This George Formby was the father of the better-known comedian and
ukulele player, whose films are still seen on television. Formby
Senior was born in 1877: his real name was James Booth.
He was the archetypal Northern comedian. Comics from the South of
England tended to be brash and outgoing, impressing the audience with
how clever they were. In the North this sort of style was not at all
popular: Northern comics tended to be self-deprecating, bullied by
their women, and often presented themselves as being adrift in the
big city while thinking themselves sophisticated. This last theme can
be heard in both the records here.
Formby started life working in a Manchester iron foundry, where he
picked up a bronchial cough which he later made a feature of his act
- his catchphrase, "Coughing better tonight" struck a chord with his
audience, many of whom would probably die from the same disease - as
did Formby himself, in 1921.
In the first record, he present himself as a henpecked husband in
true northern style. Incidentally, the 'lady' who asks his character
"Have we not met before?" in the first chorus would have been
recognized by the audiences of the time as a prostitute - no
respectable woman would address a strange man in the street.
'John Willie - Come On!' (Jumbo 170)
rec. in London, c. September 1908.
mp3 file (1.5MB)
In the second, he is adrift without the wife in London, convinced
that he is as sophisticated and wild as the young men about town (the
'West' being the West End of London - Piccadilly Circus, Leicester
Square and the theatres and music halls).
'Playing The Game In The West'
rec. in London. c. August 1910.
mp3 file (1.4MB)
His son started in much the same vein - indeed doing his father's
material - and went on to develop the style. Interestingly, in his
earlier films he is the typical northern 'gowk', bullied by his
womenfolk and fairly useless (until he saves the day in the last
reel); by the later films the character had softened and was also
more self-assured, talking back to the women and taking some charge
of situations. This was to broaden the appeal to southern audiences,
who were never keen on the 'wet Willie' type of northern comic.
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