6th March 1961. Formby.
The Wigan born George Formby died today in 1961 aged 56 and probably best known for his 1930.s ‘risqué’ ukulele number, ‘When I’m cleaning Windows’.
‘Leaning on the Lamp-Post’ which was sung in the 1937 film “Father knows best’ and in the Noel Gay musical “Me and my Gal’, was another popular ditty.
George, took his name from the Lancashire town of Formby, one of the first tribute acts as he followed his father, also George, who incidentally appeared on the same Bill, at the Dudley Empire, in 1902 as Belle Elmore later to be murdered by Crippen.
George senior joked about his TB with ‘I’m coughing better tonight’ and literally breathed his last in the wings of the stage..
George junior was sent to his early auditions by train and made his name when he learned to play the ukulele getting his break in 1933 in a movie, Boots! Boots! shot in a makeshift studio over a garage where shooting had to stop every time the mechanic revved up the engine.
By the age of 40 after 17 films in 10 years he was to make his final film the unsuccessful ‘George in Civvy Street’.
George became popular entertaining the troops in WWII as did fellow Lancastrian, Gracie Field (Grace Stansfield) who pre-war was the highest paid film star in the world only to be attacked by the tabloids when she went to America with her enemy alien Italian husband.(1)
Formby along with Will Hay, Flanagan and Allen, Frank Randall and Tommy Trinder were to spend their final years in provincial theatres at a time of the declining Variety Theatres.
Lancashire produced many comedians: Eric Morecambe named after a town, as was Jimmy Clitheroe. Liverpool produced Arthur Askey who early in his career was advised to lose his Liverpool accent, and Tommy Handley of ITMA fame.
Silly songs were much in vogue at the time for as well as Formby’s ‘Cleaning Windows’, there was Arthur Askey’s ‘Bee Song’, and Fred Crumit serenaded the virtues of ‘straight bananas and wrinkled prunes!’
One survivor into the new millennium is Ken Dodd, born and living in Liverpool’s Knotty Ash, supported by his ‘Diddymen’ who still carries on the Music-Hall tradition to packed houses in the provinces.
He regards humour as regional in its appeal, from the zany drollery of Lancashire to the one-liners of Glasgow, quick pace of cockneys and the friendly approach of Yorkshire comedians.
It explains why so many of the old northern comics failed at the London Palladium which preferred the camp humour of southerners Max Miller and Frankie Howerd.
Formby in 1960 said his 40 years marriage to his jealous and controlling wife Beryl were hell and proposed to marry a teacher after his wife died but he himself died before the wedding.
Thousands turned out for his funeral and his house in Lytham was invaded when there was a sale of the effects.
(1) Gracie Field was well known for the song, ‘The biggest aspidistra in the world’, written by Tommy Connor after seeing a woman watering a plant in Peckham with a giant can.
Grace had been pushed by an ambitious mother who moved house after every wage rise of her husband and also helped fellow Rochdale comedian Norman Evans to get established who by the 1950.s was earning £1500 a week.