History. University of Hawaii Press. pp. 162–3. ISBN 978-0-8248-3544-6. 
  25. ^ Ukulele Hall of Fame – George Formby
  26. ^ Smart, Sue (2011). Turned Out Nice Again (1st ed.). Cambridge: Melrose Books. p. 300. ISBN 978-1-908645-12-8. 
  27. ^ "The Day Today – Wikiquote". 
  28. ^ "PICTURES and PERSONALITIES.". The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954) (Hobart, Tas.: National Library of Australia). 10 April 1937. p. 5. Retrieved 27 April 2012. 
  29. ^ 'Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Sara Allgood Will Star In Next Subscription Play at the National, Jan. 3: 'Shadow and Substance,' Abbey Theater Hit, Fifth Guild-American Society Offering; 'Night Must Fall' Voted 1937's Best; Shirley Temple Again Biggest Box-Office Name; Mitzi Writes a Letter.', The Washington Post (1923–1954) [Washington, D.C] 20 Dec 1937: 14.
  30. ^ "FORMBY IS POPULAR ACTOR.". The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954) (Hobart, Tas.: National Library of Australia). 25 February 1939. p. 5. Retrieved 27 April 2012. 
  31. ^ "FILM WORLD.". The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954) (Perth, WA: National Library of Australia). 16 February 1940. p. 2. Retrieved 9 July 2012. 
  32. ^ "FILM WORLD.". The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954) (Perth, WA: National Library of Australia). 21 February 1941. p. 14. Retrieved 27 April 2012. 
  33. ^ "BITTER STREET FIGHTING.". Townsville Daily Bulletin (Qld. : 1885 – 1954) (Qld.: National Library of Australia). 6 January 1944. p. 2. Retrieved 11 July 2012. 
  34. ^ "CROSBY and HOPE try their luck in Alaska.". The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954) (Hobart, Tas.: National Library of Australia). 2 March 1946. p. 3 Supplement: The Mercury Magazine. Retrieved 27 April 2012. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]