Wednesday, September 22, 2010

George Formby and Beryl Ingham – Does Your Dream Book Tell You That?


I've been working for some time on improving my imperfect sleeping patterns and habits.  

It's an "ups-and-downs" project. (I just realized -- that's kind of funny.)

Last night at my usual 3:34 a.m, when the full moon light was streaming onto my pillow,  I went downstairs because I wanted to check my memory about something pertaining to the famous English entertainer George Formby (real name George Hoy Booth), who was an enormously popular performer on the British stage, on records and in movies from the 1920s until his death in 1961.  Like Cliff Richard, the UK entertainer whose incredibly successful career now spans about the same amount of time, Formby's success never translated to the U.S, but his influence (unlike Cliff's) continues to be felt in a number of ways.


Watching Formby's performances in various Youtube clips (there are a lot of them, thank heavens) is highly enjoyable and eye-opening.  Despite his small stature and pleasant, but unprepossessing looks, Formby became a gigantic star. Like so many highly accomplished musical performers (for those readers who don't know, Formby was a singer who accompanied himself on an instrument known as the banjolele, which was a sort of combination banjo and ukulele), the trick is connecting with the audience by making difficult, complicated and wonderful things (in Formby's case, singing word-dense, silly but witty double-entendre lyrics  --  many by Noel Gay, writer of the immortal Lambeth Walk and Ali Baba’s Camel  -- quickly and clearly, while playing driving syncopated rhythms on the banjolele with ur-Pinball Wizard energy and force) look spontaneous and easy.  And although Formby was no Laurence Olivier as an actor, he reliably attracted large audiences in a number of successful movies.

One extremely attractive (although darkly shaded in parts) aspect of the Formby biography is the story of his long marriage to the beautiful singer and dancer Beryl Ingham, whom he married in 1924.  Beryl also became his personal manager and did a superb job guiding Formby to stardom and keeping him there, making a long series of very solid business deals for the family. (During his lifetime, Formby was Great Britain's highest paid entertainer.)  George and Beryl met while appearing on the same bill at the Royal Court Theater in Warrington, England and she initially she rebuffed his advances.  Formby persisted, however, traveling to the Ingham family home in Darwen , where he paraded under her bedroom window singing:

How I love these Darwen girls
With their bright and sunny curls
From their red and ruby lips
I get the tack of fish and chips

The story goes that although this post-midnight serenade enraged Beryl's father, Formby's nerve and ardor sufficiently impressed Beryl, both in the prospective husband and artist manager departments, that she formed an alliance and she and George married at the Wigan Registrar's Office on 13 September, 1924.

A key and enduring moment in the Formby-Ingham saga occurred during Formby’s 1946 concert tour of South Africa, two years before the official imposition of apartheid  policy.  The Formbys refused to have George play before racially segregated audiences.  According to Formby's biographer, when George was cheered by a black audience after embracing a small black girl who had presented his wife with a box of chocolates, Beryl received a savage, upbraiding phone call from Daniel Francois Malan, the leader of the "Purified" National Party and the man who subsequently instituted apartheid when he became South Africa’s  prime minister in 1948.   

It is recorded that Beryl said to Malan: "Why don't you piss off you horrible little man?"

Daniel Franois Malan, Prime Minister, Republic of South Africa 1948-54

For US audiences, at least, not posting a link to a George Formby performance would be unfair.  There are so many enjoyable ones (including some really interesting outtakes when the theatrical mask drops and you can really see the technically adept professional musician at work), including performances of his most famous number Leaning On A Lamp Post (a Noel Gay song remade by Herman’s Hermits as an appealing British Invasion Hit), but one I like a lot is this lovely number, Does Your Dream Book Tell You That?  Although it's a completely different genre, it reminds me of my favorite dream song, I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby by the Louvin Brothers.  Maybe it’s the similarity of sounds of the plinking banjolele and Ira Louvin’s mandolin; possibly it’s simply the sincerity of the performance and the dream and romantic subject matter.

The Louvin Brothers (Ira in back, Charlie in front) 

I mentioned that Formby’s influence persisted long after his career.  You can hear his playing style strongly in Pete Townshend’s rhythm guitar work and there’s a tang of Formby in Ray Davies’ and Ian Dury’s approaches (although there’s a tang of Max Miller there also), but Formby's great and most famous disciple was George Harrison of the Beatles, whose dedication to Formby’s music extended to banjolele and ukulele playing under any and all circumstances, banjolele collecting (including Formby’s own instruments), banjolele gifting (there is a very funny story involving the musician Tom Petty and the gift of the seven exquisite banjoleles)  and participation in George Formby Appreciation Society work, even (and especially) to the point of giving annual  private performances at Society meetings when the rest of the world was denied personal appearances by the Quiet Beatle.

George Formby's gold-plated banjolele (later acquired by George Harrison) 

George Harrison wasn’t the only George Formby fan in the Beatles, who succeeded Formby as Britain's highest earning entertainers.  As a youth, John Lennon, when taken to Blackpool for summer holidays, would haunt the front of the Formby residence, where he would wave to and grin at George and Beryl when they left on engagements and errands.

In a bittersweet ending, Beryl and George were indeed star-fated lovers and mates.  Beryl died at the end of 1960 from leukemia at their house, Beryldene, in Lytham, St. Anne's on the Fylde coast.  George, still a beloved and amazingly popular figure, died bereft of his mate (but already with a new fiancee) less than four months later.  100,000 mourners lined the funeral route in Liverpool.


In June 1961, several months after Formby’s death, an estate sale of the great entertainer’s possessions was conducted which, though small by comparison with the later, somewhat vulgar Jacqueline Onassis “sale of the century” at Sotheby’s in New York, was the biggest thing at the time on the Fylde coast.  All of Formby’s property was auctioned (“even George’s underpants” according to the Beryldene’s current owner, Peter Fairclough), and reading through the catalogue listings you gain a picture of George’s and Beryl’s lives and their tastes, which range, like most of ours, from the ridiculous to the sublime.  Of all the items that went under the hammer, I think Item No.1 is the one I would like to have most (apart from the Bentley S.2 4 door saloon motorcar).  It is described as: “Pottery wall vase, Flying Goose”.

Beryldene with current owners pictured 


  1. Thanks, an enjoyable read, good photos too.

  2. Thanks Stephen. It's very kind of you to write. This one meant a lot to me, so I'm glad you enjoyed it. Please visit again soon. I try to keep things interesting and varied. We love Ireland. You're reaching me in glorious Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. Curtis