Gill Walley records the events of Frank Skinner in search of George Formby
Date: 2nd March 2010 at Poolside Cottage, Madeley.
Daniel Wiles to meet John, search through GF memorabilia and discuss the show ‘In Search Of George Formby’.Eighteen years had passed since Daniel Wiles last met John Walley to research his excellent South Bank Show documentary of George Formby. Daniel is himself a Formby fan, and member of the GFS. He studied for four years at Keele University (just two miles from the Walley’s home) and is now a much-respected freelance TV producer.Frank Skinner’s ‘In Search Of George Formby’ is one of a series of ‘searches’ and is due to be screened on BBC4. Another star is David Suchet (Agatha Christies’ Poirot) who is searching for the comedian Sid Field.
Before the visit:
The house was tidied! Carpets vacuumed, surfaces dusted, all clutter removed! (It was hidden in the nearest cupboard) and the best china re-discovered from its safe hiding place and dusted off! And then John had to learn to work the DVD player!! That was a task in itself! It took forty minutes during which he was continuously complaining about the mysteries of modern technology and a wife who spoke to him in her ‘teacher’s voice’ as if she was talking to a retarded eight year old!’ (Unfortunately she didn’t like to inform him that all her eight year olds could master the DVD remote control).Next, all the George Formby memorabilia was found, prepared and lovingly laid out. When the much awaited visitors finally arrived at lunch time, they were shepherded into John’s ‘Formby Room’ where his collection of scrapbooks, photos, tapes and DVD’s were all lovingly displayed.
The meeting commenced in earnest, after a pub lunch. The pub was 100 yards away. (That could have been disastrous, the cooking varies because the chef left just before Christmas and hadn’t been replaced) However all was well – the BBC paid which explains the high license fee! Then it was back to Poolside and the real business began. Daniel was quite excited about the show and promised that “It will be better than my South Bank Show, That was fifty two minutes, this one (BBC4) is a full hour,” and was keen to assure John that it was his intention to do the “GF Society and George Formby proud.”Things they talked about: John made it very clear that the GFS committee must be consulted at Blackpool about the show. He has already contacted Peter Pollard and Dennis Mitchell. So, Ok! So far!Next steps: John wrote copious notes in appalling handwriting which I (the wife) was left to type up and decipher.
Date: Wednesday 27th March
Daniel Wiles emailed some questions which he hoped John would answer, unfortunately he’d used an old email address and so they hadn’t arrived! PANIC! All was cleared up with a phone call to Zoe Timmers (TV researcher for Liberty Bell), the questions arrived, John relaxed and discovered he could answer them easily and so he retired early to bed to get his full quota of beauty sleep. He awoke to find a heavy weight on his chest – It was only the cat!
Date: Thursday 28th March
Thursday dawned grey and threatening, not an auspicious start. Wife was packed off to work leaving John dressed to kill and ‘on pins’ until the taxi arrived promptly at 8.45am to whisk him off to Warrington and George’s grave. He recalls a good journey, taking less than an hour and for once he had no worries about getting lost on the way.As Daniel Wiles was delayed he spent the first 45 minutes sitting in an unkempt dingy office belonging to the cemetery officials, one of whom remembered sitting on his father’s back in 1961 to watch George Formby’s funeral cortege pass by! Soon there were signs of life as the camera crew appeared, followed by Daniel and Zoe and a good twenty minutes later, himself accompanied by Figs Jackman (a crew member). That first meeting was very friendly. Daniel made the introductions and Frank told John to call him ‘Frank’ and then remarked, “You’re John Walley, the Formby expert” or something like that! At the grave, John discovered that it wasn’t Frank’s style to stick to a script or even read from one as he liked ‘spontaneity’ and so they actually approached the grave from behind. John remembers being very touched by Frank’s reaction. Frank had not seen the grave before and was very surprised that much of it was about George Formby senior and only a small plaque to George Junior at the base of the edifice. He’d also brought a bouquet of white roses which were reverently placed alongside the base – a nice touch! Another moving moment was when Frank sat on the edge of the grave to quietly sing ‘Following In Father’s Footsteps’, strumming gently on his Dallas C model with almost a tear in his eye – just as there was in John Walley’s eye. John and Frank discussed Formby Senior’s career and the tragic circumstances surrounding his early death. Finally, they discuss George Junior’s funeral and the hundred thousand people who lined the streets of Warrington on that sad day.
Next destination, Lytham-St-Annes for ‘Beryldene’, the Formby’s
Unfortunately, they weren’t allowed into the house for filming as the occupier wanted £1,000 just to view it. Needless to say, the director refused to pay such an exorbitant sum and instead filmed in the sand dunes opposite ‘Beryldene’. Here, with the wind blowing in their hair, Frank and John talked about the Formby’s final years at Lytham culminating in Beryl’s death on Christmas Day 1960, a few days before she sat up in her death bed fully made up with Harry Scott at her side to watch George telling the story of his life on BBC television in the magnificent ‘Friday Show’. Then they talked about the sale of George and Beryl’s possessions, instigated by the executor of George’s will, John Crowther. How sad it was that it had all come to this. People rummaging through everything from George and Beryl’s underclothes to their jewellery. Looking through the sale catalogue, John and Frank came across the page listing George’s ukuleles and John explained that the ukulele he was handing to Frank was the one George used in the film ‘Keep Your Seats Please’ to sing ‘When I’m Cleaning Windows’ and which John eventually bought for £20. John played a few couplets from the famous song and so did Frank and then the uke was put safely away in its case.Following lunch (paid for by the BBC!) it was off to the North Pier at Blackpool where once again John and Frank talked about George’s fabulous film career. Frank’s favourite film was ‘Keep Your Seats Please’ (the scene where the goat is X-rayed, he thought was terrific). John concluded by saying that George’s funniest film was ‘It’s In The Air’ (because of the many slapstick moments and the achingly funny scenes in the pilotless plane at the end) and that George’s best film – from a cast and plot point of view – was probably ‘Let George Do It)
When the day was over, John recalled that Frank Skinner seemed a thoroughly down to earth guy, a friendly man who was obviously a great admirer of George. He liked the fact that they shared the same silly sense of humour and he enjoyed some of the stories shared by Frank and the film crew over lunch. Frank was worried about his right hand strumming technique and John told him to think of his favourite football team, West Bromwich Albion and just do down, up, down, up, like their recent seasons in the top two divisions! When John told him that he supported Port Vale he offered him his deepest sympathy! Another lovely story Frank told was when he met Sir Michael Parkinson on the BBC car park for a charity event. Parkinson, of course, loves money and has an eye for the ladies. He emerged from his Rolls dressed in a full length leather coat zipped from top to bottom. Eric Morecambe who was with Frank looked at ‘Parkie’ and said, “Hello, Parkinson. I see you’ve come as a wallet!” Lovely story!
Date: Friday 29th March
John and Daniel met up in the foyer at the Imperial, prior to meeting the committee. Daniel admitted that ‘today was real fun’. They’d visited a rock factory that afternoon and made a huge amount of rock and enjoyed watching Frank forming the letters and rolling it all out. He’d actually put the ‘F’ into Formby and made seven hundred sticks of rock which were to be handed out at the meeting on Sunday afternoon.The team then followed that up by a visit to the soon to be completed Comedy Carpet (where they met the mayor), a headland being built with European money near to the Tower. It is to be the size of a football pitch and will contain the names and catchphrases carved out of granite of famous comics. So there should be the phrase immortalised by George (senior) ‘I’m coughing better tonight’ and George (junior) ‘Turned out nice again’ and possibly the lyrics to a ‘Little Stick Of Blackpool Rock’. What a nice commemoration of the past for future generations. The Mayor was a disappointment! Daniel recalls that he was only semi-enthusiastic and surprisingly, wasn’t able to tell them much about the Comedy Carpet. Frank Skinner had to tell him! The mayor seemed to be more of a Charlie Carolli fan than a Formby fan. Some people never learn!Finally, the team had visited Blackpool Tower. John recalled the camera man (who carried a huge camera on his shoulder) admitting to not being too keen on heights. Apparently they went up to the very top, higher than the public can generally go which was great fun and provided some fantastic views.At the committee meeting on Friday night Daniel Wiles began by thanking everyone for letting them come and again emphasised that in no way would they disrupt our meeting. He stressed that in no way would the programme ‘set George up’ and that the society would come out of it very well. He, too, was impressed by Frank Skinner at George’s grave. He also promised to produce an up-to-date membership card for the meeting and was looking forward to the next two days and the thrash as there was, “nothing to touch the ‘thrash’ that makes you so happy as the sound of a uke.”
Date: Saturday 27th March
Whilst we were busy preparing for our meeting, the Liberty Bell film crew were off to Wigan with Frank Skinner at George’s statue. Unfortunately, it was not as productive a time as they had hoped, as according to Daniel Wiles, very few ‘youngsters’ knew who George Formby was. They had never heard of him! (Sacrilege!) Their interviews will end up on the cutting room floor. He had however more luck with the ‘oldies’.After this, they returned in time to interview a very ‘dashing’ Andy Eastwood. ‘Dashing’ not just because of his smart attire, but because he had been appearing in Carlisle and was on his way to appear in Leeds with Blackpool’s meeting being a quick detour along the way! They then filmed his brief appearance before progressing onto the afternoon’s concert and in particular Frank Skinner’s contribution. Frank actually went down very well with the audience. He’d paid £950 for a uke – a baby Gibson, made his excuses before he started, admitted to being terrified of playing in front of so many ‘experts’, acknowledged that it was a ‘real honour’ to be playing here at the meeting today and explained that solos he didn’t do except ‘when they’re by accident’. And at the end of his spot he received, to his credit, what all genuine Formby fans receive – a thunderous round of applause for their efforts. Following this, there was the jaw aching posing for photos and endless autograph signing. Next came his interview with Francesca Davies. It was a complete surprise for her – she’d never heard of him before the meeting! This had been set up in advance by Daniel’s team, with her parents’ knowledge. She told him about her gigs, her interest in George Formby, passed on the advice given to her by Ken Dodd and proudly claimed to have ‘just taught him the split stroke’. Not a bad achievement for a 13-year old and in less than 10 minutes.More filming of the meeting followed and then it was time for the thrash. Frank Skinner was on it, of course, in the middle, and so were most other members in the meeting. It was chaotic fun!Tea time at last! The crew packed up for the day, but returned voluntarily later in the evening, in their free time, rather than sampling the night life in Blackpool. Every member of the crew had been so affected and enthused by the members that they came back to the meeting and wallowed in the nostalgia and gave up their evening off.
Sunday 28th March:
Sunday was another busy day for Daniel’s team. Frank wanted lessons and was to appear in Andy Little’s tuition class. The stage was carefully set and the room arranged so that the youngest members sat with Frank on the front row. (It took a lot of cajoling to persuade some members to move!) The cameras were placed carefully both at the front and back of the room and then it all began – Frank entered. Andy’s first piece of advice was to master the triple stroke, so everyone had a go. Then there was the ‘flick’ another variation sometimes occurring by accident! Moreover, Andy then demonstrated this in the song ‘You Don’t Need A Licence For That’. Finally, Andrew mentioned the ‘split stroke’ a difficult right hand technique but the “absolute bedrock” of what members are trying to achieve. The whole class, Frank included did their best and hurried off to practise.Next it was a break for lunch. After which it was the turn of other committee members to be interviewed on location, down on the prom by the sea. All were beautifully attired. Gerry Mawdsley (president), Dennis Mitchell (chairman), Peter Pollard (vice president), and John Walley (founder member).Gerry and Dennis talked about the statue in Wigan and the huge amount of work involved with Wigan council and how the GFS is all about people sharing a common interest. Frank was astonished at the age range of the members and the ‘hardcore’ ukulele talk and the reasons why they play the uke and love George. Peter told Frank that George was the foremost entertainer of his day and even fifty years after his death he still lights up people’s lives and puts a smile on their faces. Frank said how much he admired Peter’s newsreel selection and that he had actually discovered the GFS via Peter’s web site. Back to the meeting and after taking more ‘shots’ of members it was time for the final interview of the weekend with Dennis Taylor at the shop. Dennis explained how the shop had grown over the years and how material is available on the internet creating a worldwide link for the society. All profits go to the society to pay for things we cannot normally afford, such as archive material. The Formby statue at Wigan also received generous funding from the shop.On Sunday tea time the BBC crew packed their bags and were heading for the 6.10 train from Blackpool to London. They had obviously been much affected by the meeting and the love people had for George Formby so much so that Figs Jackman, a crew member insisted on being taught the chords for ‘Lamppost’ and whose very next step would be to purchase a reasonably priced uke. Daniel explained that during the next five weeks the hours of filming and interviewing would be edited into an hour long programme which will do the name of George Formby and his society proud. No transmission date had yet been decided but Daniel will keep us informed. We were left with the certain knowledge that the BBC crew – and Daniel in particular – had been involved in not just a job of work for which they were paid, but a labour of love.This work is the property of Gill Walley and may not be reproduced without permission.
In 2010 it was planned for another documentary featuring George Formby and the GFS which would be produced by the brilliant Daniel Wiles, creator of the finest documentary on George Formby ever made, The South Bank Show - George Formby. GFS founder and honorary member John Walley worked with Daniel on the original 1991 production so it was natural for them to meet again to create a new work, this time featuring comedian, Frank Skinner.John’s wife Gill, chief photographer and for many years, the Blackpool convention reporter for The Vellum, kept notes and took photographs of the whole exercise. I am delighted to produce this page to highlight Gill’s work and the events that helped to create another brilliant feature on George Formby