The George Formby Society formed formed at the Imperial Hotel with just 56 members a few months after the star’s death. Today there are over 800 members worldwide, many of whom return to the same hotel quarterly to celebrate the comedic banjolele player. David Simper popped along to find out more about Formby’s enduring appeal.
I remember watching and enjoying George Formby’s films as a child. They were quite mature movies then and I’m now in my 50s. Formby’s ‘act’ consisted of light and comic songs, self-accompanied on the tiny banjolele stringed instrument, supported by a huge personality. He was rare talent that captured people’s affections over a 40-year career, between 1921 and his death in 1961.
Attending former Fairport Convention’s Richard Thompson’s gig at the Grand Theatre a few years back, Thompson opined that With My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock was the rudest song ever written. Watching the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain in the same venue, it did a Russified version of Leaning on a Lamp post. Clearly George Formby is not forgotten amongst musical artists. And he certainly wasn’t forgotten in the Washington Room of The Imperial Hotel on 9th September 2023.
I entered the room to find approximately 50 banjolele players on and around the stage, hammering joyously through a George Formby number. This really was quite a stirring sight and sound – it’s set me thinking of getting my mandolin out again (although as the tuning’s different, this can’t double as a banjolele).
Formby was born in Wigan in 1904. In the course of his career he cut 230 records (probably mostly 78 rpm shellac disks), made 21 hit films and participated in two Royal Command Performances. During World War II he entertained three million service people across Europe and the Middle East.
He upset the pre-apartheid South African government by insisting on playing to de-segregated audiences, his wife and manager, Beryl, telling a racist politician to “piss off you horrible little man”.
In 1939 he was judged to be the most popular and highest paid British entertainer earning £100,000 per year, a fortune at the time. On his untimely death at the age of only 56, the 20-mile route to his burial place was lined with mourners: I can’t see that happening for anyone today.
Back in the Washington Room, society president, Andrew Poppleton, took to the stage and among other things, announced the raffle prize. This was in his hand and was a beautiful, top-end banjolele. I snook into the little sales room at the back and admired the instruments there – some really nice pieces and some apparently well known by association with individuals. Tidy prices too, but you’d be buying something that would last and bring pleasure for a lifetime.
The programme for the society convention was well organised and a paper version of it was stuck to the venue wall. The morning featured people taking to the stage to play one or two numbers for the appreciative audience; I watched a couple and they were really very good. Meanwhile there was a technique workshop going on in a side room. A board of branch notices revealed the George Formby Society is represented in a broad spread of places across the country.
After the opening procedures were over, I was introduced to Lewis Clifton (chair) and Cathy Staniland (committee member) to chat about George Formby, the society and its role. I ask what the secret of George Formby’s longevity.
‘He’s so unique isn’t he?” says Clifton, to appreciative nods. “There’s been no one else like George Formby before or since. The instrument is a big part of it as well – it’s easy to pick up, easy to learn.”
So how did George Formby come to the banjolele?
“Initially he started playing the ukulele, but he found that the amplification wasn’t sufficient so he progressed onto the banjo-uke or banjolele, which had a lot more volume,” he explained.
Was it true that George Formby could only play in one key?
“He couldn’t read music, everything was played by ear using the same set of chord shapes on instruments tuned in different keys. Using the same chord shapes helped his syncopated style.”
Clifton agrees that Formby became a hero of the anti-apartheid movement when he toured South Africa in 1946.
Blackpool is synonymous with George – I don’t think we could have the convention anywhere else.
“He was asked to play to segregated audiences, which he refused to do. This did make him a hero. The people gave him a krugerrand and he still had that coin when he passed away in 1961. It must have meant a lot to him to have kept it all those years.”
The George Formby Society formed a few months after the star’s death in this very same hotel. Just 56 members attended the first convention in the Imperial Hotel in 1961 and now membership worldwide numbers around 800.
“There are members from Canada, America, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and naturally across the British Isles.” says Clifton. “Numbers are rising but there was a Covid effect from which we’re now recovering.
“The majority of members are people who were alive when George Formby was a star, but younger members discovered him on TV whereas I discovered him on YouTube, so that’s the kind of progression we have.”
Staniland adds: “We have all ages really. We have a young boy here for the first time who’s 12 and is here with his parents. He’s bought a banjolele, seen George on YouTube, learnt some songs and he’s going to perform.
“At every convention we find that we get new members, which is obviously a good thing. People come through the door,” she adds, pointing out that the convention is a public event rather than a closed shop. “It’s a very friendly society. People say that they were made to feel very welcome and they talk to people from all over the country and of different ages. People can learn to play. We have a little shop. Our president it running a workshop right now and I’m running one later for wooden ukulele players, aimed at beginners.
“Blackpool is synonymous with George – I don’t think we could have the convention anywhere else. Blackpool is the home of George.”
With his workshop boxed off president Andrew Poppleton conveniently joined us for a photograph. It had been deeply enjoyable chatting to these committed people. Interesting to be conducting an interview with banjolele background sounds coming from the main hall – the sound of people really enjoying themselves as part of a warm, welcoming community.
George Formby is an entertainer from a bygone age who did his best for the common person and worked incredibly hard, particularly through the perilous war years, to entertain and to serve his community. He never thought his homely northern humour – “turned out nice again!” – would appeal to a London audience, but the show Zip Goes a Million written around him, disproved that theory by running for 544 performances in the London West End from 1951. He was awarded the OBE in 1946 for his war work. Such universal appeal is rare.
George Formby clearly has a place in the present and the future and The George Formby Society intends to make sure of it. The atmosphere in the Washington Room was one of joy and that’s not that common nowadays.
The George Formby Society meets quarterly at the Imperial Hotel, Blackpool and returns 18-19 November 2023 and 16-17 March 2024. The even is free to members and there’s a small entrance fee for non members who can pay on entry. Find out more about the society here.
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