George & Beryl
You’re Everything To Me
One thing that needs emphasising time and again, because it’s crucial – is Formby’s inability to read and write to any kind of useful level, and the many problems that this created for him. Beryl would have had to teach him an entire film script, line by line; she would have had to be on the film set – George couldn’t go through his script during the shooting – they would need to hide away in his trailer while Beryl coached him through the next scene. It was the same with the songs. On his studio recordings there are often tiny mistakes, almost inaudible when heard on a scratchy ’78’, but quite distinct with computer-remastered CDs. Often, it is because he can’t quite remember the words, panics, and gets the opening consonant wrong, or says ‘vocation’ for ‘vacation’; there are also regular wrong chords, clashing with the orchestra. He had to remember literally everything, all the time, having first been taught by Beryl, and still maintain a confident air around some of the best technicians and musicians in the business. His musicianship and ukulele prowess were self-taught, and he was reliant on a panoply of ukulele-banjos to play in different keys – marked with notes saying ‘HI’ or ‘LOW’. It is to his eternal credit that he battled on with Beryl’s constant help; he needed her by his side every hour, wherever he went – even to war zones – simply to get through the practicalities of his day. That he not only survived, but actually became the biggest star in the country, was an incredible feat, which has never been truly appreciated. It also makes crystal clear that his involvement with Beryl was critical for him, and also what devotion and committment she showed towards him. Towards the end, when things between them were more difficult, and Beryl was seriously ill, George told Tommy Trinder that he and Beryl were finished. Trinder couldn’t believe it, and remarked in a later interview,
“It was like a blind man saying he was going to get rid of his guide dog.”
Needless to say, George stayed with her. Beryl was George’s umbilical with the professional world – not just for getting great deals and bludgeoning managers to pulp (though she did both with relish), but interpreting everything which came his way. They became in effect one person, ‘Georgeandberyl’, like Siamese twins, independent but locked together. As if to prove the point, George only ever made two big decisions without Beryl’s input, both after her death, and in my opinion they were both disastrous: his sudden engagement to a schoolteacher called Patricia Howson, and the subsequent decision to leave her all his money. This is not to say that Beryl was running the show, it must have been a completely joint venture; George, once he hit his stride, was an uncompromising and competitive man who knew what he wanted. Friend and songwriter Eddie Latta said,
“Beryl didn’t hamper George. George always took all the decisions – he just needed someone to hold his hand.”
They were a wily pair. One can imagine them talking at home, Formby complaining about a troublesome member of the cast. He’d tell Beryl to get rid of her, she’d say ok, and then the next day she most publicly would; George meanwhile could maintain his gormless Mr Nice Guy persona, seemingly oblivious to what ‘nasty Beryl’ was doing. He could never buy a round of drinks, because “Beryl only gives me five shillings pocket money a day”; again, a great excuse for never putting your hand in your pocket. Beryl took the flak for everything, but as she once let slip in an interview,
“I think a comedian shouldn’t have business worries and George likes to feel carefree. He hasn’t had a row with anyone in showbusiness. I do all the battling. I don’t care what they say about me; I do care what they say about George.”
George and Beryl Formby were in it together, in every way. They were a team, putting their immense individual skills together to create the glossy ‘brand Formby’, a delicate structure needing constant protection. She was, admittedly, a woman who responded to perceived threats – particularly financial and sexual – with an almost psycopathic fury. When on friendly ground, however, she was fun and welcoming, and could show genuine kindness. She was the best manager George could have had, and there seems little doubt in my mind that they remained devoted to each other, despite his crass statement to the Daily Express immediately after her death that they hadn’t lived as husband and wife for many years, a betrayal of her memory, given what she’d spent her life doing for him, I find unforgivable. Theirs was a complex relationship, full of love, success, bitterness and frustration. But Beryl deserves better from those writing today than the character assassination she routinely gets whenever anybody mentions her name. [And still it continues: read this nasty spiteful little article, which provides no evidence whatsoever for its assertions.] Like Eliza Formby, George Senior’s widow and George Junior’s mother, Beryl Formby was a strong, northern woman who battled uncompromisingly for her husband. Those kind of women don’t scare easily, though they do tend to terrify everyone else. So hats off to these two incredible women I say; we should salute them both.
AUDIO: GEORGE AND BERYL ASKED: “HOW LONG HAVE YOU TWO BEEN MARRIED?”
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1. BBC Television ’40 Minutes’ programme, produced by Ann Paul, Broadcast 1981
2. Taped interview with Eddie Latta, 17 September 1966