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Gerry George's Memories - 7
The nostalgic memories of a television kid of the '50s
CHRISTMAS, BY GEORGE !
Christmas always reminds me of my dear, departed hero, and role-model, the oh-so-modest, uke-playing movie mega-star, George Formby...whose, contrivedly-timid and exaggeratedly coy, catchphrase was: "It's Turned Out Nice Again !"
It was around these times, that I always saw him - accompanied by his imperious and elegant, and devoted wife, Beryl; and usually in pantomime, or, in excerpts from one, on television.
Other than that, I saw him in one of his, score or so, of box-office money-spinning 'Talkies'...and George, himself, introduced some of these, on ITV - with accompanying anecdotes, and souvenirs - in late 196O.
But it was in December 196O, that George made his last, and unforgettable, television broadcast, in 'The Friday Show', on BBC 1, when - sitting back in an easy chair, and coughing, ominously, between taking several frequent sips of water, while he assured viewers, he was alright - he told his life-story, 'warts 'n' all', interspersing the 35-minute 'confession'-show with some of his greatest ukulele hits.
However, in a rather uncharacteristic parting message, George - before the final credits began to roll - turned, full face-on, to camera, and appealed: "And folks, if you'd like to have me back again, I've got a lot more stories to tell, and a couple of hundred more songs to sing."
It was as though, without Beryl standing on the other side of the cameras - as had always been the case, until now - George was starting to lose his confidence, and was in need of an interactive mandate, from his formerly, adoring, public.
In the show, George made special emphasis, on the invaluable part, Beryl, had played, in steering his star to maximum fulfillment; implying - and quite rightly, so - that, without her, he would never have made it.
What viewers did not know, on that muggy, December 16, evening, was that, while her hubby was extolling her invaluable worth - as a wife, manager, and 'Lord Protector' - poor Beryl was lying on her deathbed, at their Saint Annes-on-Sea home, propped-up, by half a dozen pillows, swathed in sable wraps; Max Factored-up, to the Nines; and dripping in diamonds, as she determined to give her man, one last boost, before the cancer that was sapping her life blood, finally drained her of the 'Svengali' commitment, for 'my George', that had always been, her only reason for living.
As Christmas approached, BBC TV West heralded George's imminent opening, as 'Mr. Wu', in 'Aladdin', at Bristol Hippodrome. In fact, George was 'commuting' , virtually on a daily basis - driving his brand-new two-tone green S2 Bentley: 'GF 1', to and from, his Fylde Coast home - to take part in rehearsals, at the Westcountry capital's noted bijou Victorian Variety theatre.
Sadly, arriving back home, on Christmas morning - after attending the dress rehearsal, in Bristol, on the previous evening - George found that Beryl, his wife, mentor, metaphoric crutches and friend, had passed away, in the early hours.
Both channels made scant mention of the event on their Christmas Day news bulletins, but nothing more: the power behind the Formby throne - as usual - didn't get much of a mention. Beryl was cremated, at a muted committal, and George got straight back into harness, until, that is, heart-strain caused him to pull out, after only one week, as 'Mr.Wu'.
A spell in hospital, which George interrupted, when a 'get-well' card, from the daughter of Fred Howson - the man he bought his cars from, at Loxhams, of Preston - led to George falling 'cap-over-the-windmill' for the lady, Pat Howson, 36, a Preston convent school teacher.
George then went on to shock the world by 'popping the question' to Pat, so soon after Beryl's passing: Bans were applied for, including a special Papal licence, to wed, but George - by now nearly 57, and wracked with pain, from the Coronary Thrombosis that had first struck him down, nearly nine years earlier, in 'Zip Goes A Million' - had another gravely serious heart attack, while dining with the Howsons, at their Penwortham, Preston, home.
There was great optimism, when he rallied, in Saint Joseph's Hospital, Preston, but, ten days later, on Monday, March 6, 1961 - while happily discussing plans for their future marriage, with his bride-to-be, at his bedside - George's face suddenly clouded over, and took on a purple hue.
"Are you alright ?" Pat anxiously solicited, as George made to clasp his breast.
This time, the comedy king had nothing funny, or unusual, to say: "No, love", Formby muttered, before slipping away.
More than 1OO,OOO mourners attended his funeral, at the tiny Church of Saint Charles, in Aigburth, Liverpool, and many more lined the 3O-mile plus route, from Merseyside, to Warrington Cemetery, where George was laid to rest, in the Family tomb, alongside his equally famous, musical hall icon father, who died of TB, aged 46, in 1921...and whose ironic catchphrase was: "I'm Coughing Better, Tonight !".
If the coverage for Beryl's funeral was spartan, then that marking her husband's passing, was the very antithesis: in fact, so many hoards of hysterical fans 'invaded' the cemetery, in a bid to catch of last glimpse of their idol, that many nearby graves were damaged, as they were trampled underfoot, including that of the legendary racing jockey, Steve Donaghue.
This, of course, made even more mileage on both news channels, at the time...and it was months, before television viewers - or the public at large - got over the passing of George Formby. In fact, some still haven't, to this day !
Take, for instance, the George Formby Society, who have hundreds of active members, many of whom meet at regular get-togethers, all over the country, in addition to attending three major meetings, in Blackpool, every year.
And, of course, television has been quick to include details of these activities in their news and magazine programmes, and over the years, major documentaries about the society, and its many and varied acitivities, have been televised on both channels.
The first was narrated by that wonderful character actor, Gary Marsh, who starred as the villain, in many of George's box-office busting 'Talkies', and another was narrated by that lovable Rugby sports commentator, Eddie Waring, who, alas is no longer with us, either.
In October 1963, I had the pleasure of meeting Gary Marsh, and talking, informally, with him, in-depth about, George Formby: 'the Man' behind the mask.
Gary was starring alongside Alistair Sim, in 'Windfall', a public school-type farce, at Manchester Opera House, and, as we chatted away, in his dressing room, he recounted some fascinating stories of film-making, with Formby, during the 'Platinum Age' of movie making, at Ealing Studios.
Memories, however, are all very well, but - if not kept under control - they can become a very negative addiction. So, here - as a Christmas gift from me - is a word of warning...especially to those would-be copyists, who have their eyes set on a star-studded career, wearing the discarded robes of their favourite performing icon.
Nostalgia is alright, but, the trouble is, if you work in Showbusiness - as I do - you just cannot look back...if you want to succeed.
Jessie Matthews - the sylph-like, dancing and singing sensation of the Thirties stage and movies - went to pains to impress the importance of THAT upon me, many years ago; but, you know what stage-struck youngsters are like ? they just won't take any notice !
Arthur Askey ('Before Your Very Eyes'; Mega-Successful, BBC TV comedy series, of the Fifties, which introduced Sabrina), warned me to beware of hankering after the past, and trying to cling-on to other people's stale memories. It was in Blackpool's Clifton Hotel, in 1981 - just before his death - and, only now, do I understand the full meaning of what he was saying.
I was trying to persuade him to get back together with his former partner - Dickie ('Stinker') Murdoch - and reprise their famous sketch, from BBC radio's immediate pre-war comedy hit, 'Bandwagon', which was supposed to be coming from the flat, which 'Big- Hearted Arthur' and 'Stinker' shared, on the roof of BBC Broadcasting House, in Langham Place, London.
He wouldn't think of it, and laughingly dismissed the idea, saying I was daft to even suggest it: "You can't go back, in this business, son", he said, "and, if you try to, you quickly become unstuck.
"My success - and why I am still working now, even though I am in my eighties - is because I've always moved on, and upwards. Not backwards, and down !"
Years before - just after George Formby's sad death, in March 1961, and while attending the inaugural meeting, of the George Formby Appreciation Society, the following June - I met Arthur, accompanied by Richard (Mr. Pastry) Hearne, in a lift, at Blackpool's Imperial Hotel, on the 'ritzy', North Shore.
I was quite taken aback, then, when - apprised of my intentions to keep on promoting the Formby message, via my banjo-ukulele impersonations, and Formby focussed newsprint reportage - Arthur Askey blurted-out, with an ironic grin: "What are tryin' to do, kid ? You can't bring him back from the dead, you know !
At the time, I was really outraged at what I saw as Arthur's brutal candour; but, despite these sage words, I went my own silly way, to waste several decades, trying to be 'another George Formby' (ridiculous, really, isn't it ?: I never looked anything like the man !), - in the hope that I might be able to keep his memory alive - and now, at nearly 62, I bitterly regret the sheer stupidity of it all.
You see, there was only ever ONE George Formby; and no professional could ever hope to duplicate his fame, by copying his act...no matter how good a uke-player they might be; because George's success was not merely as an instrumentalist, but also as a naturally charming, and highly likeable individual...in addition to being a great, and well-crafted, performer.
As Max Miller said, jokingly, of himself: 'there'll never be another'; and, certainly, where George Formby is concerned, that is absolutely right ! The same goes - of course - for Max.
I will say - in my experience - most of the Formby sons and daughters (he had several brothers and sisters, you know), have an element of George's unaffected charm: I believe it was passed on in the Formby genes. George Snr, particularly, was remembered as a 'naturally-charming', kindly, and warm human being...as well as a long-suffering TB victim.
But, for many people of my generation, and before: George Formby Jnr. represented the brave hopes and aspirations of the Northcountry's 'Working Class'; and, frankly, THEY, as a species, don't exist anymore, either.
The back streets of Wigan and Wakefield, no longer abound with acrid smoke, and stale sweat, and the stench of horse-manure; and the cobblestones of Burnley and Burslem, no longer echo with the clattering of clog-irons, trams, and the rattling wheels of handcarts: it's all compact discs and cybernetics, these days, mingled with the ill-perceived, fanciful notions of 'how it was', according to the naive, youthful manipulators of the curriculum, at the local college of knowledge.
In truth, most of Formby's film fans, watched his antics from a frayed, and creaking, red plush-velvet seat, in the local 'bug-hut': his lean and lanky, almost angular, Art Deco frame, replicating the geometric contours of the era, the streamlined green-and-chromium 'Odeonic' cinematic architecture, and the aspired yearnings of working class emancipation, borne of celluloid fantasy.
Today's Formby fans, could not possibly 'see him' through those eyes: today's world is too materialistic, too luxurious, and too 'Educated' - by comparison - to be able to appreciate the sense of 'lift' that Formby, and his films, gave to the queues of bemused, poorly-shod, and simplistic factory folk, who thronged past the painted lady - with the imitation pearls, the talcum powdered alabaster bosoms, and the drop-pendant earrings - in the paybox, to see him.
Most importantly: they 'saw' him, as one of THEM; he was their 'Great White Hope' - their Enabler; their Fixer, their Hero - in the days of bread-and-dripping, wind-up gramophones, Zambuk, firelighters, gas-mantles, Plaster of Paris 'Cherry Boys', and bread-queues !
naivety, and self-deprecation was synonymous with his
perceived species. He was a fully paid-up representative
of the Lancashire textile, and coal-mining,
'canon-fodder'-culture: and his encoded mantle of
exaggerated humility, and gormlessness, was instantly
recognised, and deciphered for what it was, by his
cultural peers, amongst the grim, and grime-faced workers
of the North.
As I once told the late Bill Logan, the well-uphostered, painfully patronising and condescending, founding-president of the George Formby Appreciation Society, way back in June 1961, the Workers' George Formby was not - like him - prone to be met, grotesquely puffing clouds of smoke, from fat Cuban corona-grandiosas, in the fume-filled lobbies of swanky metropolitan hotels.
On the contrary, George Formby had 'Working Class Simplicity', written right through him, like the letters in a stick of Blackpool Rock; and he lived-life that way, right up to the end of his days.
Oh yes, he did have a suite in Grosvenor House, Park Lane: but he never left it. And I know, from those close to him, that, when he HAD to stay there - and that was only when he was filming, or doing a stage show, in London - he was utterly miserable, because he was forever at a loss, for what to do.
He may have had up to 13 motorcycles - and a string of expensive cars - but, he liked them for SPEED - not for prestige, and swank.
Outside of all that, he was never more happy, than when he was putting his feet up, in the kitchen, at home, wearing some mucky Gaberdine trousers; having a Churchman's No 1, and sipping a mug of cocoa, whilst patiently tinkering with the carburettor, or float chamber, on one, or other, of his two, Vincent HRD 1OOOcc 'Black Prince' motorbikes.
As with my pal, Norman Wisdom, Formby did not like 'Posh' hotels, and and all that 'lah-di-dah': they just weren't his cup of tea.
More to the point: Beryl had no time for that lifestyle, either And that mattered: because she wore the trousers: and that's the way George wanted it: he knew, from past, bitter experience, that - like they say of Guinness - Beryl was 'good' for him !
She made this clear to me, in April 1959, in the course of a number of visits I made to the Formby's Saint Annes-on-Sea, home, while researching an intended BBC 'This Is Your Life' programme, on the star, which, in the outcome - due to one problem, or another - never made it to the screen.
George Formby, to me, was - and always will be - 'chips out of newspaper'...and I loved him for it, along with the wonderful genre, that he, and his act, epitomised, and encapsulated...until it all ended with his final bow, one Monday, at 5pm, in Saint Joseph's Hospital, Preston, on March 6, 1961.
What a pity it all had to change...but, there you are: "That's life !", as the lovely Esther Rantzen would say.
Oh, talking of Esther - and 'That's Life !' - Britain's most successful chat-show host is currently involved in recording a string of programmes, all dedicated to the changing face of British Comedy, in which many of our leading comedians, scriptwriters, psychologists, and associated gurus are involved.
I was privileged to be at one such recording session, in the BBC TV Centre, last week - when just about everybody involved in TV comedy was among the invited audience (including the legendary Vince Powell, creator of 'Never Mind The Quality, Feel The Width'; 'Nearest & Dearest' (Jimmy Jewel and Hilda Baker), and 'Love Thy Neighbour') - and I can assure you, if all the subsequent programmes are like that one, they will be well worth watching.
And who knows, in about 4O years time, I might be writing about them, on my Memories Page. (At 1O2 ?: I don't think !).
Every good wish. Have a good Christmas tuck-in...and I'll be back with some bumper, extra-helpings of Memories, next week.
Gerry George (Actor/Writer)
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