Over the course of the last few months, I’ve noticed how often I hear George’s music on television, or references to him. Just a few days ago, I was watching the sharp, contemporary American TV comedy Scrubs, (set in a hospital stuffed with amusingly weird characters and misfits) with Jack, my youngest, when suddenly, on the soundtrack, came a modern version* of Happy Go Lucky Me, Formby’s last recording, from 1960. Ok, it wasn’t actually George’s performance, but a modern, more cool version; it was enough to give me a modicum of cred with a teenage son (who has recently discovered the ukulele) when I gleefully pointed this out. Yesterday, I was watching Come Dine With Me on Channel 4 (with my eldest, Rob this time) – this particular instalment came from Warrington, so what better way to ‘set the scene’ than to use GF on the soundtrack: I Wish I Was Back On The Farm as the background to shots of a cattle farm – you get the idea (yawn); there followed various other short excerpts of Formby tracks throughout the programme. And now, literally as I write, there is on BBC4 a programme, presented by historian David Reynolds about Stalin – World War Two: 1941 and the Man of Steel. In it, he makes reference to a wartime British interpreter, who likened Stalin’s apparent silly, provincial Georgian accent to George Formby’s Wigan twang, “Almost as if George Formby had been made dictator”. Professor Reynolds himself says, “This was an outsider’s voice, and faintly ridiculous.” They then had a voice-over of a Stalin speech read in a ‘Wigan’ accent, just to bang home the point that the idea of a ‘provincial’ leader is obviously a ridiculous one. Professor Reynolds wrote and presented a superb, insightful programme on Stalin; but in this respect at least, he (or his producer, Russell Barnes) really ought to have known better. The subtext of that short section of their film seems to be saying, “You northerners, (unlike us clever BBC types) are comical – and outsiders in our country.”
The irony of course, is that in their day, both Formbys, father and son, played on this patronising southern attitude to people from the north in their songs and comic personas. Perhaps Professor Reynolds was merely alluding to the specificity of Formby’s high-pitched ‘gormless simpleton’ voice in his act, rather than his just being a man unfortunate enough to possess a Wigan accent, but I doubt it; the programme suggests that to ‘talk Lancasheer’ is – in itself – comical. Anyone who has heard Formby’s wartime radio broadcasts, recounting his experiences at the front, and delivered in a gentle, reflective, understated way will realise what nonsense this is.
Thinking about all this, I don’t know what I’m most struck by: the still snobbish, offensive attitude that anyone not possessing the ‘right’ voice could possibly command respect or authority, or George’s apparent ubiquity on television; is George always being mentioned or played on the telly, or is it just me? He still seems to quietly throb away in the depths of the nation’s unconscious, even fifty years after his death, still producing the same class-ridden polarising feelings he did seventy years ago.
*UPDATE: The version used was not a ‘modern, more cool version’, but the original version by Paul Evans, recorded in 1960. Thanks to Walter L (in comments below) for the correction, and apologies for my ignorance. It does sound cool though.