A chapter-length article: PART 3 (of 3)
On the 17th of October, George and Beryl arrived in Gibraltar and within an hour of their arrival they had made a personal appearance at the Theatre Royal, where the second house of the planned programme was cut to give the audience a chance to see them. His performance was somewhat subdued, as he had been handed a large file of press cuttings relating to the Union Jack article. The Sunday Dispatch had printed it in Britain on the 10th, and his fellow artists were furious at his outburst. Their union, The Variety Artists Federation, had stated that they were shocked at the suggestion, and when he returned to England, George would be asked to give the names of the artists he was referring to. ENSA put out a statement that the majority of West End stage and screen stars certainly had volunteered their services for special tours. Basil Dean pointed out that at that moment, many leading artists were on tour with the troops, including Beatrice Lillie, Vivien Leigh, Noel Coward, Geraldo, Leslie Henson and Dorothy Dickson.
Although irritated and surprised at the depth of feeling in the press, George and Beryl carried on with their shows on Gibraltar, at the Rock Gun, the Theatre Royal and the Military Hospital. At the hospital, they met the Western Brothers who were on their way out to entertain in Italy. They sympathised with George and asked him if he’d seen the previous day’s Sunday Dispatch, which had printed a long letter from Bud Flanagan, quietly rebutting George’s allegations.
Flanagan pointed out that Tommy Trinder had helped with his yacht at the Dunkirk evacuation, and that Nervo and Knox had done more than their fair share of keeping London laughing while it burned during the Blitz. They were still doing shows galore,
“And doing them the right way, that is, with no publicity. Twice daily in a big show is enough, but they are doing their whack besides, but nobody knows about it.”
In a postscript Bud Flanagan pointed out that in three and a half years in the front line in the Great War, he himself had very much enjoyed going to shows in the West End when he was home on leave:
“If you’re lucky enough to have a hit, you stay in the show as long as the public wants you. It’s nice to think that there is still a laugh in the West End for the boys and girls of the services and the war-workers to come to to when they get a little relaxation.”
If anything, this last point seemed to endorse George’s complaints, but the flight back to London on the 19th of October was taken up with discussing how best to deal with the vociferous denigrators, without reaching any firm conclusions. On arrival in London, George and Beryl went straight to their flat in Dorset House in a very exhausted condition, telling the waiting pressmen that they were too tired after the flight to discuss the matter; the following day, George was obliged to explain himself to a specially convened ENSA meeting at the Waldorf Hotel. The next morning he faced the photographers and reporters, and went on to the hotel for an emotionally-charged meeting. George did not blink at the barrage of questions from Basil Dean and his staff:
“I don’t retract one word that I have said. The stars should be in the Middle East and if they do not go out, something ought to be done to make them. My answer to my critics is ‘If the cap fits, wear it.’ Of course I know that many West End stars do plenty of grand work up and down the country to the troops and in the factories, and what has been printed is misleading if interpreted otherwise. But if the stars only knew how much it meant to the boys in and back of the front line, I know that more of them would volunteer.”
George then produced his trump card:
“General Montgomery strongly believes in their coming out, and you have no idea how welcome they are. I make no personal attack on any member of our profession, but some really have dodged their obligations. But only a few.”
The meeting dragged on, with Beryl in tears as she recalled playing to wounded soldiers in Malta. An unsmiling Ben Henry avoided being dragged into the melee, but it was obvious to everybody present that he was worried about the outcome of the meeting. If ENSA censured George, it might seriously affect box offices at the cinemas. Only two films had been released under the Columbia deal and Bell Bottom George was still to have its trade show. Finally it was announced that there had been a frank exchange of views, and a statement would be issued later.
Four days later, ENSA announced that they had decided to call for volunteers for the Middle East and Italy and would be approaching all stars with this end in view. So George’s remarks did have some effect apart from making him unpopular with his colleagues. His friend Tommy Trinder said:
“I agree with George Formby, but why should he kick the profession in the teeth by not giving names?”
But to have started listing personalities publicly would have been the worst way of dealing with the matter. If libel writs were thrown around it would have not helped the war effort at all. Most professionals knew who the slackers were and the uproar would have quickly died down had not the Mayor-elect of Blackpool, Jacob Parkinson, got in on the act by releasing a statement attacking George, and dis-associating Blackpool from his comments. This was too much for the showman, Jack Taylor, who lived in Blackpool himself, and had produced many of the town’s most successful shows:
“It would appear from the remarks of other artists that George Formby has said dreadful things. But notice that he did not say that many of the other stars fought shy of giving a show in isolated parts of Britain because of the discomfort and because they could not be guaranteed a large audience… It was Gracie Fields who said that.
George didn’t say that Gracie Fields returned to America because she could get 40,000 dollars a week broadcasting with the American Tobacco Company and that there was a cabled threat from her husband, Monty Banks to sue Basil Dean unless she returned… Basil Dean said that.
George didn’t name several other stars who stayed at home all these years to keep the home fires burning for the benefit of themselves and the boys who had never been away from Blighty… It was ‘The People’ who said that on 21st October.
How many artists who talk glibly of the shows they have done for charity tell you of the salaries they have charged for thier appearance at these so-called ‘Charity Shows’? Wherever George Formby has appeared, he has never charged a farthing. Right from the beginning of the war he has accepted fewer music hall dates than any other artist. He could easily have filled his date book, but he didn’t sign contracts and kept all the dates open so that he could give his services to the soldiers and charities. He has been to every outlandish place that he could find in this country, where soldiers could get no entertainment.
He didn’t hesitate to go to Ireland, the Orkneys, Shetland Islands and tour the Isle of Man. He found time to go to France and amidst all this he still found time to earn what money he could for his own private Fleetwood charity, and to raise £125,000 for national charities. he was not compelled to do anything at all, everything he did was voluntary. The plea has been urged that it was not for Formby to criticise his brother and sister stars. That may nor may not be so, but if some unknown person had said all these things, no national paper would have published it, as it would not have been news. It was up to someone who had the power to get his pleas in the national press to tell the truth. Therefore Formby was the right man to do it.”
The last word on the subject should go to Squadron-Leader F. Ellis, O.B.E., who was actually present when George made his original remarks:
“We had the pleasure of entertaining George and Beryl in our humble desert mess when they were playing to troops in this area and on that occasion had the pleasure of discussing with him the absence of top line entertainers. They themselves were in fact the first well known stage personalities we had seen during the whole of the desert campaign and during two years in the desert we have only seen three ENSA concert parties. We are glad that someone has had the courage and the gumption to explode the myth, apparently current in some quarters, that the lights of the theatre world are shining on the battlefronts. Only by the personal efforts of people like Mr. Formby and the Western Brothers can we hope through trials to reach the stars.”
The strain of the ENSA meeting and the subsequent press conference kept George and Beryl resting in London for a couple of days, but at the weekend they drove home to Little Singleton, calling in at Warrington on the way to see Fred and Jessie Bailey at the wholesale greengrocers. George had promised Fred that he would bring back some bananas from the Middle East, and produced a bunch of a dozen that he had acquired in Algiers. He gave Fred half of them to put in the shop windows, and a crowd soon collected in the market, and George had to explain what bananas were to a group of excited children who had never seen these yellow cylinders before.
After a quiet and restful weekend at Beryldene, the couple drove into Blackpool on Monday 25th October to see the Mayor. They brought the remaining six bananas and six lemons which were to be sent to the Victoria Hospital. Beryl explained that there was no chance of coming home laden with gifts,
“Only fleas, and anyway a reel of cotton costs 17/6d in Malta, and a rabbit 18/-, but they had brought many loving messages which we spent all day Sunday sending on to relatives in all parts of Britain. George still has to deliver a black purse and 7/6d to a little boy in Poulton, it was a present from the boy’s father which George carried with him right across the desert. We are both a stone lighter than when we left, and we both had attacks of malaria. George was bitten by a locust during one performance, and one morning I woke up to find 28 bug bites on one leg and 19 on the other. At Damascus it was 118 in the shade, and when we gave a show at a fighter station on the top of the Lebanon Mountains three hours later, it was freezing. But we never thought of complaining. It’s not until you get out there where there’s no coming home for leave, that you realise how isolated the boys are, and loneliness assumes its real meaning.”
The whole payment made to Beryl and George by ENSA for their Middle East tour came to £160, a maximum of £10 per week and half salary during journeys, which was handed over to the Mayor of Fleetwood for the trawler fund.
For the next five weeks, George returned to Variety with his ‘Casting Office’ sketch, playing a gormless aspirant to film fame, opening at the Birmingham Hippodrome for a week and then going on to the Palace, Manchester, where he received a standing ovation.
“He seems more of an artist than when we saw him last. No other comedian has his own audience so permanently at flash-point. There has grown up almost a Formby language, full of secret, innocent seeming allusions that set his house in a roar and double George himself up in a simulated helplessness. It is all very naughty, though George pretends he is trying to be good. ‘You are a bad lot’, he protested last night at the Palace.” 
At every performance George and Beryl read messages from the troops to the audiences, whose number included relations and friends who had been sent free tickets. The theatres were in absolute silence as George read out the simple messages and told about his meetings with their loved ones.
“It wouldn’t have mattered if I hadn’t been in entertainment, or hadn’t taken a ukulele along, or even got on a platform. It was after the performance that the show really used to start. They wanted to talk to somebody from home. We used to sit around with mugs of tea – always tea, like a lot of old women gassing. It was always about home; what was the beer like? Was it getting stronger? How often does it rain? How are the food and cigarettes? They were worrying more about us at home than they were about themselves. I think Beryl and I convinced them that even after four and a half years of war, Britain was still the best country to live in. The boys used to ask us, ‘What can we send home in our parcels?’ We told them apart from nuts and raisins everybody here had plenty. Some of the boys who had been out there for three years found this hard to believe, even if you told them in your letters that you were alright, they were not quite sure if you were just saying that to make them feel better, but reassured them that everybody at home in England was well and happy.”
These moving little addresses were very appreciated by parents and wives and children, thousands of miles from their boys. A writer in the Yorkshire Post captured the feeling of the audience:
“I came away thinking what a masterly bit of work it was. George Formby might have delivered a tedious oration or a feeble pep-talk, or alternatively he might have poured out a string of gags, and so left an impression of flippancy. Instead, he seasoned friendly seriousness with humour in just the right proportion for a popular audience and because his audience were so eager to listen, he went on one night for nearly ten minutes longer than the normally rigid timetable allowed. Harry Lauder could not have put the message over better. If George the elder could have watched George the younger handle that audience, he would have been proud of him.” 
1. Manchester Guardian, 9th November 1943
2. Yorkshire Post, 27th November 1943