September 15 2014 Latest news:
Saturday, October 8, 2011
Two north Norfolk authors have written the first authorised biography of great 20th century British entertainer, George Formby.
History teacher Sue Smart, 59, was deputy head at Greshams School, in Holt, when Richard Howard popped in one day six years ago and asked permission to display material about George Formby in the school art gallery.
The year before Mr Howard, combined cadet force instructor at Gresham’s, had been one of two men behind an acclaimed BBC Radio Norfolk programme marking the centenary of Formby’s birth.
After it had been broadcast, Mr Howard, 64, from Cawston, remembers Formby’s brother Ted, his only surviving sibling, congratulating him.
”He linked his arm through mine and said: ’Will you put the record straight?’” A niggling desire to oblige eventually led Mr Howard to suggest the project to historian Mrs Smart who began researching in earnest following her retirement in 2007.
Mr Howard had been brought up with Formby music and inherited a stock of 78rpm records, plus other ephemera, from his father who had memories of dropping in for a drink at the Swan or Ferry pubs in Horning where he would find a friendly George propping up the bar.
Durham-born Mrs Smart, an admirer but no great fan of Formby, remembered her mother’s ”sparkling” tales of being taken to see his performances in 1930s Blackpool.
Mrs Smart, who lives in Thornage, near Holt, believes her dispassionate, historian’s approach has been useful in creating a properly-researched biography which is not merely showbiz gossip.
Their research material included a car-boot full of documents and photos lent by Ted, plus tape recordings of the brothers’ mother Eliza’s memories.
Third generation Formby family members were among those who gathered at Gresham’s School’s Auden Theatre to see Mrs Smart and Mr Howard arrive in George’s old Jaguar at the launch party for the new biography.
The authors’ only regret was that Ted, who died in 2007, was not among them.
Formby may be forever associated with Lancashire – but Norfolk was his second home.
In the half century since his death, fashions in popular culture have changed enormously.
Those black and white images of a slightly simple-looking man, grinning from ear to ear as he strummed a ukulele and sang When I’m Cleaning Windows in a broad Lancashire accent, seem worlds away from today’s ‘sophisticated’ music scene, much of which is dependent on high-tech wizardry.
Yet there is something about Formby that has endured. As Sue Smart, co-author of It’s Turned Out Nice Again!, a new biography about the entertainer, says: “He gets under your skin.” Mrs Smart and her co-writer, Richard Bothway Howard, think it’s probably the very Britishness of Formby’s saucy, subversive lyrics and down-to-earth qualities, coupled with his sheer professionalism that have made old footage of his performances a hit on video-sharing website Youtube.
And he’s also enjoying something of a revival thanks to a huge resurgence of interest in ukulele playing.
In their day Formby and his wife Beryl were “showbiz royalty”, according to Mr Howard.
But unlike today’s celebrities, the couple were able to escape, without a security entourage, and relax for weeks at a time in their favourite place – the Norfolk Broads.
The authors’ researches cast doubt on whether the Formbys ever occupied the house they bought, Heronby, on Beech Road, Wroxham.
Instead they lived on the water, cruising through the post-war years in the luxurious surroundings of their own boat, kept at Potter Heigham.
The couple had earned their relaxation, having travelled to every theatre of war except Russia, entertaining an estimated three million troops.
The book is packed with previously unseen photos, plus the reminiscences of many Norfolk people who remember them, including Jennifer Woods, daughter of Broads Haven marina owner Herbert Woods.
She recalls as a girl that Beryl, a former dancer, would run through tap-dancing routines with her.
A more dramatic Norfolk encounter involved the Formbys and a young west Norfolk shop manager whose car was in collision with their Jaguar at East Winch as the couple headed for Yarmouth, where George was appearing at the Windmill Theatre.
Formby ended up in hospital and later convalesced on the Broads. He returned to the Yarmouth stage and a huge welcome a fortnight later.
Unique access to so much new material, from the family archive, has helped the authors question a few long-standing myths about Formby.
He was not born in poverty but was the son of the hugely-successful George Formby senior; one of only two music-hall entertainers – the other being Dan Leno – Marie Lloyd said she would take time out to see. Nor was Beryl the hen-pecking harridan of popular belief.
Theirs was a love match, say the authors. But she was a shrewd businesswoman who knew the industry inside out and read all her husband’s contracts minutely.
If born today, Mrs Smart is convinced Beryl would be running a multi-national company. And Mr Howard believes a lot of her reputation is based on the memories of men who did not like dealing with a woman of business.
The authors chose Formby’s famous catchphrase as their book title. They also hope, by putting the record straight, that it’s also “turned out nice again” for his memory.
It’s Turned Out Nice Again! is published in hardback by Melrose Books at £15.99.