Comics are divisive. You either love 'em or hate 'em. If you're not laughing hysterically at their work, you're giving them the cold, blank stare of incomprehension. It's no good trying to convert unbelievers. Anyone who tries to explain to me why Jim Davidson or Jacque Tati are funny is really going to have their work cut out for them. Similarly, I once spent a very long evening trying to explain why Laurel and Hardy were a laff riot to a date (that relationship went no further!). George Formby divided a nation like no other. Posh London critics were frequently baffled, but working class audiences were entranced. He spoke to his audience like few other comedians have ever done, and he's still doing so today.
His father (also called George Formby) was big in the music halls. George junior showed little sign of following in his father's footsteps, instead he trained as a jockey. This racing experience helped him get his first film role as the child jockey in By the Shortest of Heads.
Formby Sr had long had a lung condition. It got so bad he had to incorporate his hacking cough into his act and in 1921 it finally killed him. Junior was trained by his mother to take over the act. Though he performed under the name George Hoy for a while, his act was a carbon copy of his dad's (minus the cough).
While working his way up the billings he met Beryl Ingham who was then part of a clogdancing act. They married in 1924 and Beryl took over as his manager. Beryl Formby became a showbiz legend with her control over George. She kept him on a tight rein financially and chased away any woman who might turn his head.
By the time talkies arrived George was a headline act all over the North. He'd also introduced a banjulele (a banjo/ukulele cross) into the act to accompany him with the songs. With his strong regional appeal it was only natural that he would attract the attention of John Blakely's Mancunian Films. He and Beryl appeared in two no-budget productions.
The success of these brought him a contract with Basil Dean's ATP. His films and records were hugely popular and by the end of the thirties he was earning £100,000 a year. He toured extensively for ENSA during the war years and moved to Columbia pictures in 1942.
When the war ended, so did his film career. He was still popular, but didn't seem to fit with the times. Never mind, the same thing happened to Churchill; and at least the sudden eclipse of his film career spared George from making any real turkeys.
In 1951 he finally conquered the West End with the musical Zip Goes a Million. But he had to pull out after six months when he had a heart attack. When he returned to health he filled his time with panto and TV appearances.
Beryl died of cancer in 1960 and within a few weeks of her death George announced he was marrying again. However another heart attack killed him before he could wed.
With his combination of gormless charm and cheeky songs George Formby kept the nation cheery through the depression and the war years. His invincible innocence helped him get away with murder: "With My Little Ukulele in My Hand", "Little Stick of Blackpool Rock", "When I'm Cleaning Windows" are just some of the songs that raised the art of the double entendre to new heights.
Even today his legacy lives on. The George Formby Society is one of the most active fan clubs in the country.
|1915||By the Shortest of Heads|
|1933||Off the Dole|
|1936||Keep Your Seats Please|
|1937||Feather Your Nest|
|1938||I See Ice|
|1938||It's in the Air|
|1939||Come On George|
|1940||Let George Do It|
|1941||Spare a Copper|
|1941||Turned Out Nice Again|
|1942||South American George|
|1942||Much Too Shy|
|1944||He Snoops to Conquer|
|1945||I Didn't Do It|
|1946||George on Civvy Street|
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