No one could doubt that George Formby was an easy going chap – with that great big grin and the knowing wink he made friends wherever he went. But despite his stage and film persona as a chirpy semi-imbecile, in reality George was a very sharp Lancashire lad. Together with his wife Beryl, who had the financial acumen in the family, they ran a very lucrative business. From the late Twenties they produced their own touring reviews, employing the supporting acts on salary, taking a percentage of theatre profits for their own production company.
As early as 1929 they realised that the really big money was in the new talking films, but film companies showed little interest in the young comedian until 1933, when Mancunian Films, based in Manchester and providing cheap quota quickies for the Northern cinema circuits, signed him for two films, ‘Boots Boots’ and ‘Off the Dole’. The films were frankly dreadful. The camera is static, the staging cramped and cardboard and the script appears to have been made up as they went along. Awful though the productions were, George’s personality came bubbling through the poor lighting, worse sound and indifferent direction with enough impact for Basil Dean, head of Associated Talking Pictures (later Ealing Films), to sign him to make five films.
Overnight, George Formby was in a completely different league. A.T.P. were one of Britain’s most important film companies, using top directors, technicians and writers. The novelist, Walter Greenwood, was contracted to write George’s first screenplay and came up with an ideal vehicle for him, ‘No Limit’, the story of a Lancashire chimney sweep who builds his own motor-bike and wins the Manx T.T. Races. The film was shot on location on the Isle of Man, and the delightful Florence Desmond was imported from London cabaret to play the leading lady.
‘No Limit’ was followed almost immediately by ‘Keep Your Seats, Please!’ with Flo Desmond again playing George’s girlfriend backed by a very strong supporting cast including Alastair Sim and Harry Tate. With the release of the two films in 1936, one can date exactly when George Formby became Britain’s most popular comedian. True, he had been a music-hall star for ten years or so, but most of his audience was in the industrial North. The films won him an army of new fans in the allegedly sophisticated South who took him to their hearts with the same enthusiasm as their Northern cousins and stayed loyally with him until the end of his career.
The astonishing success of the films had further spin-offs. George’s toothy smile endorsed MacClean’s Toothpaste and De Reske Cigarettes from posters on hoardings all over the country, he had a weekly column ‘By George!’ (but doubtless by someone else) in the pages of the Sunday Dispatch, and from April 1938 he starred every week on Radio Luxembourg in ‘The Feen-a-Mint Fanfare’, sponsored by the mint chewing gum that doubled as a laxative! When not in the film studio he still had three months every year touring in one-week variety and lengthy summer seasons and pantomime appearances.
While earning George a fortune, all of this work gobbled up material and new songs had to be featured every week, particularly on his radio dates. The recordings heard here are a cheery cross-section of what he was doing in the late Thirties. Most of the songs are by Harry Gifford and Fred Cliffe, who became George’s main song writers in 1934, but several go back to the days of touring review. I’m A Froggie and Like The Big Pots Do date from 1928, when they were featured in the road-show ‘Formby Seeing Life’, Wunga Bunga Boo is even older, being a hit for Dorrie Dene back in 1926.
Gifford and Cliffe wrote Pleasure Cruise for ‘No Limit’, but it was replaced by a song for Florence Desmond and went into cold storage until 1951, when, interpolated into ‘Zip Goes A Million’ at the Palace Theatre, it brought encores every night. Similarly, You’re A Li-A-Ty was cut from ‘Feather Your Nest’ prior to release, with the same idea used again later for Mother What’ll I Do Now in ‘I See Ice’, from which we hear the gentle Noughts And Crosses. George goes into Osbert Lancaster or John Betjeman territory with his amused look at the caravan craze in Trailing Around In A Trailer and urban sprawl in new housing developments in Radio Bungalow Town.
From June to September in 1936 and 1937, George Formby starred in summer season at the Opera House, Blackpool – two shows a day, six days a week. As it was impossible for him to travel to London to make records, a mobile studio came to him. In July 1936, with only his wooden ukulele as accompaniment, he recorded Ring Your Little Bell and the Nobody’s Biz’ness medley at the Paramount Cinema, Manchester, and in September 1936 and July 1937, microphones were set up on the stage of Feldman’s Theatre, Blackpool, where George sang with a local band drawn from members of Bertini’s Tower Orchestra. On the 1936 date he recorded Five And Twenty Years and in 1937, Somebody’s Wedding Day, I Don’t Like and Biceps Muscle and Brawn. Feldman’s Theatre, renamed The Queen’s Theatre was to be the scene of his last triumphant summer season in Blackpool in 1960.
Of the songs heard in this collection, only two have previously appeared on LP. There are three of George’s film songs, the rest from much loved variety performances, radio shows and pantomimes – songs about knickers, bathing beauties, hunting, exotic foreigners, honeymoon couples and his bashful exploits as a Palatine romeo. Songs that his audiences never tired of and songs that showcased his own unique magic.
So here he is – George Formby – thrity-four years old; slick, brylcreemed, dressed in dapper tails and gliding his way through his vaudeville act. Strumming his way through these twenty-two classic songs, giving them all that special gleeful treatment, the artful timing and the cheeky innuendo, complete with those high-speed ukulele solos. The songs and performances that made George Formby a star – and kept him one for the rest of his life.
© 1989 KEVIN DALY