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Oh Mr Woo, what can I do

01:00 Mon 08th Apr 2002 |

Q. I heard a comic song at my parents' house, they told me it was George Formby, and he was a massive star. Can you tell me more < xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

A. George Formby was born George Hoy Booth in Lancashire in 1904. George's father, George Formby Snr. was a popular music hall entertainer and comedian, but George was not initially destined to follow in his father's footsteps - he trained as a jockey. Formby Sr's sudden death in 1921 prompted George to try his hand on the stage, and he worked initially under his own name of Booth.

Q. So how did he become famous

A. The turning point in George's career came about when he met and married a dancer by the name of Beryl Ingham. A far stronger personality than her husband, she took charge of his career, and proved a formidable negotiator, arranging his concert tours and film and recording career, with maximum financial reward sought, and obtained. George's affable personality did not receive much attention on the music hall circuit, until by chance he acquired a ukulele and taught himself to play. From then on, George rapidly became a star - the audiences loved his particularly individual self-taught playing style, combined with the music hall tradition of singing songs, which, although mild by modern standards, were considered pretty cheeky in their day.

George's amiable somewhat accident prone persona proved hugely popular with audiences, who dubbed him 'the beloved imbecile', and it's perfectly possible that George was equally easy going and amiable away from the stage. His wife however, was a different individual altogether, and they made a perfect show business couple, his talent for music and songs, and her talent for hard headed business deals, made George Formby one of the highest paid entertainers of his day.

Q. So a quick move from music hall to record and film

A. Indeed. Under the guidance of Beryl, George recorded the 1932 song Chinese Blues, which he re-titled Chinese Laundry Blues, and which was to become his signature tune for the remainder of his career. In 1934, George acted in his first film, continuing the successful image that his fans adored, which seemed to be playing himself, at least as far as people knew. George's debut feature Boots! Boots! was a huge hit, and he signed to complete eleven more films for Ealing Studios, the Mecca of British comedy films. The films included a variety of saucy songs, which in turn made George hit records, and by 1938 he was Britain's biggest grossing entertainment star, earning a colossal 100,000 per year.

Q. How did George's career progress from there

A. Having been an entertainer of the troops during the war, touring throughout Europe and The Middle East, George was made an OBE in 1946 as recognition of his efforts to boost troops' morale.

Q. Did he ever go back to the stage

A. He did - in 1951, George Formby starred in the stage musical Zip Goes A Million, which was presented at the Palace Theatre in the West End of London. In a career where everything he touched turned to gold, George enjoyed another huge success, but the strain of his work schedule took its toll, and he was forced to drop out of the show after six months of constant appearances, having suffered a major heart attack.

Q. So was that the end of his career

A. No, after a year spent recovering, George returned to his roots in the clubs, although his health never really recovered, and illness continued to impede any more of the hectic work load he had enjoyed at the peak of his career.

Q. Any more records

A. Yes, in 1960, George released his first record for fifteen years - Happy Go Lucky Me, but his career was certainly in its twilight.

Q. What happened to George's wife Beryl

A. On Christmas Eve 1960, Beryl died. It may say something about the dominance of her personality in their professional and personal relationships that a mere two months after her death, George announced his engagement to a schoolteacher more than 20 years his junior.

Q. Was that a problem

A. It wouldn't cause any raised eyebrows these days, but at that time, a widower was supposed to observe a suitable period of mourning, a minimum of a year was expected, and apart from the somewhat indecent haste with which George appeared to find happiness, there was the matter of his fiance's age, again a cause for comment in those less liberated times.

Q. But at least George Formby was able to grow old happily

A. Sadly not. The terrific toll on his physical health from a lifetime of touring, recording, and filming finally caught up with George, he died in March 1961, from a massive heart attack, at the age of 56.

Q. Does his music live on

A. It does- there are a number of Appreciation Societies scattered around the country, and his songs occasionally appear on radio from time to time. Nostalgia fans can revel in his comic timing, and toothy grin, as his many films are regularly aired as matinees on television, and his two standard phrases are sure to raise a smile from anyone who remembers George in his hey day.

Q. What phrases are those

A. Two of the original catchphrases'by which George Formby became universally known. When ever his film character was heading for trouble - usually by means of an errant form of transport, George could be heard wailing 'Ooo-er mothuuuuuuuur!' in his strident Lancashire accent, and at the end, when everything had worked out for the best, as it always did, George would turn his toothy grin to the camera and proclaim 'Turned out nice again!'

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Andy Hughes

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