George Formby

George Formby (1904-1961) was one of the top-grossing and most popular British film stars of the late 1930s, both in Britain and abroad. Like many other British film stars of the period, he started out as a variety stage performer; he also had a prolific music output. Born in Wigan, Formby’s trademark features were his strong Lancashire accent, his ukulele, and a consistent presentation as an honest, simple, hapless man finding his way through a complicated world.

Formby entertaining the troops in France in 1940. By War Office official photographer Puttnam L A (Lt) – Public Domain photograph

Formby started his career on the regional stage in 1921 and made his West End debut at the Alhambra in 1924.[1] As a variety performer, he would sing songs and perform short skits, usually on a bill with other acts. He recorded many of his stage songs as records; he put out a total of 189 songs during his lifetime.[2] Many of his most famous songs contain liberal sexual innuendo; film historian Jeffrey Richards has pointed out that sex was ‘a subject of fundamental importance which was not allowed to surface (…) in popular culture’ during the 1930s.[3]

Richards builds on connections initially drawn by George Orwell, between working class culture, seaside postcards, music hall, and sex. For example, Formby songs like ‘Delivering the Morning Milk’ and ‘In My Little Snapshot Album’ are narrative songs that could be part of a music hall show; the lyrics of both are brimming with sexual innuendo and references to voyeurism. Songs like this were a key part of Formby’s brand, but when he moved into film production, he had to balance them with the conventions and expectations of a wider audience.

Formby and his wife Beryl, who had been a stage performer in her own right prior to their marriage, decided to dip their toes into the world of cinema in 1934. The resulting film, Boots! Boots! and its successor in 1935, Off the Dole, were low-budget productions which proved successful in the north of England.[4] On the back of that success, Basil Dean at Associated Talking Pictures offered Formby a contract for eleven films at his studio in Ealing.[5]

It is at this point that Formby’s explicit northern brand, so heavily dependent on saucy jokes and working-class culture, needed to be made palatable for a wider audience. Like that other Lancashire star whose popularity had preceded Formby’s – Gracie Fields – the film producers at ATP had to find a way to make Formby appealing to those in London and the Home Counties, who represented a large slice of the domestic cinema market, whilst not alienating his original fanbase.

That the innuendo-heavy content of Formby’s songs was not a comfortable fit for the protectors of good taste is evidenced by the fact that John Reith, the original BBC director-general, banned ‘When I’m Cleaning Windows’ from being broadcast. This song does, however, appear in Keep Your Seats, Please!, the second film Formby made with ATP, in 1936. As Jeffrey Richards has argued, in the films, ‘the songs, however cheeky, were contained in and by stories whose attitudes to life and work were irreproachable, thus limiting the extent of the rebellion the songs embodied.’[6] As the overall narrative of the film was conventional, it could give occasional space to a daring song without this proving too disruptive.

In the films Formby made for ATP during the second half of the 1930s, he inevitably plays a young, ambitious man who endures a series of adventures and mishaps, but who in the end achieves his goal and gets the girl in the process. Except for Formby’s own instantly recognisable and consistent persona, the films’ plots are generic. Each contains some musical numbers which do not necessarily gel with the narrative; both Formby himself and Michael Balcon (who was head of ATP from 1938) in hindsight agreed that the films would have been stronger, narratively, without the songs, but that they needed to be included to attract Formby’s original fanbase.[7]

None of the films Formby made with ATP are set in the north; most of them are set in a generic urban environment that could be deduced to be London (such as Keep Your Seats, Please!, Feather Your Nest and I See Ice!, made in 1936, 1937 and 1938 respectively). The associations with the working classes were also toned down, with Formby increasingly playing characters that had skilled professions.[8]

The Formby films of the 1930s, then, represent an awkward clash of class cultures. He owed his popularity to his clear northern identity, and his ability to build on working-class cultural traditions such as music hall and seaside entertainments. Formby was careful to maintain this persona, which included keeping the same appearance and the same catchphrases throughout his career. On the other hand, once he was contracted by a London-based, national film studio, his appeal had to be widened without alienating his original audience. This tension even played out in Formby’s personal life; he and Beryl moved to London in 1936 but he continued to regularly visit Lancashire on the weekends.[9]

The films promote Formby in a way that would allow southern and middle-class audiences to make sense of him; in most of them he is a plucky and enterprising young man who manages to overcome obstacles. The fragmented nature of the music hall performance is replaced with a cohesive, 90-minute narrative arc. However, as noted above, the musical interludes still disrupt this narrative and provide a window on the decidedly more recalcitrant potential of popular comedy. In this way, Formby’s film output emblematises the social tensions of interwar Britain, where social upheaval changed class dynamics. Formby was able to provide working-class audiences with a hero they could identify with, but only at the cost of significantly toning down the more impertinent aspects of his output.

George Formby’s films are widely available on DVD; seven of his ATP films are available in Optimum Home Entertainment’s ‘George Formby Collection’. Seven of his films made in the 1940s are available in the ‘George Formby Film Collection’ DVD boxset distributed by Sony. His music is even more easily accessible, for example on the 3 CD ‘The Absolutely Essential Collection – George Formby’ produced by Big 3.

[1] John Fisher, George Formby (London: The Woburn Press, 1975), p. 16

[2] Ibid., p. 23

[3] Jeffrey Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in 1930s Britain (London: IB Tauris, 2010), p. 193

[4] David Bret, George Formby: A Troubled Genius (London: Robson Books, 1999), p. 40

[5] Fisher, George Formby, p. 49

[6] Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace, p. 196

[7] Alan Rendall and Ray Seaton, George Formby, (London: WH Allen, 1974), pp. 79-80

[8] Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace, p. 199

[9] Bret, George Formby, p. 56