Kevin and George Formby, by Michael Daly

Kevin’s website wouldn’t be complete without an account of his lifelong passion – and it was a passion – for George Formby, an artist Kevin considered the greatest British entertainer of the twentieth century. He knew Formby and many of his colleagues and family members personally, shared recorded material with him, and was one of the founders of the George Formby Society. Kevin’s planned biography of Formby, The Ukulele Man, was unfinished at the time of his death in 1989.

Kevin’s love of Formby all began with an unfortunate incident…

“Had I not attempted to burn down my parents’ house one Saturday morning in 1949, my life may have taken a very different turn. My mother had gone to Sainsbury’s to do the week’s shopping, and, left alone, it seemed an ideal opportunity to experiment with matches. At the height of the resulting conflagration my mother returned, and to prevent further incendiary incidents it was decided that in future while shopping was in progress I would be safely deposited at our ‘Saturday morning pictures’ where I could not get into mischief.

The next week I was taken to the Forum Cinema, Kentish Town, in north-west London, and enrolled as an ‘ABC Minor’; the atmosphere inside the picture-house was a mixture of Bedlam, cup-final night, and a masonic meeting. I was given a badge proclaiming, ‘ABC’ in red and blue letters, a copy of the film distributor’s magazine, and the words of the official ABC song. I was particularly impressed by this. To have a national anthem of one’s own must appeal to the chauvinist in everyone. To a child it was sheer rapture:

We are the boys and girls well known
As Minors of the ABC.
And every Saturday we line up to see
The films we love, and shout aloud with glee.
We like to laugh and have our sing-song,
Such a happy crowd are we!
We’re all pals together –
We’re Minors of the ABC!

“It was with this feeling of euphoria that at the age of seven I first encountered George Formby. What registered was that I had found someone who made me happy. The fast songs were accompanied by thunderous handclapping by the more experienced kids at various cross-rhythms to the actual tempo of the music, effectively drowning out almost everything that came from the enormous screen, which outraged me! At the Forum Cinema in 1949, it was simple – I finally felt I was at home.

During the next two years, I saw several of his films, and very occasionally heard him on the BBC, but it was not until the mid-fifties when I bought a wind-up gramophone from Tony Cox, a school pal, that I truly rediscovered George Formby. At that time my weekly pocket money was half a crown a week, while records were five shillings each and fragile. I had noticed that several junk shops had stacks of records in their window, and at sixpence a time this seemed a much more ecomomical way of getting a record collection. Within a couple of months, I had amassed thirty or so records of mixed musical taste, including a couple of Regal-Zonophone discs by George Formby in very battered condition.

My friends at school thought I was very peculiar. Here I was, collecting twenty-year-old records, and listening to them with every sign of enjoyment. Everybody in Form F knew that music had started earlier that year (1955) with Elvis’s record, ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and believed this fact as law. It was incomprehensible to them that an otherwise normal kid could reject rock & roll for an old-fashioned Lancashire comedian. The reason was real enough to me. The new American pop records had excitement (and it should be remembered that in 1955 pop by definition meant American product) but I preferred not to listen to a sound – but to a person – and when George’s records were played, there he was, a warm genuine human being.”

By 1957, Kevin was skiving off school to deal in records in the north-west London markets. One day he came across a small trunk, full of memorabila about the great Music Hall star George Formby Senior (father of his ukulele-playing hero). Kevin, being an enterprising boy, (he was still only fifteen) tracked down Formby, where he was performing, and managed to get backstage, and presented him with the trunk. A touched Formby asked him to stay for tea where, Kevin remembers, he spent much of their time together complaining about the lack of parking near the theatre. Anyway, addresses were exchanged, and a correspondence began between Formby and the fifteen year old Kevin ensued (Formby’s letters written by his wife, Beryl), with Formby generously lending Kevin his private tapes and discs, with Kevin in return sending them recordings he’d made which they didn’t have. He even tried to track down songs such as Maxie The Taxi Driver, performed by Formby and written by Eddie Latta. In a letter dated 26 September 1959, Beryl wrote, 

“George just doesn’t know how to thank you for your great kindness in sending along all of your tape recordings; my, my what a collection, we have never seen anything like it, we certainly haven’t got anything like it, but thanks to you we now have… None of the numbers you mention were ever recorded; sorry we have no records we could send you as you have got the lot.”

In April 1961, a month after Formby’s death, Kevin, together with Bill Logan and George Wilson, founded the George Formby Society, dedicated to perpetuating the great man’s memory. Bill declared himself ‘President’ and Kevin became the grandly titled ‘Recording Officer’; they should have followed the ABC Club’s lead, and created their own national anthem; they settled instead on invading Blackpool every year. Before long they would also have a General Secretary, an Assistant General Secretary, and many other senior posts. It made the Politburo seem positively casual. Kevin subsequently also became the first editor of the GFS magazine, The Vellum. 

Kevin created his own ukulele-playing alter ego: Eli Bickerstaffe, who surreptitiously made two LPs in the Decca studios! ‘He’s so good it’s frightening’, claimed the LP cover of Blackpool’s Golden Mile. Eli would crop up on the occasional Argo LP, for instance Ian Whitcomb’s Hip Hooray for Neville Chamberlain! (for which Kevin also designed the album cover), and in 1977 he produced a Decca album by famous Formby impersonator Alan Randall. In Australia, years later, Eli would finally fulfil his life’s ambition of singing and playing ukulele in front of a full band. 

George Formby was a constant source of happiness for Kevin for forty years – from the age of seven to the final year of his life, when he produced the last of his Formby reissues – Easy Going Chap. Formby remained for him a companion, a warm presence, and the epitome of what a star should be.

Kevin was in no doubt of the greatness and unique character of Formby:

“This was the real secret of his immense popularity – the feeling of warmth that spread across the footlights as the orchestra struck up the intro to one of his songs, and the wave of love – there’s no other word for it really – that spread through the theatre. An ‘ordinary man’ – with an extraordinary talent.”
 

Comments

Gerry George says

March 15, 2015 at 2:23 pm

That happy smiling face brings back fond memories of a good friend and a devoted Formby fan.

Best wishes Michael, and well done for keeping your super-dad’s name alive, along with that of his (and my), hero.

As aye. Gerry.

Michael Daly says

March 16, 2015 at 3:46 pm

Thanks Gerry, and best wishes to you, too.