Songs & Films
In 1926, George had recorded six of his father’s songs for the Edison-Bell company, doing a by then passable but still distinctly second-rate impression of the great man. He didn’t return to the recording studio for three years, when in 1929 he recorded two songs for the Dominion label. His recording career finally took off in 1932, when he successfully auditioned for Decca, with Our House Is Haunted and I Told My Baby With The Ukulele. He still had very few songs which were readily identifiable as his, but this was soon to change. One version of the story goes that one evening in 1932, George and Beryl were at a party given by the great bandleader and fellow Decca artist, Jack Hylton. As the night wore on, George started to sing a song he’d been given by songwriter Jack Cottrell, ‘Mr, Wu, the Chinese Laundryman’, as it was called then, and Hylton’s banjo player, Sonny Farrar, strummed along. George suggested they record it together, and Hylton agreed, on the understanding that the record would be labelled ‘George Formby’ without a credit to the Hylton band, if in return George would provide an uncredited vocal for another song, ‘The Old Kitchen Kettle’, which was already scheduled to be recorded. Hylton was afraid that if ‘Chinese Blues’ (the ‘Laundry’ was added later) flopped it would damage the band’s reputation. He need not have worried. It was released, as the B-side of F3079, the A-side being Do De O Do. The record was an immediate success, becoming with The Window Cleaner and Leaning On A Lamp Post one of Formby’s signature tunes. He stayed with Decca until the summer of 1935, when he switched to Regal-Zonophone, a time that coincided with his first proper feature film with ATP, soon to become Ealing Studios.
From the time of his first Decca recordings, Formby’s output of ’78s’ was prolific. The songs themselves are all similar, repetitive, with a formulaic montony which is quite intentional, and full of crude adianoetas. The parallel with the vulgar, sesaside comic postcards of Donald McGill is often made. George Orwell in his essay on McGill from 1941, highlights their subversive nature:
“It will not do to condemn them on the ground that they are vulgar and ugly. That is exactly what they are meant to be. Their whole meaning and virtue is in their unredeemed low-ness, not only in the sense of obscenity, but lowness of outlook in every direction whatever. The slightest hint of ‘higher’ influences would ruin them utterly.” 
Exactly the same sentiment applied to Formby’s many songs, full of the antics of randy honeymooning couples, peeping-tom window cleaners, and of course, phallic symbols galore, including sticks of rock, sergeants with huge weapons, and, of course, his little ukulele itself:
With my little ukulele in my hand,
Of course the people do not understand,
Some say, “Why don’t you be a scout, why don’t you read a book?”
But I get lots more pleasure when I’m playing with my uke. 
Decca got cold feet, withdrew the original version after the test pressings had been sent out for review, and hastily pulled up the zip. A mildly less offensive lyric was substituted, and the song was re-recorded four months later, now renamed ‘My Ukulele’. The violin gets in on the act too, in the wonderfully titled The Fiddler Kept On Fiddling:
So brave he behaved, a panic he saved in the Christmas pantomime.
The principal boy who had had too much gin
Slipped and fell with her legs across his violin,
And the fiddler kept on fiddling, fiddling all the time. 
His songs make frequent reference to sexual intercourse, masturbation, voyeurism, even oral sex in at least two of them. Somehow the words look more obscene when coldly printed, divorced from the neutralising effect of their jolly music and ambiguous delivery; the double entendre becoming decidedly single.
The other staple of Formby songs is what John Fisher calls “a gallery of world-wide exotics” – most of which would now be deemed highly politically incorrect; offence is never the aim though, more a fascination with the colourful, strange ‘other’. There is of course Mr Wu, the Chinese laundryman, who kick-started Formby’s recording career. He would return in a series of songs forming his own saga within the canon: after his laundry business flopped, he became – what else? – a window cleaner. He helped the war effort in Mr Wu’s An Air-Raid Warden Now, but the song ran foul of the BBC’s censors. They thought it would be offensive to the Chinese – who were now our allies. The song was soon due to be broadcast, so a copy of the lyrics was taken to the Chinese Embassy and read solemnly to a distinguished Chinese representative. He was asked if he thought the lyrics were offensive to the Chinese people and their nation. He replied, “No, but it isn’t very funny, is it?” The song was subsequently broadcast.
Having survived, Mr Wu was then promoted to the air force. He remained, of course, the husband of the wife of Mr Wu. Other international characters included the ‘Hindoo’ Man, a Russian witch, an Argentinian cabaret artist called Fanny, the cannibal-inhabited Hi-Tiddley-Hi-Ti Island; there was Bull Tonsilliter, the bullfighter (there was also, for good measure, a Lancashire toreador called Don Pedro), the wonderful, music-hall style song ‘I’m A Froggie’ about George’s exploits in Paris, having won a weekend ticket with Day & Martin’s tea. There’s a song about the mighty Joo-Jah tree, and the Egyptian beauties of the Nile. Oh yes, there’s one called ‘Low Down Lazy Turk.’ Ok, that probably is offensive, in fact it was never released as a 78 in the UK. (The Australians weren’t so squeamish though, it was released down under in late 1939.)
The songs with a more sexual innuendo could only have worked at a time when society had a strong moral sense with clear demarcations of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in matters relating to marriage and the family, and what could be openly said, or allowed of a sexual nature. There can obviously be little humour now in ostentatiously missing out slightly naughty words in a song if every other word in contemporary lyrics or on television is the ‘F’ word. Also, the resonance of lyrics about honeymoons and escaping the wife, flirting and mothers-in-law is made stronger as there was a cultural consensus then that, actually, marriage and family were a good thing. Of course, in those days, we were nationally and culturally more self-confident, and less preoccupied with not causing offence.
There is no evidence that Formby even contributed, let alone actually wrote any of the songs synonymous with him and his ukulele, and plenty of evidence that he didn’t. He and Beryl would insist that his name be added to the songwriting credits, thereby earning him a nice bite of the royalty pie. It also served to disguise his illiteracy and lack of musical training, and thereby boost his confidence and image. Songwriter and friend Eddie Latta, who wrote Auntie Maggie’s Remedy, Andy The Handy Man and Grandad’s Flanelette Nightshirt explains the songwriters’ dilemma:
“He didn’t write any songs with me, just put his name on them, and probably didn’t write anything with Gifford and Cliffe either. He tried to pull the same thing with Noel Gay over ‘Leaning On A Lamp Post’ but Gay was big enough to tell him to get lost. George was clever enough or tight enough to want it his way – I couldn’t afford to do anything about it. He didn’t write them, no, but he was a natural singer of songs, and good picker.” 
Formby’s early songs had come from the pen of Jack Cottrell, including his first hits, Chinese Laundry Blues, With My Little Ukulele In My Hand, and Sitting On The Ice In The Ice Rink. After Cottrell was unceremoniously dumped, he was replaced by Harry Gifford and Fred E Cliffe, who went on to write many of Formby’s big numbers – The Window Cleaner, Keep Fit, Keep Your Seats Please, With My Little Stick Of Blackpool Rock.
There is some slim, tantalising evidence that Formby’s first film (apart from his first appearance as a child actor in 1915) was not Boots! Boots! from 1934, but the first sound version of Harold Brighouse’s ‘Hobson’s Choice’, (1931) directed by Thomas Bentley, now sadly lost. His involvement was mentioned in the trade press, the Kine Weekly saying, “Two famous Music Hall comedians in Jay Laurier and George Formby Jnr have been engaged for two of the principal roles.” The following week, after shooting had started, he is still being mentioned, but after that, all mention of him ceases. It is not known whether he was dropped from the production, or was just never credited. The film is missing, and is on the British Film Institute’s ’75 most wanted’ list.
As George Formby ‘Junior’ began to become established as a recording artist, his name became known outside the limits of the music halls. While working in Warrington, he was approached by John Blakeley, who ran a small film company in Manchester, and asked if he would like to make a film. Mancunian Films had little capital, so the film was shot in a makeshift studio above a garage in Albany Street, London. When the crew wanted to start shooting, they had to press a buzzer to stop the panel beaters downstairs. Even by the cinematic standards of 1934, the completed film, Boots! Boots!, was awful. Even Formby himself described it as “A lousy picture.” Blakeley had no idea about tight shooting, continuity or editing and most of the production is made up of static shots depicting variations on Formby’s stage act, cobbled together to make some sort of story. One gets the impression that the cameraman merely set up his equipment, started it and then retired to the nearest pub until called back when the film stock ran out. They’d clearly never heard that wonderful description of a tripod: “A set of crutches, supporting a lame imagination.” Quite. Bert Tracey, the film’s director, who had worked with Chaplin, and Laurel and Hardy in Hollywood, was horrified by the result: “When I saw the edited print it was so bad that I wanted to go away and shoot myself.” Quite why he should be surprised at the result is a bit of a mystery; for two weeks he was sitting there watching a static camera filming a dreadful act. Formby was equally disillusioned and swore he would never make another picture. He felt that Blakeley thought that he could be pushed around, as he was a novice; he equally thought he already knew more than the erstwhile producer of the film who was so apparently ignorant of film-making techniques. Mancunian could find nobody rash enough to distribute Boots! Boots!, so George went off again around the variety theatres, where he could be himself and get an enthusiastic response from a live audience.
To everybody’s surprise, Boots! Boots! was eventually sold – and became a huge success in the provinces! So much so that Formby was persuaded to make a follow up, Off The Dole, a (slightly) more skilfully made film (they’d at least worked out that it was safe to move the camera around while it was running) with a large supporting cast headed by the ‘dude comedian’, Dan Young. This was released in 1935, and late in that year Basil Dean, the head of Associated Talking Pictures, (later to become Ealing Studios), was visiting the north of England and in several towns saw large crowds queuing outside cinemas where the two films were showing. He had never heard of George Formby, but was astute enough to sign him for a five-year contract up on the strength of the audience reaction he had seen. The secret of the success of these early films was simple, no matter how poorly made, or how abysmal the scripts, the personality of George Formby stood out and he was accepted by the public as one of themselves. He was a real person, not a cardboard or celluloid personality. His first film for ATP, No Limit, was light-years apart from his first two films; well written, with tuneful songs and an excellent supporting cast including Florence Desmond and Edward Rigby. His part, that of a Lancashire chimney sweep who builds his own motorbike, ‘The Shuttleworth Special’, and wins the Manx T.T. Races, was ideally tailored for him. He was a very keen motorcyclist and thoroughly enjoyed himself, even doing his own stunt riding. The film was very well received and was the first of eleven comedies for ATP, including Keep Fit, It’s In The Air, Come On George! and Let George Do It.
By 1939, George Formby was the biggest attraction in British show business and was earning £75,000 (£3.4m) a year from his films alone. In 1941 he moved to Columbia Pictures with a whopping £500,000 (£18m!) contract where he made seven further films (in modern terms, that works out to a cool £2.5m per film), the final one being George in Civvy Street. The general consensus is that these films aren’t a patch on the ATP/Ealing offerings, despite the hefty pay-tag. For six consecutive years, he had been voted the top British film star. But once the war was over, people wanted a different kind of entertainment, less upbeat and jolly; more sophisticated and serious. The British public turned their back on George’s films, and this was confirmed when James Mason’s anodyne charm won him the top British film star tag. After George in Civvy Street in 1946, George never made another film.
1. Orwell, George, essay, ‘The Art of Donald McGill’, 1941
2. With My Little Ukulele In My Hand (Cottrell, 1933)
3. The Fiddler Kept On Fiddling (Gifford, Cliffe, 1935)
4. Fisher, John, George Formby, p.25 (The Woburn Press, 1975)
5. Taped interview with Eddie Latta, 17th September, 1966
6. The Friday Show, BBC Television, Broadcast 16 December 1960
7. Brownlow, Kevin, ‘The Parade’s Gone By’ p.638 (Martin, Secker & Warburg, 1968) Brownlow is referring to the attitude of the great French silent film director, Abel Gance