Wednesday, May 23, 2012

An Interview with David Bret, Author of George Formby: A Troubled Genius

Though largely unknown in the United States, even in his heyday of the 1930s and 1940s, George Formby was one of the biggest stars in the history of British entertainment. Born George Hoy Booth in the Northern English town of Wigan in 1904, Formby was the heir of a rich music-hall tradition that harks back to Victorian England. His was a very personal take on the kind of music that can be heard in the wonderful Alberto Cavalcanti movie, Champagne Charlie (1944), which spotlights the sounds of the late nineteenth-century British music-hall. In fact, before Formby himself, his father, George Formby, Sr., enjoyed a very successful career as one of the best-loved music-hall acts of his time, a career which was only cut short by his failing health. George Formby would go on to surpass his father's popularity with British audiences, and in a span of forty years, he was a favorite on the stage, on radio, and in movies. Many of his hit songs, like "When I'm Cleaning Windows," "With My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock," and "With My Little Ukelele in My Hand," thrive on a kind of humor that is rife with double entendres, which often got George in trouble with the official BBC censors, who did not think that such songs were fit to be broadcast. In any case, audiences in Britain and abroad loved them and heartily welcomed Formby wherever he appeared, accompanied by his inseparable banjo-uke.

Biographer David Bret
Back in 1999, biographer David Bret published the first comprehensive book on George Formby's life and career, detailing not only his very interesting life but also his experiences in showbusiness. The book, entitled George Formby: A Troubled Genius (Robson Books), is currently out of print in the United States, but I was fortunate enough to obtain a copy, and after reading it, decided to contact Mr. Bret and ask for an interview so as to discuss the book and Formby's career. The author readily agreed to give freely of his time to answer the many questions that the reading of his work suggested. Born in France though brought up in England, Mr. Bret began writing biographies in 1987, as he tells us, "encouraged by my friend, the French chanteuse Barbara." Since then, he has presented to the reading public the life stories of legends such as Clark Gable, Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier, and Doris Day, to name but a few. Being a lesser-known name when compared to these big stars, then, one might wonder what it was about George Formby that spurred the author on to write his biography. "He still has a big following in the United Kingdom," Mr. Bret replies. "And I had also previously written a biography of Gracie Fields." Doing the research for the book took the biographer several years, during which he collected a great deal of material for future use in the work. "As a biographer, I don't omit anything unless it's libelous, and as most of my subjects are dead..."

Mr. Bret's biography of George Formby is certainly a page-turner, written in a very dynamic style and full of interesting details that help us understand Formby's development both as an artist and as a person. The book also explores the singer's unusual relationship with his wife, Beryl, which sometimes looked more like a business partnership than a marital affair, and it sheds interesting light on their fundraising activities and efforts to entertain the British troops during World War II. The biography discusses at length Mr. and Mrs. Formby's open rejection of apartheid during two 1950s tours of South Africa, where they insisted, against the wishes of the authorities, on playing in front of black audiences. Their very forward stance opposing any kind of racism would, of course, cause them difficulties with the segregationist South African government, resulting in their being forced to cut short their first tour of that country and promptly return to England. I chatted about these and other aspects of George Formby's life and artistry with Mr. Bret, and now I offer the readers of The Vintage Bandstand the full contents of our conversation:

The Vintage Bandstand: Let us talk a little about Mr. Formby's career. Before George's rise to prominence, his father, George Formby, Sr., had been one of the foremost stars in British vaudeville. What role did Formby, Sr., play in his son's future vocation and subsequent career?

Mr. Bret: His father was his greatest inspiration, but the younger George superseded him, and now Formby, Sr., is almost forgotten.

TVB: George Formby's success was phenomenal in Great Britain, his native country, as well as in other places such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. In your opinion, why did he not achieve a similar stature in the United States?

A studio photograph of George Formby, Sr.
Mr. Bret: Americans have a different style of humor, and most of his songs were about the North of England, which Americans wouldn't have understood or worked out. Also, his peak was his films in wartime Britain; he only came to the United States afterwards, when it was all over.

TVB: Your book shows that many London critics were extremely harsh on Mr. Formby mainly because of his northern English upbringing. Why was there at the time such an animosity against performers from the North of England?

Mr. Bret: There always has been, and to a certain extent there still is, a North/South divide, almost like your Civil War at times. For a time it was impossible to be popular in both. The South had the likes of Max Miller. Gracie Fields was the only one to bridge the gap.

TVB: We read in the book, also, that Mr. Formby was not satisfied with his movies, many of which he wished he could redo. How can you explain their enormous popularity with the viewing public of the 1930s and 1940s?

Mr. Bret: George Formby identified with ordinary people. The plots were sillyish, and he always got the girl—conquering the North/South divide. Because he was so unattractive, the ladies were snooty and posh. It wouldn't have happened in real life. Then, after the war, with the likes of James Mason and Margaret Lockwood, this type of film became outdated. People wanted romance and adventure.

TVB: Mr. Formby was a very unique stylish, a man fully capable of carrying a whole show on his shoulders. What do you thin were the secrets of his success?

Mr. Bret: The fact that what you saw was what you got—no airs or graces!

TVB: From reading your book, we get the distinct impression that Mr. Formby's marriage to his wife, Beryl, was more a business partnership than a conjugal relationship. Could you comment briefly on this?

George and Beryl Formby in 1950
Mr. Bret: This was northern England at the time—you made your bed and you had to lie on it. Few Northerners got divorced. She had her young men; he had his leading ladies. With her it was because she was attractive and a power in a man's world, where show business was concerned. He had the money! They argued a lot and were typical of their breed, but they could never have coped without each other—it was Beryl who made him.

TVB: For an artist who was so immensely popular and whose recording career lasted for about 36 years, George Formby entered the studio in comparatively few occasions. Why didn't he get around to making more commercial recordings in his lifetime?

Mr. Bret: As it happens today, he preferred to stick with the chosen formula. I would have liked him to have sung a few more serious songs, as Gracie Fields did, because he could put these over very well.

TVB: The flap of the book mentions that you are "Britain's foremost authority on the French music-hall." As an enthusiast of the French chanson myself, I have to ask you how this passion began for you...

Mr. Bret: I was brought up with it, weaned on Edith Piaf, coming from France and speaking the language. The only singers America had in that vein, in my opinion, were names like Jane Froman and Billie Holiday.

TVB: In what ways does Mr. Formby's music resemble the French music-hall? And what divergences, if any, would you point out?

Mr. Bret: His songs are in the same vein as Mayol and early Chevalier—they look at life as it really is, and they make fun of the more tragic aspects.

TVB: There are many compilations of George Formby's music available on CD, including two monumental boxsets released by JSP Records. In your opinion, what is the future of Mr. Formby's recorded legacy? Will future generations still be interested in his music?

Mr. Bret: I think his legacy is secure. He has a cult following which I feel will always be there.

TVB: And, finally, could you share with our readers any projects in which you are currently involved? Perhaps a biography of one of my favorite French crooners, Jean Sablon?

Mr. Bret: I covered Jean Sablon, to a certain extent, in my biography of Mistinguett. My next book, coming out next month, is about Greta Garbo, whom I met by way of Barbara at one of her shows.


If you would like further information about the works of David Bret, you can visit his personal website.

For more information on George Formby, please visit the website of the George Formby Society.

Videos from YouTube







No comments: