In the years that followed
the end of World War II,
George Formby and his
music were not as
popular with the general
public. People were tired
of the war and all the
hardship and suffering
that they had endured
throughout the long
struggle. Even the great
Winston Churchill was
swept aside as people
searched for a fresh start
and a new beginning.
George Formby had made his last film in 1946 and after recording the
songs from this film he also stopped making records. George instead,
decided that his country still needed him and he toured the
Commonwealth, working for Britain in the same unstinting way that he
had done throughout the war years.
It was therefore a major challenge to George when he took on the role
of Percy Piggott in the musical production of "Zip Goes A Million", with
the prospect of taking the show in to the West End of London. George
always assumed (wrongly as it turned out) that his brand of humour
was more suited to the provinces and he thought that the more
sophisticated theatre-going public in the capital would never be
comfortable with his homely brand of humour and his cheeky songs.
Easily the most successful home-grown piece of 1951 was Zip Goes A
Million, a musical version of another popular play, the American
comedy Brewsters Millions, a hit of Broadway in 1906 and the
following year in London.
Brewsters Millions had for its hero, the simple Brewster who in order
to inherit a multi-million dollar fortune, is obliged to spend a million in
double-quick time without letting anyone know what he is up to.
It was a story which had
plenty of comic scope, and
Eric Maschwitz was able to
take advantage of all the best
parts of this original play in
composing his libretto around
the popular figure of
Lancashire variety and film
star George Formby, the
gormless little fellow with the
ukulele who had won his way
into the public's hearts.
For Formby, Brewster
became Percy Piggott, a
Lancashire window cleaner (a
reference to his famous song
"When I'm Cleaning
Windows") whose attempts to
spend his money in New York
get him involved with the
production of a musical
comedy, the stock market and
the race track all of which
against the odds, insist on
making him a profit.
Even the depredations of the
shady banker Van Norden
and his seductive daughter
fail to separate Percy from his
money or from his
The second act, set in a good
old fashioned way on a South
Sea isle, has Percy invoked
with a yacht which he
succeeds in getting smashed
up and salvaged at great
expense while personal
conflicts fly in all directions
but, finally he manages to get
rid of the last dollars just in
time for the fatal hour and
everything ends happily.
The music was the work of
George Posford and he, like
Maschwitz, turned turned out
some of his brightest and
most popular work for the
Formby did not monopolise
the show's songs. A charming
duet from Sally and her father
(Wallace Eaton) called
"Trouble With My Heart" was,
like Formby's songs, in an English music-hall vein, but the other
principal pieces were featured by Warde Donovan and Barbara Perry
as Buddy and Lila Delaney, the American author and star respectively
of Percy's musical, "Garter Girl."
He featured with a line-up of South Pacific-like sailors in "Running
Away To Land" and in more romantic mood in "Nothing Breaks But
The Heart" and "It Takes No Time To Fall In Love", while she sang and
danced 'The Story Of Chiquita' and 'Garter Girl', sequences from the
show within a show, as well as joining her partner in two duets.
The numbers contrasted usefully with the homespun of the star
numbers and served to provide the show's production numbers.
"Zip Goes A Million" made it's first appearance on the stage of the
Hippodrome Coventry, for a fortnight's season and progressed to
Manchester where a slimming process got the show ready for the
But union troubles once more threatened to scupper a new show, as
Equity, anxious not to be left behind the Musicians Union in such
matters, instructed its members not to work with American Barbara
Perry in spite of the fact that she had already appeared in London in
Things were settled in time for the opening after inter-unions tantrums
had seemed likely for a while to do irreparable damage to the £40,000
production, and Zip Goes A Million opened safely at the Palace on 20
October 1951, confirming its out-of-town promise.
Formby scored the greatest success of his career, but the show was
by no means only him.
There was widespread praise for the 'tuneful songs' , 'lavish settings',
'humour and tremendous speed', 'a production which is slickness
itself' all of which made what Theatre World rightly declared to be, 'a
first-rate musical and a sturdy rival for any importation from across the
Zip Goes A Million stayed in the West End alongside South Pacific for
sixteen months,yielding nothing to that piece in vigour or popularity.
Its star, alas, did not survive with it. Only six months into the run,
George Formby suffered a heart attack and was obliged to withdraw
from the show.
He was replaced by another comedian, Reg ('Confidentially Yours')
Dixon, who saw the piece through to the end of its 544-performance
run and then took it on the road, starring opposite Pamela Charles,
who had issued from the London chorus where she had played as
Dixon toured in 1953 and 1954 before comic Charlie Chester took
over the subsequent tour.
These proliferating tours and later
overseas productions from Norway to
Australia proved Zip Goes A Million to
be a cheerfully comic entertainment
which could stand up solidly even
without the star for whom it had been
© Kurt Gänzl
A stage triumph