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Music / George Formby

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Formby touring the British Expeditionary Force in France, 1940.

Now I go cleanin' windows, to earn an honest bob,
For a nosy parker it's an interestin' job!
Now it's a job that just suits me,
A window cleaner you would be,
If you can see what I can see,
When I'm cleanin' windows!
— "When I'm Cleaning Windows"

George Formby OBE (born George Hoy Booth, 26 May 1904 – 6 March 1961) was a Lancastrian singer-songwriter, comedian and film star who had his biggest hits in The '30s. He often mixed comedy into his songs together with a healthy dose of innuendo. His signature musical instrument was the ukulele, or 'uke' for short.

Formby started out as a music hall performer using the same songs and jokes as his father (also a music hall performer). This changed in 1923 when he married fellow-performer Beryl Ingham, who became his manager and transformed his act by introducing the ukulele to his performance and insisting he dress smartly while on stage. He himself later noted the effectiveness of the latter with regards to his famously suggestive lyrics: "You know, some of the songs are a bit near. But they'll take them from me in evening dress; they wouldn't take them if I wore baggy pants and rednose".

Between 1937 and 1942, he was -— in terms of UK box office takings -— the most successful British cinema actor bar none. In his films, he always played a good-natured working-class underdog who overcomes the odds and invariably gets the girl.

He was one of the most popular British entertainers of his day; it was estimated that during World War II he performed in front of more than three million people. His career declined after the war although he continued to appear in variety shows. When not touring, he lived in his native Lancashire (he named his house in Lytham St Anne's "Beryldene" in honour of his wife). After suffering from various health problems in the 1950s, he died relatively young at the age of 56 in 1961.

The next year, The Beatles would rise to prominence; George Harrison was a fan of Formby's and often put references to him in his songs, most notably at the end of the reunion piece "Free as a Bird". Today, his work is championed by Midlands comedian Frank Skinner, who does a spectacularly good impersonation.

His most famous songs are:

  • "Leaning On A Lamp Post"
  • "When I'm Cleaning Windows"
  • "With My Little Stick Of Blackpool Rock" - a famous example of his fondness for the Double Entendre.
  • "Bless 'Em All" - apparently dates back to World War I but was very popular during World War II when it was performed by the likes of Vera Lynn and Gracie Fields as well as Formby.
  • The "Mr Wu" songs, including "Chinese Laundry Blues", "Mr Wu's A Window Cleaner Now" and the World War II-themed "Mr Wu's An Air Raid Warden Now".
  • "Imagine Me in the Maginot Line", a song named after the fortifications system from when Formby toured for British Expeditionary Force troops stationed in France in 1939-1940.

His best-known films are:

  • Boots! Boots! (1934)
  • No Limit (1935)
  • Keep Your Seats, Please! (1936) - first appearance of "When I'm Cleaning Windows"
  • Feather Your Nest (1937)
  • I See Ice (1938)
  • Trouble Brewing (1939)
  • Come On George! (1939)
  • Let George Do It! (1940) - US title To Hell With Hitler
  • Spare a Copper (1940)
  • Turned Out Nice Again (1941)
  • Much Too Shy (1942)
  • Get Cracking (1943)
  • Bell-Bottom George (1943)
  • I Didn't Do It (1945)

His works contain examples of:

  • Adolf Hitlarious: During a dream sequence in Let George Do It!, he parachutes into a Nuremberg Rally and punches Adolf Hitler. This film was popular in the USA (where it was called To Hell With Hitler) and even the Soviet Union as well as Britain.
  • Chinese Launderer: When Mr Wu first appeared — in "Chinese Laundry Blues" — he owned a laundry in Limehouse (a district of London where many Chinese immigrants settled in the 19th and early 20th centuries), although in the later songs he moved onto greater things.
  • Double Entendre: Constantly. Probably the most blatant examples are in "With My Little Ukulele In My Hand" and "With My Little Stick Of Blackpool Rock". The latter was actually banned by the BBC in 1937 for its suggestive lyrics. When he was invited to perform for the Royal Family, he was told to rewrite his songs to make the lyrics less offensive, only to find when he got there that the King wanted to hear the original versions.
    With my little stick of Blackpool Rock,
    Along the promenade I stroll.
    It may be sticky but I never complain,
    It's nice to have a nibble at it now and again!
  • Fortune Teller: Madame Moskovitch ("the Moscow witch, the Russian gypsy queen") is one of these.
  • I Meant to Do That: "Sitting On The Ice In The Ice Rink" is based on this trope. George is insisting that, no, he hasn't fallen while skating, he likes sitting on the ice in the ice rink with his skates on.
  • Inherently Funny Words: One reason why he often mentioned his ukulele in the words of his songs.
  • Last-Second Word Swap and Subverted Rhyme Every Occasion: He was fond of using these.
    Now Mr Wu, he's got a naughty eye that flickers,
    You ought to see it wobble when he's ironing ladies' blouses!
  • Lyrical Dissonance: A few of his songs have Tear Jerker lyrics (such as "Mother What'll I Do Now?" and "As The Hours And The Days And The Weeks And The Months") but they are coupled to his usual upbeat tunes.
  • Medley: His "British Isles Medley", which is a medley of patriotic and regional songs from across the United Kingdom (such as "Ilkley Moor Bah T'at" for Yorkshire and "Men of Harlech" for Wales). He later did an "American Medley" that did the same thing for the United States.
  • Mistaken Identity: The plots of some of his movies are driven by this. In Bell-Bottom George, for example, he's mistaken for a Royal Navy sailor who's absent without leave when the military police come across him wearing Navy uniform during an air-raid.
  • Nonindicative Name: His song about the Isle of Man, which makes puns on the fact that Formby sings its praises because it's full of easy women.
  • Patriotic Fervour: Sort of averted, as he made patriotic songs during World War II but they were just as comedic as his usual fare - "Imagine Me On The Maginot Line", "Mr Wu's An Air Raid Warden Now", etc. At this time, some of his films were about the war (Let George Do It!) while others (Turned Out Nice Again) were not.
  • The Peeping Tom: The point of all of his songs about cleaning windows is that the window-cleaner enjoys looking at the various goings-on inside the houses he cleans. For example:
    I've seen Miss Thompson in her flat,
    Take off her shoes, her coat and hat.
    I've seen her take off more than that!
    When I'm cleanin' windows!
  • Precision F-Strike: When touring South Africa in 1946, Formby performed at both white and black venues. The leader of the apartheid-promoting National Party, Daniel Mahan, personally called to berate his manager (and wife). Beryl Formby is said to have responded, "Why don't you piss off, you horrible little man?" (ref)
  • Prison Episode: Well, prison song. The narrator of "Mother What'll I Do Now?" is behind bars and is not dealing very well with his situation.
  • Richard Nixon, the Used Car Salesman: In the Alternate History Thursday Next novels, George Formby becomes the leader of the British Resistance following a successful Nazi invasion. After the liberation, he becomes President-for-Life of England, with "When I'm Cleaning Windows" becoming the new national anthem.
  • Sequel: Many of his songs have sequels, most notably the "Mr Wu" series. The titular character moved on from running a laundry to window-cleaning, being an air-raid warden, etc.
  • Sound-Effect Bleep: He was one of the first to do the musical version, in "Mother What'll I Do Now?":
    They told me they would treat me swell,
    Tucked inside my little cell,
    But up to now it's been like h(LOUD NOTE)!
    Oh Mother, what'll I do now?
  • Stage Names: George's real name was George Hoy Booth. His father, James Lawler Booth, was a music hall comedian and singer who performed under the stage name "George Formby". The son did likewise, meaning that the father is now known as "George Formby Senior".
  • Toilet Humour: Implied rather than used outright, as per this example from "Mr Wu's An Air Raid Warden Now":
    A fire-bomb dropped one day,
    So close to him, they say,
    That he deserves a medal they all vow.
    But perhaps what you don't understand,
    He put the fire out but he didn't use sand!
    Oh, Mr Wu's an air-raid warden now!
  • Underdogs Never Lose: So very much in the films. Whether he's taking part in the Isle of Man TT (No Limit), trying to stop a German spy from sending vital information to Berlin (Let George Do It!) or up against saboteurs in the Liverpool docks (Spare a Copper), George is the underdog. And he will prevail. With his little ukulele in his hand.
  • World War II: The war started at the height of George's fame, and several of his post-1939 movies (Let George Do It!, Get Cracking, etc) have a war theme as do some of his songs. He signed up for ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association - the organisation that provided entertainment for service personnel) and travelled extensively to entertain British troops in various locations ... sometimes very close to the front line. Footage of him performing "Imagine Me On The Maginot Line" for soldiers in France in 1940 can be seen in an episode of The World At War. When not abroad, he entertained people in factories, theatres and even air-raid shelters in addition to serving in the Home Guard as a dispatch rider.
  • Vodka Drunkenski: At play in "Madame Moskovitch", as the titular fortune-teller gives her clients vodka.
    She will give you vodka strong,
    'Til your fortune all goes wrong!

Turned out nice again!