At the end of the 19th century, Britain had a lively Music Hall scene that provided a steady staple of homegrown music and comedy for its working-class populace; it held its own and sustained a strong national identity that paralleled America’s Vaudeville entertainment. However, with the emergence of jazz and the rise of Hollywood at the turn of the century, Britain’s popular music consumption soon became (largely) American.
Though the traditional Music Halls remained, and the indigenous folk music of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales continued to flourish in regional pockets, the influx of jazz-oriented sounds from the US transformed Britain into a second home for “big band” jazz, turning many of its once-indigenous Music Halls into American-styled dance halls. By the 1930s, although Britain had developed its own burgeoning big band scene, most of its acts were little more than pale imitations of their American counter-parts.
Overall, Britain contributed little in the way of innovative popular music during the first half of the 20th century; understandably, it was rather more busy dealing with pre-war and war-time responsibilities, which hit rather closer to home than they had in the US. Indeed, the music that was performed or played through the monopolistic BBC radio channels was largely utilitarian in purpose, there to serve as relief for the troops and a nation under threat from beyond.
While the forerunners of rock were starting to line up on the US side of the Atlantic, a UK youth looking for new energies had no alternatives but to look West and learn. Yet, despite this all-encompassing American dominance, Britain offered a few bright sparks that neither sounded American nor looked like Hollywood stars, the most shining of which was George Formby, the premier musical comedian of his era.
Born in Wigan, Lancashire, in 1904, Formby grew up in the shadow of his father, who was a successful actor and comedian in the Edwardian Music Halls. When, in 1921, he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps, young George began to craft a distinct persona that would serve him well for his subsequent 40-year career on stage and in film. The Formby image was the British equivalent of American country “rube” humorists like Uncle Dave Macon and Minnie Pearl.
Inseparable from his “banjolele” (a hybrid banjo and ukulele), his was caricature humor, and his persona was that of the innocent underdog, a loser simpleton with a winning charm. Like the “rube” humor of American country music, Formby’s songs were self-mocking, modest realizations of comic inadequacies. Also like “rube” humor, such self-effacing wit produced an inverse pride, a gritty resilience in the face of outside forces. The key basis and impetus for this apparently paradoxical identity was social class.
More than in the US, Britain’s rigid class structure formed schisms across the cultural landscape, separating rich from poor, leaders from laborers, region from region—essentially, upper-class from working-class. Formby’s humor spoke for the working-classes and did so through their localized diction and vernacular.
Exaggerating his Lancastrian accent and littering his songs with Northern colloquialisms and imagery, Formby created an unpretentious lad-on-the-street image that set itself against the serious and self-absorbed upper-crust. Not surprisingly, his doggedly raw persona was reflected upon in the critical reviews he received from the press as he elevated up the British entertainment hierarchy. Elitist London critics were befuddled by his child-like antics and songs-of-the-everyday, while working-class folk—young and old, male and female—related with elation to his earthy authenticity and self-deprecating “fool” antics.
Although the bulk of Formby’s songs (he cut over 230 records) were comically inoffensive, even wholesome, a large number were risqué, even by the American jazz and blues standards of the time. Full of cheeky wordplay and double entendres, Formby continually tweaked the sensibilities of the staunchly conservative British establishment with saucy narratives that left little to the imagination. Though the overseers at the BBC deemed some of these songs NFTBB (not fit to be broadcast), Formby’s fanatical mass popularity, coupled with his disarming “innocence,” kept serious censorship at bay.
His most popular risqué number was “The Window Cleaner”, which charted the various sights encountered by that particular tradesman while climbing up and down his ladder. “Pajamas lying side by side, ladies nighties I have spied / I’ve often seen what goes inside when I’m cleaning windows”, he recounts, followed by, “Honeymooning couples, too / You can see them bill and coo / You’d be surprised at things they do / When I’m cleaning windows”.
Another song, “There’s Nothing Proud About Me”, boasts of its narrator’s down-to-earth character, and again uses a working-class service job as the vehicle to some behind-the-scenes fun and frivolity: “I’ve called to look at your front street doorbell / But I don’t mind if I overhaul you as well. / There’s nothing proud about me.” Phallic innuendo spices up other songs of apparent innocence, as titles such as “You Can’t Keep a Growing Lad Down”, “With My Little Ukelele in Hand”, and “With My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock” might suggest.
These lyrical charms were not Formby’s only comedic weapons, either. His comic timing and enunciation of dialect revealed a master at his craft, and his physical humor arrived au naturel, by virtue of a distinctly funny face and graveyard-toothed grin. These he parlayed to good effect in the 19 films he featured in between 1934 and 1946, each of which served as platforms for George’s banjolele and singing talents, as well as his good-hearted but accident-prone character.
Though the movie plots were never less than predictable and their comedy largely slapstick fare, subversive elements pertinent to the times were often integrated into the action. Let George Do It includes a dream sequence in which our intrepid hero punches Hitler on the nose and addresses him as a “windbag”. Such Chaplin-esque topical humor went down well not only with the British fighting forces but with the allies, too.
Besides receiving an OBE from his motherland for his comedic contributions in 1946, Formby was also honored with a Stalin Prize from the Russians in 1944. Hitler, though, was rather less celebratory, responding to Formby’s filmic slights by ordering that all banjos and ukeleles be burned.
Beyond the screen, too, Formby was not averse to standing up for his principles. While on tour in South Africa in 1946, George and his wife Beryl raised the ire of the then National Party leader of that apartheid nation, Daniel François Malan, by playing to black audiences and openly embracing the adoring black children. When Malan expressed his outrage over their behavior, Beryl responded with some home-baked Northern candor, telling him to “piss off you horrible little man.”
Though lacking the necessary good looks, youth bravado, or teen spirit of romance to influence the first waves of American rock ‘n’ roll, and perhaps too parochially English to fully translate too far from British shores, the legacy of George Formby can be seen far and wide across the British humor of the second half of the 20th century. His saucy lyrical wit and social class consciousness vividly live on in the comedy of Benny Hill, the Carry-On films, and Monty Python, while his Lancastrian pride, edginess, and dialect are imprinted on any number of rock acts, particularly those hailing from the North of England, such as Herman’s Hermits, Freddie & the Dreamers, and the Macc Lads from the Manchester area, or The Beatles, Cilla Black, and Frankie Goes To Hollywood from nearby Liverpool. Though the working-class Music Halls may have declined with the arrival of the 20th century, their spirit and essence lingered in George Formby, Britain’s most beloved saucy singing superstar of the pre-rock decades.
A rare original for his day, Britain produced few other home-grown performers besides Formby capable of distracting the nation from its fascinations for, fantasies of, and addictions to American popular music. As such, between the 1930s and the ‘50s, he stood as something of an aberrant figure of national distinction, a lone singing subversive swimming against the currents of prevailing American cultural imports and influence.
Formby’s provocative contributions to his own culture would not go un-noticed by his fellow country-folk, though, who made him one the world’s biggest stars during his late ‘30s heyday, then later paid tribute to him at his funeral in 1961 when more than 150,000 mourners paid homage to the man who propelled and popularized working-class British humor into the distinctive brand, style, and aesthetic that future generations would inherit.
The above essay is an outtake from Subversive Rock Humorists, a forthcoming book project to be published by PopMatters and Soft Skull Press.