The legendary Lancashire singer, comedian, actor and musician George Formby was one of the biggest stars of the 20th century. His down-to-earth humour made him the headline act in many films throughout the 1930s and ’40s, while his music hall-style of ukulele-playing and singing ensured he had plenty of hit records.
As a youngster, Formby almost didn’t enter show business at all. He was born George Booth in Wigan, in May 1904, to James and Eliza Booth. Although his father was a music hall comedian and actor, the young George aspired to be a jockey and became a stable boy at the age of seven and a professional rider at ten.
© Carpenter (Sgt), No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit
His dad performed under the stage name of George Formby. He didn’t want any of his seven children to embark on a stage career, as he preferred them to have a “proper job”, but after George senior’s sudden death in 1921, his son decided to launch his own music hall career at 17, under the name George Formby.
His mother recognised his natural talent and urged her son to pursue a show business career. Formby spent two years learning his trade, marrying his fiancé, Beryl, during this time. In 1932, he signed a deal with Decca Records and released a record, Chinese Laundry Blues, with the Jack Hylton Band. It was a big hit.
This launched his recording and film career and he was soon a household name. One of his most famous songs was released four years later, for the 1936 film, Keep Your Seats Please. Formby, aged 32, starred opposite the famous British actor Alastair Sim in the raucous comedy.
Accompanied by his ukulele-playing, a song from the film, When I’m Cleaning Windows, was to become Formby’s trademark hit. However, when he released it as a single, the censors criticised its racy lyrics (which seems hard to imagine today) and it was banned by the BBC!
There had been no raised eyebrows when he sang the song in the film, but as soon as the record was released, the BBC clamped down. The lyrics in question seem very innocent today.
The narrator was a window cleaner, who related how he had accidentally seen honeymoon couples canoodling through their windows during the course of his work. He giggled as he told the audience, “You should see them bill and coo – you’d be surprised at things they do!”
The suggestion of any kind of sexual activity, even in a saucy seaside postcard kind of way, was too much for the sensors, who banned the song until 1941! The ban was lifted only after Formby lobbied the powers-that-be and protested it wasn’t at all offensive.
He said he had performed the song at the Royal Variety Performance for the King and Queen and that it hadn’t caused any problems. Eventually, the BBC agreed that the record could be played on air.
When I’m Cleaning Windows (also known as The Window Cleaner) was a huge hit, selling more than 100,000 copies and achieving silver status. Formby received his silver disc from Regal Zonophone and the song became his most popular hit. It was the one everyone called for when he performed live.
In 1939, at the age of 35, he was Britain’s highest-paid entertainer and earned more than £100,000 a year. This would equate to £1.7 million in today’s terms, taking inflation into account.
During World War II, he went to entertain the troops, travelling around war zones on a morale-boosting concert tour. He performed for around three million Allied servicemen and women, all around Europe and in the Middle East.
He played in the United States and also had a loyal following in Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. He was at the top of his trade for four decades, until his untimely death in 1961, at the age of 56, from a heart attack.
He had written and sung more than 300 songs, including the 230 that he recorded. He starred in 21 hit films and appeared hundreds of times live on stage, including two Royal Command Performances. The legacy of his comedy films and music is there for the enjoyment of future generations.
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