A chapter-length article: PART 1 (of 3)
With the location filming of Bell-Bottom George almost completed at Fleetwood, George would soon be available to ENSA  for the delayed tour of North Africa. The tour had been definitely on in January 1943, but was off again by the end of April. He was telephoned by Basil Dean, the head of ENSA, and re-offered a tour of Canada instead, to raise funds for British war charities. George thought about it very seriously:
“Obviously we could make quite a lot of money in Canada, but I felt that the Middle East would be more of a job of work. The last time Basil suggested Canada, I felt I was needed more at home; we all expected the Blitz to be starting again, and the Canadian audiences were a long way from the battle front. Our lads out there in the desert could do with a little entertainment, and my word, they deserved it. I’d been trying to get on this tour for two years and there had been so many previous delays, that I thought unless Beryl and I went to the Middle East pretty soon it would be too late to go at all, as the boys were doing so well.”
The tour was confirmed on the 5th July, and four days later the Allied invasion of Sicily started, making him even more anxious to be out there. Despite the confirmation there was no date given for departure; he was told only that he would be back in England by November. In the meantime he was asked to forward his passport to London for visa clearance.
On the 23rd July, he was the guest star of a special edition of the BBC Merchant Navy show Shipmates Ashore, to mark the programme’s first birthday. The Merchant Navy Club in Rupert Street, London had come into being as a result of the series; American women had donated £18,750 towards the cost, and George was to thank them over the air. Doris Hare (of later On The Buses fame) welcomed him warmly as the man who had single-handed started the first fund for trawlermen and their dependants. His programme included the first public performance of a song from the new film, It Serves You Right (You Shouldn’t Have Joined), and he closed his act by telling the receptive naval audience something about the projected tour:
“We have already had ten innoculations and vaccinations in the past four weeks against typhus, typhoid, tellow fever and Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all, and we have another against tetanus when we arrive at Gibraltar. Don’t we have fun? The morning I had the smallpox jab, I had to spend two hours in a tank of water for the film, and a huge lump came up under my arm. I couldn’t play the uke at all. But I’m delighted to be going, we shall give five shows a day for seven or eight weeks. It will be hard work, but it will be grand.”
The date of departure however was still unclear. George’s passport was at the Foreign Office awaiting an exit permit, and although Basil Dean harried and chased the officials at Petty France, they would not be rushed, and it was another week before it was returned. Dean was used to these bureaucratic hassles; he had just been having a battle with the military authorities who were loath to give official recognition for the ENSA uniform.
“Many of the stars were also reluctant to wear the standard dress at first; not so George and Beryl Formby. Without waiting for confirmation of the forthcoming ‘dress-up’, they hurried around to Moss Bros. and selected uniforms of a highly decorative character, complete with guardee’s buttons and ENSA badges in gold on the coat labels. Two days later I was escorting a number of Members of Parliament across the stage (of the Drury Lane theatre) when rounding a corner by some scenery we came across George and Beryl in full regalia, posing for a press photographer.” 
With his passport safely back in his pocket and a tentative departure date in the latter part of August, George and Beryl began preparing in earnest for the shows, packing instruments and clothes, and rehearsing new material written for the troops with Ernie Pullen. On Bank Holiday Monday, 2nd August, George opened at the Garrick Theatre, Southport in variety, moving a few miles up the coast the following week to the Winter Gardens at Morecambe, where he gave his last public engagement before departure, when he and Beryl opened The Morecambe Hospital Theatrical Garden Fete on the 12th of August. A huge bar of Blackpool Rock was sold to Beryl (despite George’s efforts to prevent her spending his money, and she immediately presented it to the Matron for the children in the local hospital. George auctioned a doll and a bunch of grapes. “Say five pounds – say it quick without thinking!” The mayor bought them for five guineas and invited Beryl to talk to the crowd. “I don’t know why you’ve asked me to speak, because when you’re married to a comic, as I have been for so many years, you naturally expect him to do all the talking.” “Just be like you are at home then, love,” interrupted George, amid roars of laughter. When they finally got out of the arena, George was mobbed by autograph hunters, so he set up a stall in a tent and for an hour and a half signed his name over 600 times, at a shilling a time for the hospital.
At the weekend, George and Beryl were invited to call on the Mayor of Blackpool to say goodbye at the Town Hall. The Mayor produced a message to all Blackpool residents serving in the Middle East, and asked them if it could be read to audiences at each show. “We will be glad to”, said George, who had clearly not seen how long or pompous the text was. A more homely request was from a little boy whose father was a corporal-cook attached to General Montgomery’s staff. “My dad’s in Sicily – please find him for me and tell him that we’re thinking of him all the time.”
George and Beryl’s departure date was now fixed for Friday 20th August, leaving George with time for an ENSA show for mine-sweeping units on the evening of the 19th. The BBC were anxious to relay the concert from Avonmouth Naval Depot as a surprise item on the Forces service, but disagreements arose between George and the BBC over his choice of songs. The BBC wanted him to change or even cut lines that were too suggestive, but George was adamant that if they wanted him, they’d have to have the same show he normally put on for the servicemen. They were still arguing about content on the morning of the 19th! It had now become a matter of principle, and neither would budge from their fixed positions. In the afternoon George had to take his baggage to Bristol aerodrome where he would collect his itinerary and instructions for the tour. When he arrived, his orders had preceeded him – the flight had been brought forward one day, and he was to leave that night. The naval show was rapidly cancelled, and the difficulties over the offending songs was overcome with no loss of face on either side.
George was thrilled and excited to be finally leaving:
“Imagine yourself on an airfield, at nine o’clock on a Thursday night, the weather’s not too good, there’s heavy rain and there’s a wind blowing. Beryl and I, Ernie Pullen and Harry Scott step into a plane, and next morning we arrive at Lisbon, where we refuel and set off for a place called Fez in Morocco. We dropped down right on the edge of the desert, and naturally all the boys were clustered round to see who it was, they didn’t know who to expect. The first fellow I saw was a corporal from Edinburgh who seemed astonished. Naturally they all wanted a show right away, and when they told me that they didn’t have a radio on the station, or a piano or a gramophone and the had never had a show – what could I do? So I got out the uke and gave them Out In The Middle East. I never had such a receptive audience, although it was hot and sticky. It made me hot just walking about, let alone fighting, and it made me realise what the boys had undergone.
“From Fez we went on to Oran and then to Algiers where we entertained wounded soldiers in an improvised theatre in the grounds of the 96th General Hospital at Maison Carree. After Algiers we moved onto Constantine and played at hospital depots, rest camps, and convalescent homes. These hospitals were really marvellous, with all the operating theatres and wards under canvas, and as much care as you would get in the latest London hospitals. When the boys left hospital, they were sent to either a convalescent camp or a leave camp. If your son was in Britain, naturally he would have come on leave, but if your boy was out there he went to a leave camp. The camps were situated on the banks of the Mediterranean and were set out like a Lido, with sunshades over the tables, and Italian prisoners waiting on them, all dying to learn English. The officers went to the rest camps too, there was no distinction and no saluting. All the men were taken a cup of tea every morning, and could stop in bed all day if they wanted, or they could get up and go swimming or play darts or any kind of game they could enjoy themselves with for seven days – but no ladies!
“About 27th August we got to Tunis, it was the hottest climate we had ever struck, yet the boys of the 5th Army were always neat and tidy. It made us feel very proud to see the British soldiers dressed so smartly, with buttons polished. We had read all about the Battle of Tunis and here we were with wrecked German aircraft and burnt-out German tanks still littered about the place. The first show we gave was in Tunis itself for a mixed services audience before setting out on a tour of the bigger camps in the area. After the shows in Tunis, we went to the second holy city, Kairouan. By now we were dripping pounds off in weight, the heat was just terrible. The Arab chief there sent all his best glass and crockery for us to have our dinner that night, because we were entertaining the soldiers who were looking after his people. It was simply amazing to be out there eating off what looked like a sort of Crown Derby plate with green and gold figures, in the middle of a desert, surrounded by thousands of flies.”
In their first six days in North Africa, George and Beryl had entertained 22,000 men, and they continued with a gruelling schedule, giving three or more shows a day, sometimes in the midday heat. He was very proud of his badly scarred calf and ankle which had still not fully healed after the accident at Fleetwood while filming Bell-Bottom George and he delighted in revealing them to the soldiers and pressmen with grisly relish!
From Kairouan the party went on to Algiers and gave their twenty-ninth show to Airborne Forces before flying to Malta where they did seven shows for the navy boys at Gigi Naval Hospital. On the second day in Malta, George and Beryl were shown over the aircraft ‘Faith’ which had just been presented to Sir Georg Borg, the Chief Justice representing the people of Malta, by Air Vice-Marshal Sir Keith Park. This plane was the last of the heroic trio of Gladiators (‘Faith’, ‘Hope’ and ‘Charity’) which defended the island in the opening days of the Axis air onslaught. The Formbys were very impressed and moved by the visit to the aircraft, which symbolised their own feelings of stoicism. Many of the men they met had been on the small island in a state of seige for three years, and several of them produced French five franc notes, autographed for them by George in Dieppe in 1940. The final show was at the open air theatre at Rockyvale, built for the troops by ENSA. During the stay, news came that Italy had been invaded, giving even more delight to the prospect of their next stop – Sicily.
“We arrived there on Tuesday 7th September, and immediately we had unloaded our luggage we set off for Catania. The roads, which had been chewed up by tanks and guns and shells, were in a terrible condition. We soon became veterans at keeping off mosquitoes; there were so many you could pick them off you by the handful. On the other side of Catania plain we were entertaining the rear 8th Army, and we walked into a camp and a major greeted us and said, “I’m the welfare officer.” I said, “Oh no you’re not, you’re a footballer!” It was Alex Jackson, Chelsea’s centre-forward. Isn’t it funny how you meet people in strange places? Everybody here was under canvas, Beryl and I had a little tent with a mosquito net fixed to it, and there were scores of other tents all round. That night we went to bed at about eleven o’clock, and we were just getting nicely settled down when a lot of the boys walked past and shouted, “Goodnight George, goodnight Beryl.” We shouted back to them, and this went on every five minutes or so, and it was after 2am before things quietened down and there was no other sound outside but the buzzing of mosquitoes.
Next morning at about eight, a corporal brought us a cup of tea to our tent; it was just like home. But when we opened the tent-flap we got another shock – the whole place was deserted! There wasn’t another tent in sight, not a tent anywhere, only the corporal and the cookhouse were left. We had our breakfast and then he went on his way. The whole of the 8th Army had left us without us hearing a thing. It was unbelievable that we had entertained 5,000 of these boys the previous night and they had just vanished without a word. That day we entertained the bomber fields and in the evening went on to another camp where we met the C.O., Brigadier Gray. He was a New Zealander, and he told us the news that Italy had just capitulated, but the German troops were still fighting there fiercely. He and Beryl got chatting and he asked her if he could have my autograph for his son. She said, “Certainly you can, provided you give me yours.” The Brigadier seemed rather surprised, and asked her what on earth she wanted his autograph for. Beryl repled that she would like his signature on a piece of paper giving us permission to follow the boys into Italy. “All right, that’s a fair enough swap.” He laughed, ripped a page out of a notebook, scribbled on it and handed it to Beryl with a flourish. When I saw it, I had to laugh too. It simply read, “Admit bearer to Italy”!
1. ENSA – The Entertainments National Service Association. A government sponsored organisation set up by Basil Dean and Leslie Henson to provide live entertainment for British armed forces during the war.
2. Dean, Basil, ‘The Theatre at War’, Harrap 1956. This is a nice story, but the first press photograph of George and Beryl in the uniform appeared in the Daily Mirror (10th September 1943) with no badges on their lapels, and no special buttons. The photograph was held by the censor until three weeks after their departure for North Africa. The uniforms did not come from Moss Bros., but were issued by the army, and on their return, George and Beryl had to hand the uniforms in for reissue.