PETER FROST has little time for all of the sycophantic outpourings surrounding the Queen’s birthday. One, however, did rather tickle his fancy.
In all the media nonsense to celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday only one story really caught my attention.
It seems Betty of Buck House is patron of over 600 charities and organisations but one she wasn’t allowed to have anything to do with was the George Formby Society.
It seems she was keen to become its president but her pompous advisers informed her she was far too high and mighty for any such position in such a disreputable organisation honouring such a common entertainer.
This despite her great fondness for Formby the banjo-ukulele player, actor and comedian who was Britain’s highest-paid entertainer during the 1930s and 1940s — a time of hypocritical respectability played out against extreme poverty, mass unemployment, the great depression and rise of Hitler and of home-grown fascism.
Formby was rooted in northern working-class culture and was well known for bawdy songs full of double entendres and innuendo. The respectable ruling class hated him and it seems they still do today.
Perhaps what they really hated were his proletarian origins. He was born George Hoy Booth on May 26 1904 in Wigan, Lancashire, the eldest of seven children.
His father, George Formby Snr, was also a famous music hall actor and comedian, never wanted any of his family to enter showbusiness and young George became an apprentice jockey at the age of seven. He rode his first professional race at the age of 10, weighing only three stones 13 pounds.
When George senior died suddenly in 1921 his son decided to follow his father onto the stage. At first using his real name George Hoy.
He started to perform using his father’s old material but the results were disastrous.
As a result he spent a couple of years learning the business and along the way married Beryl Ingham, herself no mean performer as a clog dancer with her sister May. She helped him develop his stage persona.
He bought himself a banjo-ukulele for two-and-a-half quid, learned a few songs and played for the first time at the Alhambra Theatre in Barnsley. It brought the house down — Formby and his uke became a star act guided by Beryl, not just his wife but his shrewd manager.
His working-class songs were too rude for the refined BBC so they banned When I’m Cleaning Windows and My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock. John Reith (below), BBC director at the time, said, “If the public wants to listen to Formby singing his disgusting little ditties, they’ll have to be content to hear it in the cinemas, not over the nation’s airwaves.”
Yet today various sycophantic palace watchers have let it be known that our own dear queen is a huge Formby fan and when she announced her own 10 favourite songs for a TV programme one of them was George’s When I’m Cleaning Windows.
However, when a letter from the George Formby Society arrived asking her to be its president her various staff and advisers threw up their hands in shock and horror.
Somebody, grandly describing himself as her correspondence secretary, pompously told her: “I don’t honestly think, if you don’t mind me saying so, this is appropriate; you’re the head of the armed forces, the head of the Church of England, I don’t think you can be president of the George Formby Society.”
Perhaps what the Queen should have said was: “Listen, I’m the Queen. You do what I bloody tell you.” Instead she rather meekly remarked: “I love George Formby — I know all his songs and I can sing them.” She never became president.
The Society was created by fans after George died in 1961. They included Beatles John Lennon and George Harrison (below). The society has more than 1,200 members worldwide.
Formby performed over 200 songs in a prolific career round the music halls and in films. Some he wrote himself, most were penned by Fred Cliff and Harry Gifford.
He was a brilliant and innovative player of the banjo-ukelele and his syncopating rhythms are still admired by the growing number of musicians rediscovering the ukulele today.
The film career made him a national star and his most popular film, the espionage caper Let George Do It, is still regarded by many as his finest.
Formby plays a member of a concert party who takes the wrong ship by mistake during a blackout. He arrives by night in wartime Bergen, somehow mistaking the Norwegian city for Blackpool. The film’s climax sees him meeting with Adolf Hitler, who he slaps in the face and calls a windbag.
During the war he would give shows to the troops and famously made the officers move from the front of the audience so the rank and file soldiers could get a better view.
In 1946 Formby was awarded an OBE for his work during WWII when he worked extensively for the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA).
It was estimated that he had performed in front of three million service personnel so his contribution to war morale was incalculable.
One or two of his song lyrics have what might be seen to be racist language that is not acceptable today, however, what is clear is that Formby was certainly no racist.
In 1946 Formby with wife Beryl toured pre-apartheid South Africa. A soon as they arrived they made it clear that they would not perform for racially segregated audiences.
Instead they organised their own concerts in the black townships. At one of these events Formby embraced a young black woman who had presented Beryl with a box of chocolates.
The incident came to the attention of National Party leader Daniel François Malan — the racist politician who later introduced apartheid — who phoned Beryl to complain about the incident. Beryl didn’t mince her words: “Why don’t you piss off, you horrible little man?”
What a pity our dear old queen didn’t responded in the same way to the member of her staff who told her she was far too high and mighty to become George Formby’s most senior admirer.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 17 June 2016.