Why George Formby Was The First Modern Pop Star, By John Robb

Forget Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard - it's our homegrown legend, the banjolele-wielding George Formby, who was the world's first King Of Pop

You see the crackling footage of long lost films – a tall man with a cheeky face strumming his banjolele and singing cheeky songs in once much cherished films of mishap and silliness. Every now and then he slips his catchphrases of "Ooh, mother!" when escaping from trouble, a timid "never touched me!" after losing a fistfight, and of course the most famous of all: "it’s turned out nice again." You can almost hear feel the ancient laughter rising in smoke-filled theatres.

It’s like a peep into a long lost pre war time. A time of so-called innocence played against mass poverty, the great depression and rise of Hitler. Many shrug and move on, but there is something about Formby that is part of the Northern DNA. The Beatles adored him, the late and great Frank Sidebottom quite possibly based his act on him and his catch phrases are so much part of the parlance that everyone has forgotten where they came from.

Every year the Winter Gardens in Blackpool sells out for the George Formby convention. It’s an endearing tribute to a comedian whose history is entwined with the town, and where he died in 1961.

For several years ex-Beatle George Harrison would turn up and play a solo set on his ukele – the only gig he would ever play in his semi reclusive final years. The reason? Because Formby was one of his favourites when he growing up. John Lennon also loved Formby and, in the summer months that he spent in Blackpool, would wave at the toothy legend and his formidable wife, Beryl, as they sat outside their home in the seaside town.

Many have this misty memory of Formby as a faded monochromatic star from a simpler time but as a proud Lancastrian I hereby declare George Formby, once as synonymous with Blackpool as fish and chips, to be the first modern pop star

In popular myth, pop started with Elvis. Of course, you can see a sea change there but the idea that all popular culture exploded from this point is a bit too tidy. Of course there were generations of stars before Formby too, but in the modern sense of an all-singing, all-dancing comedian pop star who made films and entertained with bawdy songs stuffed full of double entendres that were sneaked under the BBC’s noses, then Formby is your man.

Most people vaguely remember Formby as this overgrown, childlike man with a nasally northern accent scratching away at his banjo (oooh er!) but Formby was far smarter than that.

At the moment I’m working on a project for Blackpool council on the history of Blackpool music and Formby makes a convenient starting point. He was an outsider who made the town his own with his ‘common touch’, his affable spirit and his cheeky resilience. There’s also something very cool about the biggest star in the UK actually living in Blackpool in a glory era when the town was the second most important showbiz city outside London.

Although he was born in Wigan, Formby’s oeuvre is littered with Blackpool references. He became a key part of the Blackpool nightlife when the town would welcome millions of visitors every year, most arriving by train. Formby’s classic ‘With My Little Stick Of Blackpool Rock’ manages to reference trams, the promenade and the twitching stick of confectionary that he’d like to share with the ladies. On one level it’s improbably innocent but on another it’s filthier than the filthiest rap anthem of the 21st century and titters away at its mildly funny jokes at the same time. "It’s nice to have a nibble of it now and then…" the cheeky chap sniggers. Formby was a master of the double entendre, many of which are so quick that they are easy to miss. In 1932’s ‘Chinese Laundry Blues’ Formby chortles, "his eye that flickers when he washes woman’s…(ahem) blouses" before detailing the laundryman washing only woman’s clothes in way that would predates Syd Barrett’s classic ‘Arnold Layne’ by about three decades.

Hilariously the stuffy old BBC considered some of the songs too rude for broadcasting, and the aforementioned ‘With My Little Stick Of Blackpool Rock’ was banned by the BBC because of the lyrics. But they couldn’t stop Formby, and the double entendres kept on coming. On 1940’s ‘On the Wigan Boat Express’, a lady passenger "was feeling shocks in her signal box."

Formby performed over 200 songs in a prolific career round the music halls and in films. Most of the songs were written by Fred Cliff and Harry Gifford. Formby himself was involved in the creative process and was included in the credits on a number of them including his most famous song, ‘When I’m Cleaning Windows’. And while many think that the banjulele was a prop but Formby was an adept and innovative player of the instrument and his rhythm work is fantastic to listen to.

It was Formby’s film career, though, that made him a national star. He would play the innocent quite literally abroad like in his most popular film, espionage caper Let George Do It, still regarded by many as his finest. In the film Formby plays a member of a concert party who takes the wrong ship by mistake during a blackout. He disembarks at night into wartime Bergen, somehow mistaking the Norwegian capital of death metal for Blackpool, before his adventures round Europe take him to an improbable meeting with Adolf Hitler, who he slaps in the face and calls a windbag.

In the mid 30s Formby was the leading comedian in British cinema and five years later, just before the war broke out, he was the leading UK film star. He was signed to Columbia Pictures in America but he made no impression on the American market.

During the war he would give shows to the troops and famously made the officers move from their chairs at the front of the room so he could entertain the rank and file.

Much is made of Formby’s politics and the so-called racist content of a couple of his songs. This controversy occasionally flares up, and recently a folk club banned certain songs from being played. In truth Formby’s occasional reference to ‘chinks’ and songs like ‘Wunga Bunga Bu’ (about being eat by cannibals), while not the kind of thing that the modern world can understand and tolerate, were written with a more affectionate intent than any kind of racial hatred and should be understood in the context of the era. Did Formby mean that Chinese people were racially inferior when he sang "chinks" or did he use the normal parlance of the time? Did he mean that Africa was full of cannibals or was he singing a daft song? Did he mean his stick of Blackpool rock was… you can think about these things too much.

For Formby himself was no racist. There’s a great story from 1946 when he toured the pre-Apartheid South Africa with Beryl. They instantly made an impression by refusing to play racially-segregated venues. This came to a head when Formby embraced a young black audience member who had presented Beryl with a box of chocolates. The incident came to the attention of National Party leader Daniel François Malan (who later introduced apartheid). Malan had the arrogance to phone the indomitable Beryl to complain about the incident and was perfectly put in his place. Beryl replied, "Why don’t you piss off you horrible little man?" A perfect riposte to the creep and his the hateful system that was then emerging in South Africa.

Post war Formby remained a huge star in the UK until his death in 1961. His funeral saw 100,000 people line the streets, almost as a last hurrah before his fame was lost in the 60s as a new kind of UK emerged from the pre-and-post war world that Formby was so much part of.

Unlike that other great northern comic, the genius Stan Laurel, Formby never found fame in the USA. This might have sealed his reputation at home and abroad, but as a local superstar without the backing of America, Formby was pushed to the side. It’s something that happened to our homegrown stars all too often. His legend flickered on in reruns of his films filling up dead time on Saturday morning TV, the aforementioned convention and the occasional Beatles reference to their hero. His music, though, stands the test of time, evocative of a long lost era, but with a cheeky wit that sparkles to this day.

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