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Gerry George's Memories - 3
More nostalgic memories of a television kid of the '50s

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Dear Whirligig,

By the time the Fifties were drawing to a close, many of our brightest stars, in the showbusiness firmament were coming to the inevitable end of their tenuous tenures, serving the characteristically fickle, and sometimes, thankless tastes, of an ever-changing public.

In saying this, I am reminded of two memorable television shows, each featuring top stars, who were without doubt, undisputed icons in the world of film comedy, and 'live' Variety, the like of whom, we would never to see again...either on our television screens, or anywhere else, for that matter.

I refer, of course, to George Formby - Britain's biggest film and stage box-office money spinner, between the 193Os and 194Os - and Max Miller, the pride of Britain's Variety Theatre, and probably the best and most successful stand-up comedian, in the history of showbusiness, before, and CERTAINLY since !

In the autumn of 1957, BBC TV featured Miller, as a bill-topper in one of their regular variety shows.

Until then, Max's reputation for naive innuendo, and close-to-the-knuckle ribaldry, had made him something of an outcast, where the BBC and 'the box' were concerned.

But now, suddenly, things were becoming more relaxed, and 'Auntie' finally opened her iron doors, and bade the 'cheekie chappie' a warm welcome, albeit in the 'autumn' of his life, as a very successful, and highly-paid film star, and 'Number One' Variety performer.

How Miller thawed-out the BBC's autumn chill, when - with the intensity of a blow-torch - he seared through the TV lens, as he swept onto the set, and launched into that familiar song and patter, so typical of his best-loved performances in the 'talkies', or in year-after-year on the circuits, topping bills at such landmarks as Holborn Empire, Finsbury Park Empire, and 'the Met', in Edgeware Road.

This time, the floral-patterned 'plus-fours', and the silk pyjamas, were not in evidence: instead Miller - heralded, of course, by his famous signature tune, 'Mary From The Dairy' - opted for spats,and a Cashmere coat, with Astrakhan collar...topped-out, of course, with his familiar snow white, curly-brimmed, Austrian felt velour homburg hat.

The fact that Miller had the quality of 'instant identification', was evinced by those watching alongside me, at the time - my late mother, and another housewife, from a house nearby - who both wept, openly, moved by the sheer sentimentality, and sincerity of his performance.

This was 'their Max', and the normally unforgiving BBC, had finally relented, and allowed 'the King' to take his rightful place, on the nation's podium.

Here was a star, who had been with us, right through the blitz, and before. When all was 'down' - in the gruelling Thirties - he had made us smile, through all the dark days of that terrible depression: the worst, and REAL, belt-tightening days, of the 2Oth century.

After his familiar patter, Max, aptly, sang a song, 'Be Sincere', written - as with many others, in his repertoire - by himself; and he finished with another, lilting and simplistic ditty: 'Isn't It Grand To See Someone Smile ?'

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Unlike today's teenagers, predictably noted for smugly deprecating anything, redolent of earlier generations - or indeed, displaying the mentality that was being openly nurtured, during my emerging days - I was deferent to this 'king', and the culture he represented: if only because the quality of the entertainment, coupled with the skill and professionalism of the artiste involved, was indisputable.

So it may not come as a surprise that I joined with my family, then - as I do now - in lamenting, in the words of Max Miller, that there would "Never Be Another!"

Christmas, that year (1957), saw BBC TV treating us to excerpts from the London pantomime 'Dick Whittington', in which Britain's brightest, and most well-loved star, George Formby - back in harness, after a crippling heart attack, five years before - was appearing, as Idle Jack, and singing 'Sitting On The Top of Blackpool Tower', and 'Sitting On The Ice In The Ice-Rink'.

That there was still a great deal of nervousness, about his fragile health, was clearly demonstrated - in between numbers, during his front curtain solo spot - when, after being seized by an alarming, and protracted, fit of coughing, he quickly regained his composure, and laughingly reassured the musical director, and those waiting in the wings: "I'm alright, love: no, it's alright !", and carried on, like the seasoned trouper he certainly was.

Predictably, however, George soon dropped out of the panto, and, although 'routine throat trouble' was given as the reason, it was clear that 'Mr. CT' - the old enemy that George nicknamed the coronary thrombosis, that had nearly killed him five years before - was back, dogging his footsteps again.

Despite this, by 1958, George was back on BBC TV, with The George Formby Show, and the following year, it seemed he was
really back to his old blockbuster-movie form, when, in April 1959, he topped the bill in his own one-off show, entitled: 'Stepping Out With Formby'.

Padded-out in one-piece overalls - that gave him the appearance of looking a lot heavier, and thicker-set, than he really was - George, surrounded by high-kicking, scantily-clad lovelies, emerged from a giant window, singing his 1937 million selling hit-song: 'When I'm Cleaning Windows'.

He looked, and sounded, brighter, and was clearly getting to grips with TV, a very different medium, from the films and stage that he was more used to.

Sketches, and more songs followed, and, most memorable, was his energetic performance, in the finale number, when - in a lavishly-dressed and choreographed spectacular, entitled 'Piccolo Pete' - he sang and danced, surrounded by a score of gorgeous dancers.

Shortly after the show, I interviewed George's wife, Beryl, in connection with a proposed 'This Is Your Life' programme, which the BBC was intending to do on George, and, characteristically, Beryl insisted that George's success, as a dancer, in that production number, was down to her own personal coaching, immediately before he went on.

"I'm the dancer", the former 192Os champion clog-dancer, from Darwen, Lancashire, told me, "George had no idea, how to go on; he's got two left feet: I coached him, and that's why he was so good."

The show was a massive success, and that mirrored his very successful summer season, at Great Yarmouth's Windmill Theatre, that year, and at Blackpool's Queen's Theatre, the following year, when - on both years - excerpts of George's performances were seen, on BBC TV, and also, on the emergingly successful commercial channel, ABC TV, during the high summer.

And it was in those excerpts, that viewers had a chance to hear George's new chart-topping disc: 'Happy Go Lucky Me' - his first recording since his illness in 1952 - for the first time, on the Pye Records label, with 'Banjo Boy', on the 'B' side.

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This week, December 16, 196O - forty years ago - marks George's last big BBC TV appearance, when, in: 'The Friday Show' George sat in an armchair, and recounted his lifestory, interspersing it with a montage of the songs he had made famous, throughout his star-studded career.

Most touching, was his special reference to the supportive part, played throughout his 46-year career, by his wife, Beryl, who - although it was not generally known - was, by then, dying of cancer, at their home, in Saint Annes-on-Sea, near Blackpool.

Despite this, while George went through his paces, before the cameras, Beryl - with the help of their housekeeper and George's valet, Harry Scott - arranged, at the appointed hour of the broadcast, to be propped-up in bed, with her fur coat draped around her shoulders, with her earrings, diamond rings, and make-up applied, in which position she delivered her usual dispassionate and incisive professional critique of her husband's performance, for the post-show 'wash-up'.

This time, however, Beryl was in no position to follow it up: indeed, her illness was so advanced, that shortly after the programme went off the air, she slipped into a deep sleep, and died, less than a fortnight later, on Christmas Day, 196O.

George, who was 56, had big plans for more television - and, indeed, he was seen on ITV, in the new year, in a weekly series, introducing a short season of his film comedies - but fate stepped-in, and, following a second heart attack, at the end of February, George made a brief recovery, before succumbing on March 6, 1961, following a sudden relapse, in Saint Joseph's Hospital, Preston.

Only days before being struck down, he had been the major focus of television and the Press, since announcing that he was to wed a Preston schoolteacher, Pat Howson, who he had known since her childhood. But it wasn't to be.

Even so, in death, George was still heavily featured on television, and the cameras from both channels were there to record the spectacle, provided by his funeral, when more than 1OO,OOO people lined the route, from his funeral service in Saint Charles' Roman Catholic Church, in Aigburth, Liverpool, to Warrington Cemetery - some 3O miles distant - where he was laid to rest.

Well, so much for the REAL comedians, of television: next week I am going to tell you about some journalists and presenters who also made us laugh, particularly, when they decided to assume the jester's garb, and play it for laughs.

In the meantime, please feel free to contact me - whether it be to complain or to contribute - I will always be happy to hear from you.

Gerry George (Actor)

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