George Formby - famous English eccentric
George Formby was one of England's most popular entertainers in the 1930s and 1940s.
But he led a rather eccentric life as he was completely dominated by his wife who was also his manager. I'm sure you'll be interested in his story.
Trapped in a loveless marriage for nearly forty years, after her death he admitted that his life with her 'has been hell'. He was known for his cheeky songs delivered seemingly innocently and did eventually find love ... but too late.
My sister and I loved to watch his films when we were kids but we knew little about his curious life. His paramours included a clog-dancer, an entertainer who claimed to be a Russian bisexual and a schoolteacher who was twenty years younger than he was.
He was however, a much-loved entertainer, despite the fact that his 'innocent' songs were banned by BBC Radio during the height of his fame. He made dozens of films too but didn't find happiness, despite his fame.
Ironically, a great part of his fame was due to his happy-go-lucky character and demeanor. It was only in later years that his fans found out that his character had been a facade.No scandal was ever attached to him, despite his 'cheeky chappy' act. He appeared to be a devoted husband and was very greatly loved by his audience.
What a shame that he was cheated out of the happiness he deserved.
Entertaining British troops
- He was one of fourteen children. His father, who shared his name, was the illegitimate child of a local prostitute and the father, of course, unknown.
- His father was an entertainer but didn't want his son to follow him into the profession. For this reason, he trained to be a jockey at an early age. He didn't know it at the time but this was to help his future career as he was often seen on horseback in the films he made.
- Soon after his father died, George Jr. went into a music hall to watch the show. Someone on the stage was using his late father's jokes. That was it. He decided that the only person who was entitled to his dad's material was himself.
- It was only after his father died that young George left his jockey career to become an entertainer. He was insecure in following his father's footsteps but was determined to make a living entertaining.
- He became besotted by a fellow entertainer, a clog dancer called Beryl. Although she wasn't impressed by him initially, he pursued her doggedly and they were married.
- Although no-one can know for sure, it's strongly suspected that the marriage was completely chaste. Beryl was so horrified at the thought of having children that she underwent an elective hysterectomy to be sure that she didn't get pregnant. Not because of her husband though - she was known to have affairs with other men.
- She did however become his manager and his subsequent fame was largely due to her promotion.
- There was a price to pay - she kept him short of money, she wouldn't let him even go for a drink at the pub and she was always present on movie sets to make sure that he didn't dally with his female co-stars.
Don't tell Beryl
He often used to perform in Barnsley, in Yorkshire. He used to park his car - he always had extravagant cars - at a garage on Regent Street, just a short walk from the theater.
It so happens that the owner of that garage was my granddad and my dad, then a youngster, remembers him saying on many occasions "I'm going to the pub before the theater. Don't tell Beryl".
The Royal Hotel, Barnsley
My dad says that when George and Beryl were in Barnsley, they used to stay at the posh Royal Hotel.
Although I'm in America now, I have family in Barnsley and occasionally, they send a treat - a local magazine about times gone by. I just read a story that I thought I'd share.In the article, the writer tells that one day, when the couple were staying at the Royal, they waved to the people below from their hotel room window. This happened in the 1940s when George was still a huge star.
He grabbed his ukulele and entertained the growing crowd on the street below with a free concert from the window!
What was all the fuss about?
If you've never heard him sing before, you'll probably be a little, well, surprised. Yes, the British loved him. Yes, I guess we ARE eccentric!
Banned by the BBC
Believe it or not, this song was banned by the BBC censors who considered it risqué.
- He was actually very different to the persona he played. When he started making films, experienced actors were amazed by his talents such as perfect comic timing and script writing.
- He developed his own style on his ukulele (or banjo as many people called it) and that style is mimicked and copied even today. I hate to use the word 'unique' because few things are but his singing and playing style is the exception and deserves the word.
- He didn't originally play the ukulele in his act. He bought the instrument from an fellow-performer and taught himself to play. Then he was challenged to play it during his act as part of a bet. He first played it on stage in Barnsley (see 'Don't tell Beryl' above!)
- During the war, with Beryl at his side naturally, he toured Europe and North Africa entertaining the troops. Back in England, they toured factories that were doing vital war work.
- The British Royal Family were huge fans.
- His last television appearance was in December 1960. It was a one man show during which he admitted to the audience that it was Beryl who was responsible for his success. He also said that he was almost completely illiterate. The show almost took the form of a 'confessional'.
- Why? Because Beryl was watching at home from her sickbed. She was dying. The show was a tribute - that he knew she would watch - to the woman who had dominated him for almost forty years. Despite everything, he wanted her give this tribute to her before she passed away. She died just a few days later.
- The public were soon aware of the truth though because very shortly after Beryl had died, George became engaged to a young woman he had known for some time, a schoolteacher. He said that he had more happiness with her in a short time than he had during his entire marriage to Beryl. He apologized to his friends for announcing the engagement so soon after Beryl's death but he said that he hoped they would not begrudge him a little happiness in the time he had left.
His final tribute to Beryl
He knew that Beryl would watch this from her sickbed and that she only had a few days to live. She had dominated his life and caused him unhappiness for almost forty years but she had developed his career. This generous man gave her this gift before she died.Listen too to the first song he sings on this video - it seems to be a lullaby for little boys. Don't you think it's another way of saying goodbye to Beryl? I do.
No happy ending
As a finale to George's troubled life, he died just three days before his planned wedding.
On 6th March, 1961 he died of a heart attack. His fiancée was at his bedside.
Actress Betty Driver interviewed about the Formbys
- Although George Formby is known for playing a 'ukulele' the instrument is actually a banjolele.
- One of his most famous songs was used to boost morale during wartime. It was called Bless 'em All. What listeners didn't know was that this was derived from a song that soldiers and airmen used to sing during the First World War but in those days the word wasn't bless - it was *@!*.
- There is a very well subscribed George Formby Society which has conventions in Blackpool - usually two every year.
- Not only had George and his new fiancée Pat arranged their wedding, they had also bought tickets for their honeymoon, a cruise.
- Pat died on cancer just ten years after George had died. She had previously arranged that all royalties from George's music and films should go to charity so in his own way, he is still doing good today.
- George Formby - and Beryl - were amongst a large group of English eccentrics. Thank goodness!
George Formby on DVD
What a period piece he is today. It's like another world. Nevertheless he was - and still is - much loved by many weird British people. (It's OK, I can say that because I'm a weird British person!)
© 2013 Jackie Jackson