George Formby, Sr.
George Formby (4 October 1875 – 8 February 1921), born James Lawler Booth, was an English music hall comedian and musician. He was perhaps best known for his singing and clowning which he performed in a sardonic style that influenced Charlie Chaplin as a teenager. In his later years, Formby was plagued by ill-health and suffered from tuberculosis, but despite this, he was one of the highest paid entertainers of the Edwardian era. His son was the comedian and ukulele player George Formby.
Formby was born James Lawler Booth in Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire. His mother, Sarah Jane Booth, was a poor, working class woman who married Formby's father Francis Lawler, a few months after the birth. The marriage was turbulent, and Formby was often mistreated and became malnourished. In exchange for alcoholic drinks, Sarah sang at public houses and was often arrested by the police. Because Sarah was so often absent from home, Formby had to sleep outside the house, and developed asthma. He became susceptible to bronchitis and later developed tuberculosis. In adult life he found it convenient for professional reasons to maintain that he had been born in Wigan.
Later on in his life, Formby recalled, "My childhood was the most miserable that could have happened to any human being." According to some biographers, Formby ran away from home when he was seven and worked in a steel foundry near Wigan. Official census records, however, show that in 1891 he was still living with his mother, his father having died the previous year.
Booth began his career in the 1890s in his early teens, and formed a professional partnership with a friend, singing in pubs around Wigan as the soprano half of The Brothers Glenray; their repertoire contained mainly sentimental songs. By 1892, they were playing in music halls and changed their stage name to "the songbirds of the Music Halls". As their act matured they found they were receiving more laughs than applause which resulted in the break up of the act Formby initiated a solo act and sung comic songs which were adapted from Methodist hymns. He decided to adopt a stage name and chose "George Formby" while he was sitting on a platform waiting for a train. Seeing a goods train wagons labelled "Formby", a seaside town north of Liverpool; "George" was chosen at random.
By 1897, Formby was a popular supporting act in Lancashire, and was described in the theatrical newspaper The Era as "the favourite vocalist, Mr George Formby, eccentric character comedian". By 1899 he received top billing in some minor theatres. In 1899, he met and married Eliza Hoy. They had twelve children, of whom seven survived: four daughters and three sons. The eldest, George Hoy Booth, went on to achieve fame on stage and screen also using the stage name George Formby.
Formby's comedy act was based on a comic stereotype of a working class Lancashire man, dour and down to earth. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography states, "He created the character of John Willie, the archetypal gormless Lancashire lad in baggy trousers, tight jacket, and bowler hat, slow-talking, hen-pecked, accident-prone, but muddling through." His performance had elements of a clown act: as well as the baggy clothes, his costume included large boots worn on the wrong feet, a trademark for which Charlie Chaplin later became famous. In between acts and songs, Formby would jump down off the stage, and chat with people in the audience, as though he was having a drink with them.
In 1900 comedian George Robey recommended Formby to the owner of the London Pavilion music hall. He was immediately successful, became "an idol of the town" maintaining top billing for the rest of his life, both in music hall and pantomime. His act was very simple; he would introduce himself by saying things like "Good evening, I'm Formby fra' Wiggin, I've not been in England long", making fun of the cultural divide between the North and the South of England. The Times said of him, "His humour was often crude, and always simple, but it was always true humour, and, what is more, it was invariably clean." The Manchester Guardian called him "Lancashire's accredited representative on the London variety stage ... clown-satirist of genius".
When he started working in London he was earning about £3 per week, equivalent to about £180 per week in 2009. Later, he was earning as much as any comic in London. With this wealth, Formby bought a string of racehorses, and it was because of this that his son, George, starred in his first film (which concerned horse racing), By the Shortest of Heads. Towards the end of his career, Formby planned to retire from the music hall and open a racehorse training school with him and his son George as instructors. George was one of seven acts to appear before King George and Queen Mary in the 1917 Royal Command Performance at Knowsley Hall. The Times reported, "His broad humour succeeded with unexpected ease, and their Majesties praised him very highly after the performance."
Like many music hall stars, Formby was active in the recruiting campaign for the British Army at the beginning of the First World War, and spoke at recruitment rallies, in particular on behalf of the Lord Derby Scheme in 1915. .
Recordings and film
Formby made his first recordings in 1906 recording his first song 'The Man From Lancashire No. 2', for the Louis Sterling Cylinder Company, and went on to make around 180 records, which was relatively prolific for that period. In 1921 The Times commented, "There cannot be many people who have not heard at some time in their lives either the words or the refrain of 'John Willie – Come On', 'One of the Boys', 'I was Standing on the Corner of the Street', or 'Playing the Game in the West'." Formby was one of the few performers who had no problems in the business of recording, performing in a relaxed fashion for an invisible audience. He would sing his song, and then go on to talk to the listener, saying things like "Y'know, that fella be'ind that's, err, recordin' this now, y'know they call 'im Syncopation George. I think it's ragtime, I don't know what to call 'im, I think I'll call 'im a parasite! Oh, no... come on, say that's an insect, I don't know but I'll enquire it about it". The only film in which Formby is known to have appeared in was No Fool Like An Old Fool (1914), in which he played John Willie. No copies of the film are known to survive.
Illness and death
Formby had, over his career, struggled with chronic bronchitis and tuberculosis, which sometimes caused violent coughing fits while on stage. Although it was very painful for him, and would eventually be the cause of his death, he joked about it, with lines like, "That was a good cough, best one I've done this year. I'll cough anybody 'ere for five shillin's. And I'll give'm five coughs up to start with. Nobody accept me challenge? Right". This was something to which his audiences could relate, because a number of them would be suffering from the same condition. In 1916 he was too ill to appear on the first night of a Drury Lane revue, Razzle Dazzle, in which he had star billing.
In 1917, in a court action against Formby for failing to fulfil a theatrical engagement as contracted, his lawyer said that Formby was dying of consumption and was working for the short time left to him for the benefit of his large family. His health was further damaged in the influenza pandemic of 1918, when he contracted the disease. He was taken ill during runs of pantomimes in both 1918 and 1919, and at a performance in Newcastle upon Tyne in the 1920–21 pantomime season, he collapsed on stage. He died on 8 February 1921, aged 45, leaving over £21,000 in his will (equivalent to at least £667,686 in 2007 value) and a diary booked solidly for the next five years. His wife Eliza died at 102 years old, having outlived both her husband and their son, George, who died in 1961. He is buried in a family plot in Warrington Cemetery, Cheshire, England.
- George Formby Senior on the George Formby website
- Manchester Guardian obituary, 9 February 1921, p. 4
- Daly, Kevin. A Biography of George Formby Senior, accessed 5 December 2009
- 1891 Census: Citation: Class: RG12; Piece: 3277; Folio 127; Page 13; GSU roll: 6098387
- Tuson, Mark. Biography of George Formby Senior, accessed 5 December 2009.
- The Era, 17 July 1897, p. 18
- The Era, 15 July 1899, p 19; and 17 February 1900, p. 18
- "That Lad Will Go Far", The Guardian (online edition), 6 December 2002.
- Richards, Jeffrey. "Formby, George (1904–1961)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, online edition, accessed 6 Dec 2009
- The Times obituary, 9 February 1921, p. 8
- The Manchester Guardian obituary, 9 February 1921, p. 4
- Quigley, Joseph. The Slogan – Sidelights on recruiting with Harry Lauder’s Band, London: Simpkin, 1916, p.100
- The Observer, 25 June 1916, p. 7; and 2 July 1916, p. 7
- The Manchester Guardian, 4 April 1917, p. 2. Formby lost the case: his plea of ill-health was compromised by his accepting an engagement elsewhere at the same time.
- The Manchester Guardian, 4 July 1918, p. 8
- Tuson. See measuringworth.com Measuringworth.com
- The Guardian, 8 March 1961, p. 6
- Formby family grave, Warrington Borough Council — Warrington Cemetery, accessed 16 December 2011