It is my absolute pleasure to introduce you all to George Formby OBE.
26th May 1904 - 6th March 1961
Born in Wigan, Lancashire, George Hoy Booth was the son of James Booth, better known as George Formby Snr, famous music hall comedian and performer. ‘Formby’ was lifted from the Merseyside township of the same name. Pushed in jockey training at age 7, George was not to take to the stage until his father’s death in 1921.
Initially going by George Hoy, he worked as a tribute act to his late father, donning his old clothes and reciting his old jokes. The famous ukulele skills, now his most famous association, began in these music halls, when he bought a used instrument from a fellow performer and began to teach himself to play.
George met and married Beryl Ingham in 1924. Beryl herself was no stranger to the music hall circuit, already an accomplished and celebrated dancer, and, seeing George’s talent, gave up her own career in 1932 to manage her new husband’s fledgling one. She insisted he stop merely recreating his father’s act and take up the old Formby moniker, strike out on his own and put George Formby back at the top of the music hall billings. It was Beryl that pushed his ukulele performances to the forefront of the act. Formby later stated that he could only play one chord on the ukulele, but that was far from true. He was, in fact, incredibly skilled - even today, seasoned players struggle to match the speed at which he played.
Formby endeared himself to his audiences with his cheeky Lancashire humour. In film and on stage, he generally adopted the character of an honest, good-hearted but accident-prone innocent, famous for the phrases: “It’s turned out nice again!”, “Ooh, mother!” and “Never touched me!”. His songs were full of double entendre - Little Stick of Blackpool Rock was even banned by the BBC - delivered with a sly wit, disguised by his innocent demeanour.
As well as releasing gramophone records and touring the music halls in the 1920s and 30s, his first film, Boots! Boots! was released in 1934 to great acclaim. He signed up for another 11 pictures with Associated Talking Pictures and, by 1939, he was Britain’s number one film star.
Rejected for active service in World War II (flat feet, apparently), Formby instead gave his time to entertaining the troops on the continent. In a dream sequence from his most popular film, Let George Do It, he punches out Hitler. The scene was so popular with wartime audiences that it earned standing ovations. In 1946 he was awarded the OBE for his services at that difficult time.
That same year, he and Beryl were in South Africa as part of a world tour. Apartheid was still two years away, but Formby was informed that his audiences would be segregated, black and white divided. He was shocked by the decision, but it was Beryl that really took the situation to heart. Beryl embraced a three year old black girl who had presented her with a box of chocolates on stage. The National Party leader Daniel Francois Malan ordered the couple’s immediate deportation from the country, but Beryl refused. She cancelled all George’s official dates and instead played to black audiences all over South Africa. When the government eventually caught up with them at a hotel, Malan finally had them thrown out; he was reported to have told them “never come back to this country”. Beryl, replied “Why don’t you piss off you horrible little man?” and slapped him across the face.
George suffered a heart attack in 1952 and, as a result, semi-retired from the public eye. His last major television appearance, broadcast in December 1960, was a 35-minute solo spot on BBC Television’s The Friday Show. In the short broadcast, he opened up about his career, how he owed it all to Beryl and his fans and how he never believed himself to be a star. His devotion to Beryl was particularly poignant; just eight days later, on Christmas Day 1960, Beryl lost her long battle with leukaemia, in their Lytham St Anne’s home.
Just six weeks after Beryl’s death, George proposed to a new love, 36 year old teacher Pat Howson. He joked that, in his old age, he needed someone to look after him. The wedding never happened. On 6th March 1961, he suffered a second heart attack and died in hospital. An estimated 100,000 people turned out for the Warrington funeral service.
Unfortunately, George’s story doesn’t stop there. Fights between Howson, who had been well provided for in his will, and the remaining members of George’s family, who had not, broke out. His clothes and belongings were auctioned off (including worn clothes and “used/soiled” underwear), with members of the public invited to view the items in the home he had shared with Beryl. It was only when Howson died in 1971 that the drama ceased and George Formby’s memory could be said to be at peace.
Now bow down everyone here I come, bang that cymbal and hit that drum.
Bow down everyone, yes sir, I’m the Emperor Of Lancashire.
I honestly can’t even begin to explain the depth of admiration and love I have for George Formby. I’m just so proud that he’s a Lancashire lad and that, for me, makes him an absolute winner. It’s always wonderful, seeing one of your own do well - even if it was a good few years ago.
George’s Wikipedia page is here.
You can watch Frank Skinner’s terrific documentary on George here. I really recommend it, especially if you have no idea who he is.
Some great articles:
- Why George Formby was the first modern pop star by John Robb
- “That lad will go far!” by Simon Louvish
Lancashire love of my life.
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