George Formby, 1922
Formby, George [real name George Hoy Booth] (1904–1961), music-hall entertainer and actor, was born at 3 Westminster Street, Wigan, Lancashire, on 26 May 1904, the eldest of the seven surviving children (four girls and three boys) of James Lawler Booth (1875–1922), music-hall entertainer, and his wife, Eliza Hoy. George was born blind but gained his sight after a few weeks when a coughing fit, while he and his mother were crossing the Mersey, dislodged an obstructive caul. His father, born poor and illegitimate, learned his trade as a singing beggar and despite persistent ill health achieved success in the music halls under the name of George Formby. He created the character of John Willie, the archetypal gormless Lancashire lad in baggy trousers, tight jacket, and bowler hat, slow-talking, hen-pecked, accident-prone, but muddling through.
The young George was educated only to the age of seven at Notre Dame School, Wigan, after which he was sent to train as a jockey, first in Yorkshire and later in Ireland. As a result he remained barely literate all his life. While serving his apprenticeship he made his screen début at the age of ten, playing a stable boy who outwits a criminal gang in the film By the Shortest of Heads (1915). In 1922 his father died, at the age of forty-six, and his mother launched him on a stage career, coaching him in George senior's songs and routines and putting him into the John Willie costume. He made his début as George Hoy at the Hippodrome, Earlestown, but was soon calling himself George Formby junior.
On 13 September 1924, at Wigan, Formby married champion clog dancer Beryl Ingham (d. 1960), and she became the driving force behind his career, negotiating contracts, controlling the money, and managing the act. They had no children. They put together their own show, with which they toured the country, and under his wife's influence Formby abandoned the John Willie costume while retaining the character. He also mastered the banjulele which, along with a toothy grin, became his trademark.
The revue format and the John Willie character formed the basis of two films, Boots! Boots! (1934) and Off the Dole (1935), in which Formby made his adult screen début, co-starring with his wife. Made on tiny budgets in a one-room London studio by John E. Blakeley's Mancunian Films, the films were hugely successful. They attracted the attention of Basil Dean, the Liverpool-born head of Ealing Studios, who had already signed up Gracie Fields and saw in Formby the makings of a similar success. He signed Formby to a seven-year contract which resulted in eleven highly profitable films. When this contract expired Formby set up his own company, Hillcrest Productions, and signed in 1941 with Columbia Pictures to produce his own films for them; this resulted in seven more films in similar vein to the Ealing productions.
There was no attempt to play down Formby's Lancashire character and Dean engaged the Salford-born author of Love on the Dole, Walter Greenwood, to script Formby's first Ealing film, No Limit (1935). This and Keep your Seats, Please (1936) were both directed by Monty Banks, who later married Gracie Fields. After this a special Formby unit was set up at Ealing, headed by writer and director Anthony Kimmins, to produce his films. These usually conformed to a set pattern; at their centre is Formby, a shy, innocent, gauche, accident-prone Lancashire lad; frequently he is in a skilled trade (photographer, typesetter, gramophone engineer) and lives in the south, either in the suburbs or the countryside, thus nationalizing his appeal; he has a bashful courtship with a brisk, sensible heroine with an upper-class accent; he is put through a succession of comic humiliations but he eventually wins the girl and achieves success in his job or in sport or, later, in war. The point of universal identification was that if Formby could win through against adversity, then anyone could. His eternal optimism was summed up by his catch-phrase ‘Turned out nice again, hasn't it’.
It was thus partly by becoming a universal symbol that Formby achieved his success. He was northern and working-class but, more important, he was the little man who wins through against all the odds, as Chaplin had been on the silent screen, and as Norman Wisdom was to be in the 1950s. He was, as Colin MacInnes observed, Everyman, ‘the urban “little man” defeated—but refusing to admit it’ (Sunday Times, 13 Jan 1963). Mass-Observation recorded that the fantasy sequence in Let George do it (1940), in which Formby landed at Nuremberg and knocked out Hitler, was one of the biggest cultural morale-boosters of the early war years, the visual encapsulation of the people's war with the English Everyman flooring the Nazi Superman. The popularity of his character is indicated by the fact that from 1937 to 1943 inclusive Formby was the top British male star at the cinema box office, and from 1938 to 1942 the highest-paid entertainer in Britain.
There was an innocence about Formby that was essentially childlike, which explains why he was as popular with children as with adults. The cry ‘Ooh, mother’ which he emitted whenever in danger, and the gleeful ‘Aha, never touched me’ when he escaped his pursuers, were the reactions of a child. He even put his tongue out at pursuers on occasion. It was this innocence and the sunny outlook that neutralized the potential offensiveness of some of his songs. His songs—he recorded 189 in all—were a vital part of his appeal. Many of them dealt with sex but in a way which stressed shyness, voyeurism, caricature, and saucy innuendo: ‘My Auntie Maggie's remedy’, ‘My grand-dad's flannelette nightshirt’, ‘My little stick of Blackpool rock’, ‘When I'm cleaning windows’, ‘In my little snapshot album’. In their approach and their themes—honeymooners, nudists, fat ladies, underwear—they all recall the comic seaside postcards of Donald McGill and they served the same function—the harmless defusion of a major source of tension in a deeply repressed and conventional society.
Formby maintained his popularity through the Second World War both in films and on the ENSA tours he undertook, entertaining the troops frequently in close proximity to the front line. It was estimated that he had sung to 3 million service personnel by 1946, and in that year he was appointed OBE in recognition of his morale-boosting activities. However, his final film, George in Civvy Street (1946), was a box-office failure as the public turned to new film idols for the new post-war world, although his stage career continued. In the late 1940s he toured Canada, Australia, South Africa, and Sweden, raising thousands of pounds for charities. In 1951 he achieved a major West End stage success in the musical Zip Goes a Million, but during the run of the show he suffered a heart attack and thereafter his career was dogged by ill health. Despite this, he still packed in audiences to see him in pantomime and summer shows.
Formby's wife Beryl, who had been suffering from pernicious anaemia and cancer, died on Christmas day 1960, and six weeks later Formby announced his engagement to a young schoolteacher, Pat Howson. However, shortly before the planned wedding he suffered another heart attack and died on 6 March 1961 at St Joseph's Roman Catholic Hospital in Preston. By projecting in his thirty-year career a spirit of good nature, good humour, and good will, George had been able to embody simultaneously Lancashire, the working classes, the people, and the nation, and his passing was genuinely and widely mourned. He was buried next to his father in Manchester Road Catholic cemetery, Warrington.
Sources A. Randall and R. Seaton, George Formby (1974) · J. Fisher, George Formby (1975) · J. Walley, George Formby complete (1973) · J. Richards, The age of the dream palace: cinema and society in Britain, 1930–1939 (1984) · D. Bret, George Formby: a troubled genius (1999) · Sunday Times (13 Jan 1963) · The Times (7 March 1961) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1961)
Wealth at death £135,142 5s. 9d.: administration, 14 Aug 1961, CGPLA Eng. & Wales
From the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography