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pride of manchester - george formby
George Formby
"No matter where I go - London, Paris, Mexico,
Anywhere on Earth, they know my place of birth,
North or South, when I open my mouth,
They know that I’m not Dutch,
They can tell I come from Lancashire, but they can’t tell me much." - Lyrics to George Formby's "A Lad From Lancashire"

George Formby – the ukulele-playing Lancashire icon, with the slicked-back Brycreem hair, and tombstone tooth grin, as wide as the grille on a Yankee Buick – was such a household word, in the 30s and 40s, his name tripped off your tongue faster than OK Sauce, or Coleman’s Mustard.

He was a movie star, when we called them ‘Talkies’, and George and His Ukulele were hot properties in the entertainment industry, because both had a grip on the public at large, stronger than Hitler, Churchill and the whole cabbage patch of politicians put together, because both gave everyone hope and happiness, in times of great depression.

His saucy songs, and sharp eye for satire, which he cloaked in a veil of exaggerated innocence, were 'bang-on-target' for the era in which they existed...and his public knew that, and loved him for it.

   

Today, his naive suggestiveness, and double entendre would be laughed off the stage; but this was another time; another place; when the public were not receptive to today's 'full frontal vulgarity'; and when Formby - without the slightest hint of obscenity - was undisputed King of the Muck Heap!

Born in Wigan, Lancashire (now Greater Manchester), on May 26, 1904, George was the second child of the legendary Edwardian Music Hall star, George Formby Snr. Their first child did not survive, but several brothers and sisters came after George.

George Formby
   

He originally trained as a jockey, but on his father’s death, at only 46 – following his collapse, in pantomime, at Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, in 1921 – George, egged-on by his mother Eliza, took to the boards, copying his father’s act. Under the stage name of George Hoy, his saucy songs, and sharp eye for satire, which he cloaked in a veil of exaggerated innocence, were 'bang-on-target' for the era in which they existed...and his public knew that, and loved him for it.

Today, his naive suggestiveness, and double entendre would be laughed off the stage; but this was another time; another place; when the public were not receptive to today's 'full frontal vulgarity'; and when Formby - without the slightest hint of obscenity - was undisputed King of the Muck Heap!

He opened at the Hippodrome Theatre, Earlestown, near Newton Le Willows, just outside Wigan, and preferring not to use his father’s name – until he had made it to the top – he chose, instead the name George Hoy, which was his mother’s maiden name.

   

George and Beryl Formby

Sympathy bookings from agents loyal to his dad, soon evaporated when the callow 17-year-old quickly outlived the ‘honeymoon period’, courtesy of his father’s equally deferential, and responsive public.

Finally, he was reduced to throwing in his lot with minstrel shows, pierrots, and profit-share tours, that barely made a living, but at least, allowed him to eat, and simultaneously, keep his hand-in, in the business. It was on one such tour – two years after his father’s death – that George met, and instantly fell in love with, a beautiful dancer, Beryl Ingham, who did a clog-dancing ‘turn’ with her sister, in the show.

   

Within weeks, they were ‘Mr. And Mrs. Formby’, and from then on the name 'George and Beryl' was synonymous with George’s meteoric rise to fame.

Beryl – a shrewd businesswomen, and dynamic ‘driving’ character, from childhood – started by taking her husband along to a Newcastle agent, Fred Convery, and landing George a revue contract, which guaranteed him work for the next five years.

With him, George took along a cheap ukulele – a leisure-time 'toy', bought from a pal for a few bob – but, at Beryl’s insistence, shrewdly incorporated into his comedy act, with Beryl as his feed and partner. Very soon, the pair were touring provincial halls, countrwide, and within a decade of them starting-out, they were topping Variety bills in their own 'George Formby Show'.

   

Beryl told me, in 1959 - when I was researching George's life, for an intended BBC 'This Is Your Life' show - that, every evening they went back to their theatrical digs, hugging a carpet bag, stuffed-to-overflowing with pound notes: the takings for one night's Variety performance.

It was at one such provincial call, in 1933, that George met Northcountry film maker, and impresario, John. E. Blakeley, when he knocked on George’s dressing room door, at the theatre in Warrington, and asked them to star in their first ‘talkie’, for his Mancunian Film Studios.

an advert for George Formby's new single
   

“I nearly grabbed his hand off”, said George, years later, in a television biography. “he said: ‘yes, I’d like to make a movie with you; but I haven’t got a script’; I said ‘I have’, and I pulled out this little sketch ‘Boot, Boots !’, that Beryl and I had written, along with a chap in our show, called Arthur Mertz.”

The film, shot in one room over a garage, in Albany Street, Camden Town, London, cost £4,000 to make; but it also made an instant hit with the big film renters – because it was packing-out the picture houses, and breaking box-office records – so the big London Studios beckoned, and Formby was on his way, with a seven year contract, from Ealing Studios, and a star-studded ‘20 pictures’ movie career ahead of him.

Blakeley’s second, and last Formby film – ‘Off The Dole’ (1934/5) – ushered in Ealing’s much slicker option ‘No Limit’: a motorcycle racing story, shot on the Isle of Man, in which George, as an aspiring TT-rider, was teamed-up with the brilliant actress/comedienne and impersonator, Florence Desmonde.

   

George Formby in No Limit

The film was a tremendous success with cinema audiences, countrywide, and George emerged with all the trophies. In fact, the film made such an impact on the island, it is still shown every year, during Race Week, for annual TT meet.

After that George really opened the throttle, and let rip with a litany of comedy blockbusters, that until 1944, successively earned him the annual accolade, ‘Britain’s Biggest Box-Office Movie Star’.

Simultaneously, from 1933 onwards, George was an equally successful recording star; churning out best-selling shellac 78's, first for Decca, and then for the Columbia Graphophone Company, on their Regal Zonophone budget label.

   

At one stage, he was cutting two big-selling discs a month, and by the end of 1946, he had more than 200 to his credit. His most memorable record – ‘When I’m Cleaning Windows’, from the 1936 ‘talkie’ ‘Keep Your Seats Please’, sold over a million copies, in the days of wind-up gramophones, and bread queues, and earned him a gold commemorative disc.

When war broke out, George threw himself into entertaining the troops, and Beryl accompanied him to war fronts, all over the world: the Far-East, the Middle-East, the European Campaign...everywhere, George was to be seen plonking that ukulele, as he sang his naughty ditties, to the lads in the Front Line: sometimes only two or three of them, at a machine-gun post, or in a shell-hole.

George and Beryl were in France, at the beginning of the war, and immediately after the D-Day Landings, they actually accompanied Monty, with his mobile headquarters, as they broke through the first defences, and sped forth into occupied Europe. When he wasn’t doing that, or making pictures, or touring, he was a corporal dispatch rider, in the Blackpool Home Guard, and did a great deal of fund-raising, and morale boosting work on the Home Front, which contributed to him being awarded an OBE, at the end of hostilities.

   

But 1946 ushered in a series of frightful cataclysmic disappointments for Formby, and not least the fact that he was given the in-house political brush-off by Britain’s movie moguls, who believed the ukulele man was not in touch with the new post-war social changes, or the emerging generations, who, they believed, regarded him as an embarrassing anachronism, and a fragment of their parents' culture, of which they were now ashamed. Secondly George and Beryl were dumbfounded, when confronted with a £500,000 super-tax bill, from the newly-elected Atlee government.

"It took virtually everything we had saved, over the previous decade", Beryl told me. She explained, they had been making money, but not that much - compared with today's standards (George got £26,000 per picture) - and at this rate, what they were having to pay back, amounted to more than 99 pence in the pound, by today's reckoning.

George Formby
   

George was so furious, he went on strike, to register his anger at such an injustice, and did not work, in Britain, for at least a year. From then on, George’s health went into decline, but he did fulfil tours, in Canada and Australia, and – despite his annoyance at the government – began to star in UK shows on his return.

In 1951, Emile Littler gave him the chance to star in ‘Zip Goes A Million’, a stage musical version of the play ‘Brewster’s Millions’.

George opened in Coventry before coming home to Manchester's Palace Theatre, in the autumn, and broke all box-office records, as Percy Piggot, the chap who inherits millions, provided he fulfils the terms of the will, and spends a million pounds in one month.

   

George Fromby in Zip Goes A Million

Within weeks, George was taking London by storm, packing them out, with his musical, at The Palace, and everyone was rejoicing that he was back on tip-top form again. But, by Whitsuntide, 1952, the toothy comic was teetering on the brink of death. Driving to his holiday home, near Great Yarmouth, he swerved his Jaguar off the road, and clutching his chest, gasped to Beryl that he was 'done for'. It was a massive heart attack, and it would be two full years before George was back in the spotlight again.

In the meantime, Beryl nursed him ‘round-the-clock’, and kept him, quite literally, wrapped up in cotton wool. After that, he left these shores, to recouperate in Ireland, and there was talk that he would never come back to work again.

   

When he did return, he was only half the man, whose catchphrase: ‘It’s Turned Out Nice Again, hasn’t It ?’, had thrilled millions. He was fat, breathless, slow-moving, and irritable…and – unknown to the public – his fairy-tale marriage to Beryl, was in tatters.

A few cruises, and television spectaculars – on which George was virtually just a guest in his own show – took him up to 1957, when once again, he returned to the West End, to appear, first in Variety, at the Palladium, and then as Idle Jack, in 'Dick Whittington', at Victoria Palace.

A very successful summer season, for Jacky Jay, at Great Yarmouth’s Windmill Theatre, in 1959, led to a season at Jimmy Brennan’s Queen’s Theatre, in Blackpool, the following year, with George topping the bill, supported by Jimmy Clitheroe, Yana, and Tony Dali. He even cut a chart-busting pop-song: ‘Happy Go Lucky Me !’, with ‘Banjo Boy’, on the flipside.

   

He also checked Beryl in for a short cruise, similar to the one which he and Beryl had made to Canada, the previous year, when he appeared in a television film, 'Trans-Atlantic Showboat', with his old pal, Hughie Greene, of 'Opportunity Knocks!' fame.

But by this time Beryl – who had been ‘dying’ with cancer, for three years – was within weeks of succumbing, and George, himself, was beginning to get the familiar reminders of ‘Mr CT’, the name he wryly used to refer to the Coronary Thrombosis, which had dogged his footsteps, since it had first laid him low, eight years before.

George Formby
   

In mid-December George told his life story, in a 35-minute special, for the BBC’s ‘Friday Show’, and in it he confessed that he could barely read and write, or even read music, and that - without Beryl to manage and promote him – he never would have got to where he finally did, in showbusiness.

Returning to his Saint Annes-on-Sea, Blackpool, home, on December 25 – after completing his dress rehearsal for his Bristol panto opening, as Mr. Wu, in ‘Aladdin’, George was beside himself with grief, to learn that Beryl had passed away in the night.

After one week’s panto, George himself entered Blackpool’s Victoria Hospital, suffering from heart strain, and nervous exhaustion, but a get-well card from the daughter of a friend, caused him to discharge himself, and dash over to Penwortham, Near Preston, Lancashire, where he met the girl, Pat Howson - 20 years his junior - and immediately 'popped the question' to her.

   

George Formby in I See Ice

Newspaper headlines went crazy over George’s shock announcement, so soon after his wife’s death. But George was undeterred and planned a Summer wedding, irrespective of what anybody else had to say.

I talked to George, at the time of that announcement. He was very concerned that people were accusing him of bad-mouthing Beryl, and betraying her loyalty, by marrying so soon after her death. "People don't realise how useless I am, without the support of a woman like Beryl", George told me. "I don't think people realise it, but, I'm not well myself: I can't walk two blocks, without taking a pill, you know. "This lass is more of a companion than an intended wife. She is also an Advanced Driver, and she will drive me around to engagements, and give me a bit of happiness, in what few years I have left."

   

Sadly, this was not be, for, as George and his bride-to-be, were enjoying a roast duck dinner, at her Penwortham home, the ukulele man, collapsed with another heart attack, and was rushed to Saint Joseph’s Hospital, Preston, where a few days later, just when he was showing signs of recovery, he suddenly relapsed and died.

It was 5pm, on Monday, March 6, 1961, and George would have been 57, had he lived until the May.

Hundreds of thousands turned out, to attend his funeral mass, in Aigburth, near Liverpool, and then line the cortege’s 20-mile route, to his interment in the family vault, at Warrington Cemetery.

Pat Howson, was devasted, and within 10 years, she too was dead, of cancer, but not before some nightmare legal wranglings over George's much-contested Estate, which, in the end, didn’t seem to benefit any one, least of all, several of his apparently disinherited relatives.

   

Perhaps the shrewdest move of all, ever undertaken by Beryl, was to demand that every time one of George films was shown, he should get 25 per cent of the net showing fee. In that way, Beryl ensured that while George lived, he 'reaped while he slept', and, as far as I am aware, his estate is still benefiting by that arrangement, today.

So, mindful of that, it would be nice to think that George is really having the last laugh; smiling down from some ethereal balcony, and commenting to Beryl, his canny spouse: "It's turned out nice again..hasn't it ?".

Thousands line the streets for George Formby's funeral
 


 
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