A Jockey Treads The Boards
Whatever the truth of the will, one thing is for certain, it was Eliza’s decision alone that George should go on the stage, just weeks after his father’s death. There is no truth in the idea that Georgie had a latent desire to follow in his father’s footsteps. It had never crossed the young Georgie’s head that he would ever appear on the stage. He was a shy sixteen-year-old, who knew only one thing – horses. He had no confidence, he was unable to read or write, and had just witnessed his father’s death. He had hoped to be working alongside his father in the stables they’d run together. When pressed as to the real reason she put Georgie on the stage so soon after his father’s death, Eliza replied intriguingly, “I daren’t give you that, I daren’t give you all the details.”
Eliza began frantically calling in help – Tommy Eden, a pianist who’d first worked with Formby Senior in his early days in the free and easies came to help. He got Georgie the first local engagment he could arrange – at a little cinema in Earlstown, just a few miles north of the family home. And it was at home in February 1921 that Georgie had his first ever introduction to the world of the music hall. Eliza played him three of his father’s records, over and over again, getting him to remember them and sing along. Tommy gamely offered to help him rehearse, telling Eliza he’d do all he could. The Formbys had a grand piano in the living room, so Eliza would literally act out her husband’s stage routine, which she knew intimately, with Tommy accompanying her. Georgie would watch intently, then it would be his turn, standing in the large area in front of the fireplace, while Eliza corrected him and gave him tips. With the house full of grief, and with six other children to contend with, it must have been a nightmarish time.
Then Eliza set to work with her dressmaking skills, altering George’s clothes to fit Georgie. He wore his father’s old stage shoes, and would keep them with him always, as a kind of relic, until his own death forty years later. At some point, someone decided that he shouldn’t be billed as George Formby; the usual explanation given – that he didn’t want to trade on his father’s great reputation – is clearly nonsense, as he was actually performing his dad’s act, in his dad’s clothes. Instead, he was billed as ‘George Hoy’ – his grandfather’s name, and his own first two names. As if to confirm the muddled thinking, his billing also added, ‘Son of the late George Formby.’ He didn’t work as ‘George Hoy’ for long; the theatre managers pointed out the obvious, that they’d be more willing to book him as ‘George Formby Jnr’, and insisted he change his name accordingly.
The situation created by Eliza could of course, raise a few Freudian eyebrows: she put her young son on the stage, dressed him in her dead husband’s clothes, while giving him her father’s name. The newly-created ‘George Hoy’ made his first appearance at The Hippodrome Kinema, Earlestown, between reels of ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’. Eliza’s last-minute touch for George was to apply his father’s stage make-up, and then he was on his own. It was an inauspicious start: George slipped while climbing up the slatted wooden ramp as he was getting onto the stage, and from then it was downhill all the way. For those watching this petrified teenage boy, who had absolutely no desire to tread the boards himself, attempt to perform his father’s material, must have been an unbearably pathetic and cringe-making experience. He was, understandably, terrified, and merely went through the motions with a zombie-like imitation of an act he had never seen. And during all this, he was grieving for the father he’d never really known. It must have been almost unbearable.
Eliza had made sure that old friend Danny Clarke, manager of the Argyle, Birkenhead, and Hippodrome St Helens, (the man who claimed to have ‘discovered’ Formby Senior) was in the audience. He was obviously saddened by what he’d seen, but Eliza begged him to help and give George a chance. He gave him three dates – starting on April 17 at the Argyle, Birkenhead, then the Hippodrome, St Helens, and finally the Palladium, Southport. He promised to put him on a good spot, and help him all he could, for the sake of Eliza and George Senior. He even let George rehearse for half an hour with the Argyle’s band every Monday until he opened. It was an act of extreme generosity, probably, if one were honest, more than George deserved.
Out of sympathy for the family he was then given a short tour by Moss Empires, where he said
“I died the death of a dog.” 
Following the Moss tour he somewhat predictably couldn’t get any work. The public – and theatre managers – had known and loved his father. Comedian Robb Wilton, who had known his father well, saw young George’s act:
“I thought I must go down and tell him to chuck it – he’ll never make any money. I went round backstage to tell him to give it up, but when I saw how miserable he was, I didn’t have the heart.” 
It speaks volumes of Formby’s courage and determination that he persevered with his attempts to win over the crowd, which would take many years, and become a performer in his own right. Eliza, as driven and single-minded with her son as she had been with her husband, continued to fight to get engagements for Georgie, calling in favours left right and centre from theatre managers. And in a 1967 interview she confided:
“And you know what you have to do as well as I do.”
My Baby Told Me, Play The Ukulele!
Eliza managed to get him into a minstrel show touring the provinces, and it was while having this temporary respite from being the pallid shadow of his father that he met his future wife, Beryl Ingham, who was working with her sister, May, as a novelty clog dancer. In her typically forthright way, she told him his act was appalling. She pointed out that it was 1924, not 1908 and he had better move with the times if he ever expected to get anywhere. Offstage, he was a typical, up to date teenager of the twenties; he liked jazz, dance bands, and in particular the American ukulele-playing singers Frank Crumit and Cliff Edwards, whom he had heard on records. He already owned a ukulele himself, which he had bought from another variety artist for thirty shillings, and he which he strummed backstage for his own amusement. Typically, it had never occurred to George to introduce it into his act; it took Beryl’s imagination to see how it could form an integral part – but only if he learned to play it properly!
Beryl at first got on well with George’s mother, even staying regularly at her house. Beryl and George were together for six months when they suddenly married, in September 1924. His mother Eliza was hurt – George had married without her permission – and here was a young girl taking him away before anything had been recouped from her efforts and outlay. Despite this, she made efforts to remain on good terms, even buying Beryl a £50 (£2,000) diamond watch, and thereafter maintained a reasonable, if cool relationship with her.
From the time of his marriage, George’s career took a completely new turn. One strong, dominant woman had taken over from another in George’s life, as Beryl replaced his mother as manager and advisor, although Eliza would still be on the scene for some time, contributing towards his success (or interfering, depending on your view). George and Beryl worked out a completely new act, with a now uke-proficient Formby introducing the instrument, and gradually phasing out his father’s material completely.
Even by 1931 – when he’d been performing for ten years – he was not exactly ‘focussed’ as we’d say today. He was also understandably depressed about his inability to secure bookings, and the invidious comparisons with his late father. (The idea that he was considered ‘A chip off the old block’ is pure fantasy. He was sometimes even booed off stage by those who remembered the great man). Still pushed and guided by both his mother, and his wife, he seemed at times apathetic, often to both women’s consternation. They clearly believed in him more than he did himself. In 1931, an exasperated Eliza had a meeting with Bert Loman, a well-known and respected theatrical impressario who specialised in booking supporting acts, ‘the twos and threes’ in the north. He’d been in the business since 1919 and knew everybody. He only had one arm but made up for it with a strong personality and a no-nonsense attitude. Eliza confided that George couldn’t get any theatre work and spent all his time playing around with cars and motorbikes. “The silly idiot wants to be a car mechanic,” she confessed.  She asked Loman to see him, and the two met at the Grand Theatre, Bolton, where George was performing. George explained in his diffident manner that he wanted Loman to get him into pantomime. Loman, typically blunt, told him to forget it, as George knew absolutely nothing about it. “That’s why I want to come to you for, to learn it”,  George replied apologetically. Loman then met Beryl to propose his deal – he’d get George into pantomime all right, and teach him the business – but he wanted paying for it – he demanded £300 (£15,000) over the next three seasons to make it happen. Beryl agreed. Three contracts were drawn up for 1931, 1932 and 1933, and George’s career finally got on track. It was money well spent – it not only gave George invaluable experience, it pushed him up the bill. As Loman remembered,
“It was a tremendous success, and first started George Formby in the money class.” 
Only a few years later, he would be earning £35,000 (£1,760,000) a film.
Slowly, and with an awful lot of help, Formby ‘Junior’ began to emerge as a slick, quick-fire stand-up comic, with Beryl often appearing with him, adding both glamour and, more importantly, moral support. With her help and encouragement, and Eliza’s wheeling and dealing, George discovered that he actually had a unique appeal as an entertainer – something he’d never imagined – and gained enormous self-confidence on stage. His first big break was a six-month contract at £15 a week at The Empire, Newcastle – ironically the same venue where his father had collapsed during his final, fatal illness. He and Beryl continued to star together throughout the late twenties in touring revues such as ‘Formby’s Road Show’ and ‘Formby Seeing Life’. In these productions George acted in sketches and sang current comedy hits like ‘Piccolo Pete’ and ‘Forty-Seven Ginger Headed Sailors’.
1. The Friday Show, BBC Television, 16 December 1960
2. Taped interview with Eddie Latta, 17 September 1966
3. The British Library’s Theatre Archive Project. Interview with Mavis White, 5th January 2005.
4. Bert Loman interview with Marjorie Baker, 1967