Post-War, And a New Career
His wartime exertions had, not surprisingly, left him exhausted and with a weak heart, but had given he and Beryl a taste for travel. They visited South Africa in 1946, and then Australia, which George had been booked to tour in 1940, the war having delayed his arrival until September 1947. From then until the late fifties, he also appeared in New Zealand, Canada, South Africa again, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Apart from the obvious pleasure he got from playing to audiences who knew him only from films or their memories of troop shows, there were sound economic reasons for earning (and spending) money abroad. For many years now, Formby had been earning a colossal amount of money, and the return of a Labour government in 1945 was a major personal disaster. Within a few years, Formby was paying taxes at 19/6d in the pound (97.5%!) and therefore any money that could be disposed of abroad could be kept out of the hands of the Chancellor, the upper-class socialist, Stafford Cripps (or Stifford Crapps as he was not very affectionately known), about whom he was rightly paranoid. In almost every interview Formby gave in the late 1940s, Cripps is mentioned, always disparagingly. “Why should I work for bloody tanners?” was his cry in 1949. At home it seemed pointless to perform. He adopted all kinds of subterfuges – he would ask a theatre to give him a carpet for his lounge rather than take a fee. He bought cars and motor bikes, repaired and had them re-painted – and re-sold them privately at a profit. He even repaired watches for the stage hands – and charged them for it. There are many stories of his parsimony. He would borrow money from the stage carpenter rather than draw money from his bank and pay bank charges. The song writer Eddie Latta summed it up:
“He was sincere and down to earth. One of his drawbacks was also that he was very ‘close’, which of course you find in Lancashire. In Yorkshire you’ll find it more so!”
In 1951, George appeared in his first major London show – Zip Goes A Million, based on ‘Brewster’s Millions’. After a series of warm-up performances outside of London, it opened at the Palace Theatre, Cambridge Circus. Despite previous variety appearances at the West End’s Palladium and London Pavilion, George still had grave concerns about how he would be received by a London audience. However, when the play opened in November, it became the hit of the season. Eric Maschwitz and George Posford had written some excellent music, and one of Formby’s most popular songs Pleasure Cruise was interpolated into the score as a ukulele feature. George was earning a massive £1,500 (£35,000) a week – of which, after the Labour government’s tax – he kept just £37.50 (£878). He was almost paying for the new NHS single-handedly. The show ran to capacity audiences, until disaster struck, as driving home after a performance in March 1952, he had a massive heart attack. He was on his back for months, and could barely move. When asked later about the show, he quipped, “It was alright, until it zipped me!” Messages of sympathy came from all over the world, and Queen Mary sent her personal physician to care for him. Eddie Latta remembers:
“The doctor was costing him £100 (£2,340) a visit. He said, ‘Do you know Eddie, he comes in, takes a sample of blood, they put it in a tuppeny medicine bottle and shake it up and down. If it goes down the sides it means the blood isn’t congealing. If it sticks on the side – you’ve got to keep quiet and still and all the rest of it. A hundred quid for a medicine bottle!”
It seemed as though George Formby’s career had come to an early end, but eighteen months later he made a quiet comeback in Bulawayo, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in a show staged for the Rhodes Centenary Exhibition. A few months later he was back at the London Palladium, topping the bill in Val Parnell’s revue Fun and the Fair, with Terry-Thomas and Billy Cotton and his Band. He was unwell during the run of the show, and from then until the end of his life he fought a losing battle with ill health. He returned to the Palace Theatre in 1956 playing Idle Jack in Dick Whittington, but developed bronchitis and had to leave the show two weeks before the end of the run. In the last two years of his life, George appeared in non-singing roles in the plays Beside The Seaside and Too Young To Marry, and showed that he was an accomplished character actor as well as a comedian. He also topped the bill in summer shows at Great Yarmouth’s Windmill Theatre, and at Blackpool’s Queen’s Theatre in June 1960, he broke all box office records for the theatre. Beryl had been very ill for several years with pernicious anaemia, and had recently been diagnosed with cancer. She gradually deteriorated, was bloated by the pain-relieving drugs she was taking, and was drinking heavily to help cope with the pain. After George complained to friend and songwriter Eddie Latta about this, Latta replied,
“Well, George, if you had cancer and thought you only had three months to live, maybe you’d hit the bottle.”
At 8.25pm, on Friday 16th December 1960, George made what is considered to be his most personal testament, on the BBC television programme The Friday Show. In front of a studio audience he sang a number of his old songs, backed by Woolf Phillips and his Orchestra. But it was what he said, not sang, which was important. He talked movingly about his problems with reading and writing and the fact he didn’t understand music; he acknowledged Beryl’s contribution to his success, he reflected sadly on remaining childless, and perhaps most affectingly, his eyes became full of tears when listening to a record of his father, the original, great George Formby, singing Standing At The Corner Of The Street, and gave a wry smile at a point where his father’s famous, and tragic cough appeared.
“That was my dad’s voice, and he’s been dead nearly forty years now. He certainly was a great star. I don’t think I’ll ever be as good as him.”
Just a few weeks later, after the Christmas Eve performance of Aladdin in Bristol, George drove back to the home of his close friend Fred Bailey, in Lower Walton, near Warrington, where he was told the news that Beryl had died. He returned to work immediately after the funeral in an attempt to distract himself in his work, but was back in the cast for only two weeks when he had another heart attack, which forced him to retire from the show.
Six weeks later, he astounded his friends, his fans and the media by announcing his engagement to a Preston school teacher, Patricia Howson, who he’d known for many years. He got a very bad press, particularly from the ‘Daily Express’ who started a mini vendetta against him. He was not a well man, saying, “I can’t walk two blocks without taking a pill, and I’m out of show business for at least a year.” He then added sadly, “I’m sure the people I’ve entertained for a lifetime will not begrudge me this little happiness.” The stress of his engagement and the negative press this had generated caused considerable strain, and in February 1961, he was taken to Preston’s St. Joseph’s hospital after suffering a further heart attack. He made good progress, however, and impatient to start a new life, he and Howson brought forward the wedding date. On the morning of Monday, 6th March she went shopping for a wedding ring. She visited George that afternoon, where he was apparently “full of beans”. They were sitting together when his appearance changed, he had a sudden massive heart attack, and died within minutes. He was fifty-six.
His funeral was held at St. Charles Roman Catholic Church in Liverpool, and as the funeral cortège took him to his final resting place, the Manchester Road Cemetery in Warrington, the streets were lined with an estimated 100,000 people. He was laid to rest with his father, who had died almost exactly forty years previously.
His mother Eliza, who, together with Beryl had battled for him for many years, had seen him become a massive star, outshining even her own great husband, the first George Formby. She said of Georgie,
“I adored him, my children knew I did. I was so proud of him, very proud of him, and I admired him and he knew I did. When Beryl married him she said, ‘I don’t know how I’ll do this.’ I said, ‘If you carry on the way I did with his father, you’ll put Georgie at the top.'”
Following his death, a bitter court battle took place, after it was revealed he had left all but £5,000 of his £135,000 (£2.24m) estate to his fiancée, and not a penny to any member of his family. A stunned Eliza, with three of George’s sisters, immediately contested the will. The ensuing action dragged on for two years, eventually being settled in the Probate Court on May 14, 1963, when Howson offered Eliza £5,000 (£80,000) and the sisters £2,000 (£33,000) each, which they accepted.
Howson never married, and died in 1971, aged forty-six. The incredible Eliza died a decade later, in 1981 aged 102, having outlived her husband by sixty years.
To the public at large George Formby will always be the epitome of the cheerful, sensible Lancashire lad, seemingly gormless, but actually pretty astute; always optimistic, with a simple tune to drive away the cares of the day. The real George was a complex man, hampered by his lack of basic education; he was pushed onto the stage by his mother, then became locked in a lifelong relationship of symbiotic need with his wife and manager Beryl. He would have loved children, but Beryl would not consider it. He felt unable to express his Catholic faith, as Beryl, an atheist, disapproved. She helped to make him a huge success – yet that special star quality he had was his alone. It is hard to say whether he would have found lasting happiness had he lived, and what turn his career would have taken in a decade soon about to be dominated by the ‘Swinging Sixties’ and The Beatles? They were, however known to be great Formby fans – maybe Formby would have cropped up on Sergeant Pepper? Indeed, in his excellent short biography, John Fisher suggests that When I’m Sixty-Four could almost have been written for Formby, and adds, “George could well have imparted a second layer of meaning to lines like ‘I could be handy, mending a fuse, when you’re lights have gone’, beyond the scope of McCartney himself.” George Harrison is said to have bought one of George’s ukes, and played it at the very end of the Beatles 1995 studio recording of Free As A Bird. The video of the song ends with ‘Formby’ onstage (played by Formby impersonator Alan Randall), seen from behind, with his little dog, playing his trademark final chords to a song. Just before that you can hear a few spoken words of John Lennon, played backwards; when they are reversed, you can hear what they say: “Turned out nice again!”
1. Taped interview with Eddie Latta, 17th September 1966
4. ‘The Friday Show’, BBC Television, Broadcast 16 December 1960
5. Daily Express, 7th March 1961
6. Fisher, John, ‘George Formby’ (The Woburn Press, 1975)
7. [popup url=”http://www.georgeformby.co.uk/alan_randall/report.htm”]GFS article[/popup] on Alan Randall.
8. It’s true, I tried reversing it.