zip goes a million

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 uncomprehending girlfriend Sally.

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

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 occasion.

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.

first appearance

"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 Palace Theatre.

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 "Starlight Roof".

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 sea.

ill health

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 Pamela Foster.

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 created.
© Kurt Gänzl

Zip Goes A Million
A musical extravaganza in two acts by Erich Mashwitz, adapted from Brewster's Millions by C.B. McCutcheon, Windhill Smith and Byron Ongley.
Music by George Posford
Produced at the Hippodrome Theatre, Coventry under the management of Emile Littler 4 September 1951 for 2 weeks and played at Manchester from 17 September 1951 for 4 weeks to 16 October 1951.
Opened at the Palace Theatre, London on 20 October 1951 for a run of 544 performances closing on 7 February 1953.

The Cast:
Kelly/Sheriff McOwen/Eddie/Principal Dancer - Ian Stuart
Lilac Delaney - Barbara Perry followed by Pamela Foster (also calledPamela Charles)
Buddy Delaney - Warde Donovan
Jed Harper/Lefty/Wireless Op. - John Marquand
Motty Whittle - Wallace Eaton later Keith James
Sara Whittle - Sara Gregory
Percy Piggott - George Formby then Reg Dixon, on tour Charlie Chester
George Connolly/Captain - Wilfred Caithness
Pamela Van Norden - Phoebe Kershaw