Formby, George, born 26-05-1904 as George Hoy Booth at 3 Westminster Street, Wigan, Lancashire.
The eldest of seven surviving children born to James Lawler Booth
Formby Snr suffered from a chest ailment, identified variously as bronchitis, asthma or tuberculosis, and would use the cough as part of the humor in his act, saying to the audience, “Bronchitis, I’m a bit tight tonight”, or “coughing better tonight”. On 08-02-1921 Formby Snr. succumbed to his bronchial condition and died, at the age of 45. After his father’s funeral Eliza took the young Formby to London to help him cope with his grief. While there, they visited the Victoria Palace Theatre, where Formby Snr had previously been so successful—and saw a performance by the Tyneside comedian Tommy Dixon. Dixon was performing a copy of Formby Snr’s act, using the same songs, jokes, costumes and mannerisms, and billed himself as “The New George Formby”, a name which angered Eliza and Formby even more. The performance prompted Formby to follow in his father’s profession, a decision which was supported by Eliza. As he had never seen his father perform live, Formby found the imitation difficult and had to learn his father’s songs from records, and the rest of his act and jokes from his mother. In 1923 he made two career-changing decisions – he purchased a ukulele, and married Beryl Ingham
, a fellow performer who became his manager and transformed his act. She insisted that he appear on stage formally dressed, and introduced the ukulele to his performance. He started his recording career in 1926 and, from 1934, he increasingly worked in film to develop into a major star by the late 1930s and 1940s, and became the UK’s most popular entertainer during those decades, with Norman Wisdom
The media historian Brian McFarlane writes that on film, Formby portrayed gormless Lancastrian innocents who would win through against some form of villainy, gaining the affection of an attractive middle-class girl in the process. During the World War II Formby worked extensively for the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), and entertained civilians and troops, and by 1946 it was estimated that he had performed in front of three million service personnel. He
performed for British troops in North Africa and Western Europe and the home front also received a moral boost from George when he cheerfully embarrassed the Nazis in his films. Formby was signed on a fixed salary of £10 per week, although he still remained under contact to ATP. He undertook his first tour in France in March, where he performed for members of the British Expeditionary Force.
Formby went to Normandy in July 1944 in the vanguard of a wave of ENSA performers.
He and Beryl travelled over on a rough crossing to Arromanches giving a series of impromptu concerts to troops in improvised conditions, including on the backs of farm carts and army lorries, or in bomb-cratered fields. In one location the German front line was too close for him to perform, so he crawled into the trenches and told jokes with the troops there. He then boarded HMS Ambitious
for his first scheduled concert before returning to France to continue his tour. During dinner with General Bernard Montgomery
whom he had met in North Africa, Formby was invited to visit the glider crews of 6th
under Major General Eric Bols
, who had been holding a series of bridges without relief for 56 days. Bols died age 81, on 14-06-1985, in the town Battle, Sussex. Formby did so on 17 August in a one-day visit to the front line bridges, where he gave nine shows, all standing beside a sandbag wall, ready to jump into a slit trench in case of problems; much of the time his audience were in foxholes.
The hero of El Alamein Bernard Montgomery
roars with laughter as he watches a performance by wartime comedian George Formby with hundreds of troops seated alongside him in France.
After the four-week tour of France, Formby returned home and after the war his career declined, although he toured the Commonwealth, and continued to appear in variety and pantomime. In 1960, George made his last record, ‘Happy Go Lucky Me’ and in December of the same year made what was to be his last television programme. A forty minute, one man show called ‘The Friday Show’. It was to be a confessional with George admitting that Beryl had been the driving force behind his success, that he couldn’t read and write properly, that he didn’t understand music and that he regretted not having any children. His wife, Beryl, watched the programme from her sickbed. She was dying from leukaemia, but was still able to offer her usual critique of George’s performance. Beryl died on Christmas Eve, 1960. George was appearing in pantomime in Bristol and returned to the show immediately after the funeral. There was still a few surprises to come. A few weeks after Beryl’s death, George suddenly announced his engagement to Pat Howson
, a young 36-year-old schoolteacher. George knew her through having purchased some motor cars from her father’s garage. The wedding was planned for the early spring.
Death and burial ground of Formby, George.
On Valentine’s Day 1961, seven weeks after Beryl’s death, Formby and Howson announced their engagement. Eight days later he suffered a further heart attack which was so severe that he was given the last rites of the Catholic Church on his arrival at hospital. He was revived and, from his hospital bed, he and Howson planned their wedding, which was due to take place in May. He was still there when, on 6 March, he had a further heart attack and he died in Preston’s St. Joseph’s Roam Catholic hospital on the 06-03-1961 at the age of 56 years.
He was buried in Warrington Cemetery, Cheshire in the family grave, and an estimated 100.000 mourners lined the streets on the day of the funeral to show their respect for one of the greatest entertainers this country has ever known.