I thought talking to John Walley would follow the normal pattern for an interview: you know, date of birth, hobbies and interests, that sort of thing. I knew about his local reputation as a fine actor and his interest in comedian George Formby but what evolved in our meeting was nothing short of extraordinary and, in parts, quite moving. However, let’s start with his ukulele-playing hero.
To members of the George Formby Society wherever they may be, John Walley is someone greatly admired for his devotion to the memory of their hero. John is a founder member who in September 1961 helped to form the George Formby Society and was made an honorary member in 1973. Moreover, when the society celebrated its Golden Jubilee in 2011 John was presented with ‘The Golden Jubilee’ award and was honoured to be asked to switch on the famous Blackpool Illuminations. In a recent TV documentary the comedian Frank Skinner introduced him as ‘our George Formby mastermind.’ John was the secretary of the GFS from 1962-1973, edited the Vellum for seven years and usually arranged the programme for the weekend conventions in Blackpool. He suffered an ulcer in 1973 which plagued him constantly and forced him to miss several conventions. He says he still has ‘problems’ today but he hasn’t missed a meeting for over thirty years. When the society has a special occasion such as a particular birthday or anniversary then John comes to the fore and helps to arrange it all and presents the event. He is particularly interested in Formby’s films and says that he never tires of watching them for the hundredth time. He believes that George’s success on the screen (he was Britain’s top box-office star for six consecutive years) distinguishes him from all of his contemporaries, including Gracie Fields.I’m talking to John in his ‘den’ at his home where there are cupboards and drawers stuffed with Formby memorabilia: original photographs, songs copies, rare letters from George’s many admirers and pride of place in his ukulele collection is the uke George used in the film ‘Keep Your Seats Please’ to sing the iconic number ‘When I’m Cleaning Windows.’ Lots of items catch the eye: two telegrams from George’s mother arranging a visit to the GFS, a letter from George’s fiancé vPat Howson, a badge from the pre-war George Formby Club, letters from Reg Dixon (who took over from George in ‘Zip Goes A Million’,) Eddie Latta, from Ethel Formby (George’s sister), comedian Larry Grayson and Eric Maschwitz who wrote ‘Zip’ and even a lovely piece of correspondence from Buckingham Palace! But how did it all start?
In love with the theatre
For no reason he can think of, in the 1950’s John fell in love with the theatre. He had been given the leading roles in three school productions, which undoubtedly started it all, and in 1956 his parents took him to the Theatre Royal in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, to see a play starring George Formby. John says, “It was called ‘Too Young To Marry’ and halfway through George brought his uke out of a cupboard and sang and played. It was amazing! The play had to stop and I went home a Formby fan.” He had liked George years before but that was the first time he had seen him in the theatre and the love affair began. From then to the present day he has ‘lived and breathed Formby’. His expertise has been called upon many times. In 1991 he helped to organise the Formby Exhibition in Warrington, which celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of George’s death. In the same year John, the actor, was offered the leading role in ‘Zip Goes A Million’ at the Mitchel Memorial Theatre. Television appearances have included, ‘The Ukelele Man’ (1971), ‘Halls of Fame’ (1994), ‘Applause! Applause!’ (1967), ‘Forty Minutes (1982), ‘The South Bank Show’ (1992), ‘Going Live’ with Philip Schofield (1990), ‘Collectors’ Lot’ (1997),’ ‘Frank Skinner on George Formby’ (2010) and several radio programmes.His love for George has enabled him to meet many celebrities: Arthur Askey (‘lovely’), Jimmy Clitheroe (‘quiet and shy’), Ken Dodd (‘genuine’), Alan Whicker (‘aloof’), Betty Driver (‘nice’), Roy Hudd (‘a bit pompous’), American crooner Johnnie Ray (‘sweet’), Marti Webb (‘a bit aloof’), Anita Harris (‘lovely and modest’), old timer Leslie Sarony (‘rather fragile’), Alan Randall (‘a business man’), Eddie Latta (‘liked his whisky’), Pat Howson (‘seemed genuine’), and even George’s mother, his sisters, and his brother Frank. John looked quite embarrassed ‘dropping all these names’ but said that he enjoyed every minute! One event he is really ‘chuffed’ about is when the BBC, in 2004, instructed all its local radio stations nationwide to choose six people from their area to talk about their lives and interests under the running title of ‘The Century Speaks’- an in depth interview with people from all walks of life. Radio Stoke programme chose John and such was the quality of content and presentation that his reading was chosen out of several hundreds to be stored in the BBC archive in London. He admits being very lucky. Luck, however, played an enormous role in his early life and his story is rather moving so it is better told by himself.
“When I was about fourteen my parents told me that I was adopted; it had little effect on me because my life thus far had been so happy but the circumstances of my birth are quite dramatic. I was born on 27th August 1942 in Menston Hall, a manor house in the village of Menston, near Ilkley, in Yorkshire. My birth mother, apparently, was attacked on her way to the hall, raped, and the result was me! An unmarried woman with a baby was at that time shall we say ‘a problem’. My name then was John Dodman - Bednall; sounds very posh doesn’t it? I never knew my birth father. Anyway, I was given away and sent to an orphanage in Leeds but what happened next was the greatest and most wonderful thing – I was adopted by Mr and Mrs Walley, Thomas and Nellie and you must believe me when I tell you that my life with them was just idyllic. They spoiled me rotten (in the nicest way), gave me a private education and supported me in everything I did. Without them I dread to think where I would have ended up.”John then became rather serious. Amazingly, he has a sister he has never seen; he met his birth mother some years ago and discovered that he had two half brothers. At first everything went well and they met several times but he has now lost contact and does not wish to say any more. His only regret is that he has never found his sister. I tried to elicit more from him but he politely refused. He just emphasised that his adoption by two wonderful people was an act of pure love and joy and he still thinks about them every day.
Learned the acting craft
John’s parents encouraged his love for the theatre and I can vouch personally that John Walley is a very fine actor but this is one area of his life that very few in the Formby Society know about and only a serious illness in 1960 prevented him from turning pro. He was offered a job as ASM at the Harrogate Rose Theatre, Yorkshire, but peritonitis from a burst appendix put paid to that. Instead he trained as a teacher and was educated at Lawton Hall and Alsager College. For ten years he learned his acting craft at the Mitchel Memorial Theatre in Stoke on Trent playing everything from disillusioned teenage sons and comic characters to lawyers and homicidal maniacs! He watched how more experienced actors timed their lines, how they ‘sniffed’ the audience and how they developed their characters.After appearing in twenty two plays in ten years, John was offered the leading role in ‘The Philadelphia Story’ with the Stoke on Trent Repertory Company in 1970 and there he has remained to this present day appearing in fifty five plays to date. He also ventured into variety and musicals playing in ‘My Fair Lady’ (twice), ‘The Dancing Years’, ‘Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’, ‘Mac and Mabel’, ‘The war-time musical ‘Happy As A Sandbag’ (as George), ‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’ and one of his favourites ‘Underneath The Arches’, the story of Flanagan and Allen. In 1991 he was asked to play George Formby’s character Percy Piggott in ‘Zip Goes A Million’ – a production to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of his hero’s death. It was a huge success in the area, playing to capacity houses thanks to the show’s director who acquired some of the ‘flats’ from the original production at the Palace Theatre, London.
Parents at every opening night
Until their deaths, John’s parents were there at every opening night proudly watching their son doing what he loved. Also in 1991 John helped to organise the Warrington Formby Exhibition, which was visited by about 45,000 people and he still has all the photos and layout plans. He shows me a list of all the plays in which he has acted and it’s very impressive. Asked to choose some favourites he picks ‘The Power and The Glory’ (1963) as an idealistic police officer, ‘The Man’ (1979) as a homicidal maniac, ‘Forty Years On’ (1986) by Alan Bennett playing the role of Tempest a rather ‘peculiar’ public school master and ‘Noises Off’ (1989) by Michael Frayn in which he portrayed a rather limp-wristed actor. It was so successful that the run had to be extended because of the demand for tickets.While appearing in ‘Toad of Toad Hall’ John met Gill who was the ‘props mistress’ at Stoke Rep. They fell in love and married in 1987 and recently celebrated their thirtieth anniversary. John does about fifty ‘gigs’ a year spreading the Formby gospel and Gill always accompanies him as sound engineer and they both thoroughly enjoy it. He says that Formby’s Story is an incredible one and audiences are amazed when they realise what George senior and junior achieved.When John works in the theatre he says he is always a little tense waiting to go on particularly if he has a leading role, but he mentions two occasions when he was not at all nervous but should have been. In 1977 he was asked to do a Formby tribute at – wait for it – the most famous theatre in the world; not the Palladium but the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford –upon Avon in a show commissioned by the Royal British Legion. John says, “ I couldn’t believe I was standing on the same stage that every great actor had done – Olivier, Gielgud, Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole etc. There I was in a show with a company of stars. I was the only person on the bill I’d never heard of! I was too excited to be nervous! Another show was in London for the BBC called ‘Going Live’ a children’s Saturday Show hosted by Philip Schofield and Sarah Green. We rehearsed on the Friday and then went ‘live’ on Saturday. Gill and I, along with my pianist, Stephen Hearson stayed in a lovely hotel and had a memorable weekend.”
Port Vale FC
Away from the theatre John’s other love is football and he is one of the vice-presidents of his local club Port Vale. Gill, too, goes with him and he is still trying to explain to her the ‘off-side’ rule. He tells her that the ‘off-side’ rule is a bit like her cooking – very mysterious but you have to put up with it! One of John’s heroes was the late Sir Stanley Matthews who was general manager of Port Vale in the late 1960’s. “I met Sir Stanley on numerous occasions and was delighted to learn that he was a fan of George Formby who came to watch him playing many times when he was at Blackpool. “I think Sir Stanley was like George in many ways- modest, talented and quietly spoken. Way back in March 1954 George was appearing in Variety at the Victoria Hall in Stoke and Port Vale were playing Blackpool in a famous FA Cup Match. Stan got tickets for George and Beryl and I sat two rows behind them not daring to speak! Vale beat Black pool 2-0 and went on to the semi-finals. George wasn’t too pleased about that and neither was Stanley Matthews!”
Our talk now returns to Formby because I am curious to understand why he is still so popular 56 years after his death and over seventy years since he was at the peak of his career. John explains, “It could be argued that George Formby is not everybody’s cup of tea but the British are, of course, avid tea-drinkers! George had a warmth that is peculiar to those who don’t have great pretensions and to those who, through sheer hard work and talent, reach the top. If you look carefully at George, especially when the film camera pans in for a close-up, you can see why: the eyes, the face that only a mother could love, the goofy teeth, the infectious laugh, the corn-crake voice and the sound of his uke. They all fit together perfectly, complimenting each other and delivering a wonderful experience. You can’t imagine George doing anything else.In spite of his fame, his wealth and his talent he never lost the common touch and that is why, unlike some other ‘Northerners’ he was popular all over Britain. Moreover, his tireless work during the war entertaining an estimated four million allied troops endeared him to all classes. The O.B.E. he received from King George VI in 1946 was rather modest – he should have got more. However, I still believe that George, even today, suffers from being stereotyped. It angers me when wartime programmes on TV and Radio seem always to contain a Vera Lynn number. Vera was and still is a great artiste but so is George. It is a pity that he died so young and didn’t enter fully into the television age. He is, annoyingly, either forgotten or just overlooked by those who should know better and whose research for such programmes is sadly lacking.Ukulele groups are sprouting up all over the country – there probably isn’t a town or city without one – but a lot of them don’t do Formby. What they really mean is they can’t do Formby and believe that he songs are ‘unsuitable’. Rubbish! I can offer them an instant cure: sit in a room and watch George’s last TV show (The Friday Show). When it’s over ask yourselves if you watched a ‘cloth capped’ Northerner, a ‘nit-wit’, a ‘banjo’ player singing dubious songs. I think you will have a clearer and fairer picture of George Formby.”
The George Formby Society
As our afternoon draws to a close I ask John about the George Formby Society and why it is still thriving. “It’s because of George himself, the songs, the ukulele, the infectious experience it all brings. The members are so loyal and there are no ‘stars’ and it is especially wonderful to see the younger lads and lasses singing his songs and strumming their ukes. We have a talented band, ukulele classes, a Formby shop, displays of archive material, we show Formby’s films and talk about our hero. The whole weekend is wonderful. Over the years friendships have been made and people genuinely care about each other and it is all because of George. I am immensely proud to have played my part in its success right from day one and even after all these years there is often something new and exciting.We have recently discovered George’s O.B.E, his silver disc for ‘Cleaning Windows’ and many hitherto unseen photographs and press articles. The Formby Story goes on and on. George was unique, a one off, simple as that and such people are never forgotten. I ask if the GFS is better now than it was in the early years. “I don’t want to go down that road,” he replies. “The GFS was absolutely brilliant fifty six years ago because everyone loved George and played the uke. The GFS today is absolutely brilliant for the same reason. At every convention someone always comes to me and says: ‘Hey, you’re John Walley, you helped to start all this, it’s amazing!’ I always reply that it’s not really difficult to start anything, the difficult part is keeping it going and the reason the GFS is here today is because of the loyalty over fifty years of the thousands of members, alas no longer with us, and the enthusiasm of the good people who are here today.”
”One word sums up my life – ‘lucky’”
Our meeting is drawing to a close and I have to confess that talking to John Walley gives you a feeling that you want to just carry on talking about all that interests this man, as though you suspect that he hasn’t quite told you everything that’s happened over his seventy five years. You would have liked to have dug deeper and heard more about what he has experienced and what he really thought about the famous and not so famous people he has met. I would have loved more information about his years as an actor, the shows, the plays, the reviews.John concludes by telling me, ”One word sums up my life – ‘lucky’”. I was lucky to have been adopted by two wonderful people, lucky to have been given an idyllic life and a good education, lucky to have been able to earn a living doing a job I love, lucky to have always had a few quid in my pocket, lucky to have met so many people, and, of course, lucky to have met and married Gill. I have also been lucky to have kicked the ‘grim-reaper’ into touch on two occasions but that’s all in the past.J.D.B. 2017
john walley - profile of a founder member
“Our George Formby Mastermind”
18 months old with a toy from the orphanage
With Eddie Waring - 1971
In Variety - 1989
Theatre publicty photo - 1963
With his beloved parents, Nellie and Thomas
Ready for Port Vale?
ABC TV - 1967
Editor of The Vellum 1964 - 1975 and createdhis own illustrations.