George & Beryl

George and Beryl, happy together in the 1930s. Honestly.

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.”[1]

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.”[2]

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.”

Beryl with George, recuperating after his first heart attack, 1952George 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.


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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


  1. Caroline Stewart says

    I’m not convinced that George was totally illiterate. His address book from 1960 clearly shows that he could write at the end of his life and so therefore could read too. The spelling is poor but it is legible. More of a question to me is how his father learned to read and write so well?

    • sinds says

      I think illiterate is a term bandied around these articles when people really ourght to be saying dyslexic….i had a friend not unlike Mr. Formby whos father was a famous actor.. I went to stage scool with her and she was terrified and felt useless innour English classes or indeed classes when we wpuld read scripts…her handwriting and spelling mistakes were evident…..she was later told she was dyslexic ..the words on ghe page appear jumbled – so I believe Mr. Formby may hsve had the same thing and back then it was all described as illiterate…I have an uncle who truly is illiterate….he is kind,smart, but cannot read or write because he never went to school and was never taught.

      • Michael Daly says

        Many thanks for your very interesting comment. We have no way of knowing whether Formby was dyslexic, though it may well have been the case. We also don’t know to what level he was ‘illiterate’, and whether that level changed throughout his life. I maintain that his inability to read or write to any useful degree put enormous pressure on him professionally, with regards to learning scripts, for instance, and may well have been one reason why Beryl was on-set all the time. My assertion is that he became reliant on her to an extraordinary degree, but I do not see this as a negative thing, being quite a Beryl fan, as I think is obvious from the website. My father corresponded with him prolifically in the late 1950s, and there is not a single letter in Formby’s own hand – they are all from Beryl. It is certainly not my intention to be sloppy in usage of the word illiterate; maybe ‘functionally illiterate’ is more accurate?; I’m happy to change it to this in the article if it is more accurate.

  2. Patrick says

    I ‘discovered’ George Formby a few years ago. A great talent, bought most of his DVD’s I think they’re good fun, he couldn’t sing very well, great Uke player though.Also a good comedy actor, I still watch his films regerly and listen to an odd CD now then.Amazing how even today people still ‘gas’ on about him (like me!?!)..

  3. Daniel McGrath says

    This is interesting about Beryl, though I found your asertion that George basically let Beryl take the blame when he wanted someone got rid of or didn’t want to pay for drinks disturbing. You say that the nasty article about Beryl doesn’t present any evidence for the claims it makes, do yo have any evidence to back up those suggestions? Please understand I’m not trying to be nasty here, just George is a huge hero of mine and I find such ideas very… well as I say disturbing. I find the comment above interesting, why did noone ever help George to at least learn to read, surely he could have done some courses or something, though I realize these were probably the days before open university, but surely he could have been given some help.

  4. jonathan barrington smith says

    the simple fact is why didnt Beryl teach George to read and write rather than be totally dependent on her.Or access some learning for him. Seems like a total power trip to me