FORMBY, George: Let George Do It
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An affable Lancashire chap, a gormless grin, a happy-go-lucky song and a ukelele ... That was the formula they arrived at and never had to alter. George Formby's regular stage appearances and numerous recordings and films - which invariably ended happily - cheered at least two generations through years of recession and uncertainty. A loveable clown who always played himself and charmed his audiences with his slightly blue ditties, he was a bill-topper in variety for more than thirty years and his films were top box-office draws in British and Commonwealth countries between 1936 and 1945.
Born George Hoy Booth in a terrace house in Westminster Street, Wigan, on 26th May, 1904, a son of the famous Edwardian music-hall comic George Formby Sr. (1877-1921), the \man with the ukelele" could relate to the ordinary folk who frequented the theatres of Blackpool and other Lancashire resorts. His father did not want George to go into showbiz and, in 1919, had him apprenticed instead as a stable-lad. He bought the lad horses and George had already been a jockey for two years when his father died. By now already too well-built to ride professionally he decided to follow in his father?é?í?é?ªs footsteps after all and, in 1921, first trod the boards of the Argyll Theatre, Birkenhead where, for £17.10s.0d per week he regaled his audiences with re-hashes of George Sr.'s repertoire (his first published recordings, made for Edison Bell in 1926, are essentially variations on the John Willie character, a simpleton created by his late father). By this time both the ubiquitous ukelele and wife Beryl had arrived on the scene and both would remain for the duration of his career - the first his most reliable prop, the other his manager and the driving force who kept him on the straight and narrow road to stardom. Onstage, George played the fool, but the outwardly personable disposition masked an ambitious "hard-headed Lancashire lad" with a will to succeed.
In 1932, George first appeared in pantomime at the Grand Theatre, Bolton and in July of that year produced the first titles in a four-year contract with Decca Records which included Do-De-O-Do and Chinese Laundry Blues, Sitting On The Ice In The Ice Rink, It's No Use Looking At Me and Swimmin' With The Women. A household name, he was soon on his way to becoming best-paid British male film-star of the 1930s. A longer series of records, for Regal-Zonophone, was issued from November 1935, while his first picture, a comedy-musical short entitled Boots, Boots, was made privately in London in 1932. Via a combination of this and his records, he was finally "discovered" and between 1934 and 1946 went on to make twenty more films, starting with On The Dole. Always tailored to the same format, the earliest (up to and including Trouble Brewing, in 1939) were made for the pioneering Associated Talking Pictures film company which had been founded in 1932 by actor-turned-director Basil Dean (1888-1978). Several enjoyed a wide circulation in the United States.
In these 'cheer-up' films of the Depression years George, the UK's top male entertainer played a Lancashire Romeo, an amiable nitwit who - implausibly - always carried off the good-looking girl. They were also a vehicle which introduced and further popularised many of his best-remembered songs. In Keep You Seats, Please (a 1936 farce in which a prospective heir hunts for a fortune buried in one of six chairs) he sang The Window Cleaner, which became a sort of theme-song, while Feather Your Nest (1937 - a comedy in which "a gramophone record technician substitutes his own voice for a star and becomes world famous") introduced the other Formby anthem Leaning On A Lamp Post. In It's In The Air (a situation comedy which traces the "adventures of an accident-prone RAF recruit") he aired They Can't fool Me and Our Sergeant Major, while in Let George Do It (an Ealing production realised by Dean's understudy Basil Dearden (1911-1977) and generally rated among George's best efforts, in which "a ukelele player accidentally goes to Bergen instead of Blackpool and is mistaken for a spy") his numbers included Grandad's Flanelette Nightshirt and Mr. Wu's A Window-Cleaner Now.
Throughout the 1930s George also worked the variety circuits at home and abroad (mainly for Bert Feldman) and during WW2 toured tirelessly for ENSA, entertaining British services around the world, in recognition of which feat he was awarded the OBE in 1946. In 1951, having previously appeared in London only as a guest at the Palladium, made a sensational West End debut for Emile Littler at the Palace theatre in Zip Goes A Million, a musical adaptation of the G.B. McCutcheon novel Brewster's Millions. After a six-month run George left the show owing to illness. Thereafter he went into semi-retirement, although he managed to record one last LP album of songs, for Pye, in 1960. George Formby died at Beryldene, his home in Penwortham, North Lancs., on 6th March, 1961, aged 57 years.
Peter Dempsey, 2001