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George Formby

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George Formby, Jr., OBE (26 May 1904 – 6 March 1961) was an English ukulele player singer and comedian who became a major star of both cinema and music hall.

Career

George was born at 3 Westminster Street, Wigan, Lancashire, as George Hoy Booth, the eldest of seven surviving children (four girls and three boys). His father (James Booth) was George Formby, Sr. (1875-1921) one of the great music hall comedians of his day, fully the equal of his son's later success. His father, not wishing him even to watch his performances, moved the family to Atherton Road in Hindley (near Wigan) and it was from there that George was apprenticed as a jockey when he was seven and rode his first professional race at ten when he weighed under four stone (56 pounds, 25.4 kg).

On the death of his father in 1921, Formby abandoned his career as a jockey and started his own music hall career using his father's material. He originally called himself George Hoy (George Hoy was also his maternal grandfather's name, who originally came from Newmarket, Suffolk, a famous horseracing town & whose family were involved in racehorse training). In 1924 he married dancer Beryl Ingham, who managed his career (and it is said his personal life to an intolerable degree - see biographies below) until her death in 1960. He allegedly took up the ukulele, for which he was later famous, as a hobby and first played it on stage for a bet.

George Formby plays the Ukulele Banjo

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George 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 and "Ooh, mother!" when escaping from trouble.

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 musical syncopated style which became his trademark. Some of his best-known songs were written by Noel Gay. 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 the lyrics.[1]

He made his first successful record (he had been making records as early as 1926) 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 with Associated Talking Pictures, earned him a then-astronomical income of £100,000 per year. A subsequent contract with Columbia Pictures earned him a further £500,000.

Between 1934 and 1945 Formby was the top box-office attraction in British cinema. He appeared in the 1937 Royal Variety Show, and entertained troops with ENSA in Europe and North Africa during World War II. He received an OBE in 1946. He had received a Stalin Prize in 1944, prompted by the popularity of his films in the USSR. His most popular film, and 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. A dream sequence in which he punches Hitler on the nose and addresses him as a "windbag" is one of the most enduring moments in film comedy.

Formby suffered his first heart attack in 1952. His wife Beryl died of leukaemia on 24 December 1960 and he planned to marry Pat Howson, a 36-year-old schoolteacher, in the spring of 1961. However he had a second heart attack before then and died in hospital on 6 March 1961. His funeral was held in St. Charles' Church in Aigburth, Liverpool and 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.

On 15 September 2007 a bronze statue of Formby was unveiled in his home town of Wigan, Lancashire, in the town's Grand Arcade Shopping Centre.

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Beryl Ingham: wife and manager of George Formby

Beryl Ingham was born in 1901 in Haslingden, Lancashire. She was a champion clogdancer and actress, winning the All England Step Dancing Title at the age of 11. Later she formed a dancing act with her sister, May, which they called themselves "The Two Violets" [2]. It was in 1923 while they were appearing in music hall in Yorkshire that she met George Formby. They married in George's home town of Wigan, Lancashire the following year [3].

The couple worked together as a variety act until 1932 when she became his full time manager and mentor, though she did in fact appear in two of his films for which George was paid up to £35,000 per performance. It was Beryl's business savvy that guided Formby to be the UK's highest paid entertainer (at a time of high taxation he was paying 97.5% of his earnings as revenues).

In 1946 Beryl and George toured South Africa, where he played to black audiences despite threats from the National Party leader Daniel François Malan. Beryl embraced a 3 year-old black girl who had presented her with a box of chocolates.

When Malan started shouting at the Formbys, threatening to throw the couple out of the country, Beryl, with a typical northern response, replied "Why don't you piss off you horrible little man?" [4] Beryl continued to manage George's career until she contracted leukemia. She died on Christmas Eve, 1960 in Blackpool, Lancashire. He also had a dog called Willie Waterbucket. For many years my grandfather - Fred Knight - was George's chauffeur,driving him to the studios and Music Halls across the country. At that time George had a Lanchaster, a make long gone, but considered quite the limo of its day. George's famous ukelelee was often left at my mother's house. I did have a number of signed photographs from George and Beryl but sadly these were "lost" when grandfather had to move in a care home. I would dearly love to know if any such photographs still exist.

Playing Styles

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

Among the several syncopation techniques that he used, the most commonly emulated stroke of Formby's is a clever rhythmic technique, called the "Split stroke", a technique which produces a musical rhythm, that is easily recognised as Formby. He sang in his own Lancashire accent. Other strokes that are included in George's repertoire include the triple, the circle, the fan, and the shake.

Selected Songs

  • "Auntie Maggie's Remedy"
  • "Chinese Laundry Blues"
  • "The Isle of Man"
  • "Imagine Me on the Maginot Line"
  • "The Window Cleaner"/"When I'm Cleaning Windows (media:George Formby--Cleaning Windows-sample.ogg|Audio sample)
  • "Leaning on a Lamppost"
  • "With my Little Ukulele in my Hand"
  • "With my Little Stick of Blackpool Rock"
  • "Mother, What'll I do Now?"
  • "Mr Wu's a Window Cleaner Now"
  • "Mr Wu's an Air Raid Warden Now"
  • "Our Sergeant Major"
  • "My Granddad's Flannelette Night Shirt"

Filmography

  • By the Shortest of Heads
  • Boots! Boots!
  • Off the Dole
  • The Song That Made a Star
  • No Limit
  • Keep Your Seats Please
  • Feather Your Nest
  • Keep Fit
  • I See Ice
  • It's in the Air
  • Trouble Brewing
  • Come On George
  • Let George Do It
  • Spare a Copper
  • Turned Out Nice Again
  • South American George
  • Much Too Shy
  • Get Cracking
  • He Snoops To Conquer
  • Bell Bottom George
  • I Didn't Do It
  • George in Civvy Street

Other Information

  • Peter Sellers, whose parents, Bill and Peggy Sellers, were music hall artists, recounted on Michael Parkinson's show that it was his father who introduced George to the banjolele.[5]
  • One of his most popular films is No Limit and used to be shown every year in the Isle of Man TT week. George rides a 'Shuttleworth Snap' in the film. The Shuttleworth Snap was actually a disguised 1928 AJS - it was the Rainbow that was the disguised Ariel Red Hunter. In real life Formby owned a Norton International 500cc OHC single sports model, one of the most desirable machines of the day.
  • There is a bronze statue of George leaning on a lampost on Ridgeway Street in Douglas, Isle of Man. Another bronze statue was unveiled in Formby's hometown of Wigan, Lancashire in the Grande Arcade Shopping Precinct.
  • In his last TV appearance in December 1960, Formby admitted that he had never learned to read or write music.
  • His father, George Formby (Senior), had intended to retire from music-hall and buy some horses, employing George to train them, but died before he could put this plan into effect.
  • In the British radio programme, The Bradshaws, all of Formby's songs were said to have been written by Uncle Wally One-Ball.
  • The British comedian Peter Kay makes reference to George Formby in a comedy sketch. Kay describes how his 'Nana' finds it difficult to pronounce product names. Examples include: "VD Player" instead of "DVD Player", and "George Formby Grill" instead of "George Foreman Grill".
  • George is referenced in many episodes of the Marks and Gran sitcom Goodnight Sweetheart, and is portrayed, with his wife, Beryl, in the series 3 episode "Turned Out Nice Again".
  • Appears in the back cover of Alice in Chains self-titled album, also known as Tripod, with a Computer Edited third leg.
  • A fictional George Formby appears in the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde. In the "Nextiverse", Formby was part of the resistance during the Nazi occupation of England, broadcasting inspirational songs and jokes to the occupied English on "Wireless St. George" (essentially the opposite of Lord Haw-Haw). Such was Formby's popularity that Hitler ordered all banjos and ukeleles burned. Following the collapse of the occupation, Formby was appointed President-for-Life, to replace the (presumed defunct) Royal Family as an inspirational figurehead for the country (and unlike the Royal Family, was genuinely beloved by the vast majority of his subjects). The Nextiverse version of Formby held the rank until his death in 1988.

References and Notes

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