The George Formby Society perform at the Royal Albert Hall (Photo by Andrew Parsons - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Zooming Windows

The George Formby Society attempts a ukulele world record, online

Artillery Row

Tuning in to the eclectic Falklands Radio breakfast show the other week, I was most entertained to hear, oh, I don’t know, some Linkin Park (say) followed immediately by George Formby’s Barmaid at the Rose and Crown – the latter cheerily introduced with “And now it’s time for this week’s Friday Banger.” Well, I thought, I know whose day to brighten with that information, and promptly e-mailed my friend Simon Rose, a founding member of the George Formby Society’s daily online ‘thrash’ ensembles.

Until about three years ago he’d barely given any thought to Formby, but then his girlfriend bought him a ukulele for Christmas and off he went. Then, in 2018, the GFS made a big appearance at the Queen’s birthday concert in the Albert Hall, playing When I’m Cleaning Windows fronted by Frank Skinner, Ed Balls and Harry Hill, and backed by a full orchestra. Simon read a review of it, sought out the video, “and it just made me happy.” He promptly upgraded to a banjo ukulele (see below) and found the nearest local Formby group, in Tottenham. He’d only been playing with them for six months when Covid struck (though it’s a testament to his brand of enthusiasm that he’d already been to several George Formby conventions in that time: more on this later).

It can be hard now to remember just how big a deal George Formby was in his heyday

Formby, of course, has been around since films were made by scratching images onto the walls of caves. And, as Simon says, it can be hard now to remember just how big a deal he was in his heyday. The star of stage, screen and recording studio, he notched up over two hundred songs, and, quite apart from being Britain’s biggest star throughout the 1930s and 1940s, is said to have out-earned Hollywood big-hitters like Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis. During the Second World War, he is reputed to have entertained three million servicemen. There are reports of him doing concerts and then discovering that there was a watch-post somewhere, whose guards hadn’t been able to attend, and going out and playing to them, very quietly.

The instrument that he made famous is called (among other variants) the banjo ukulele – a four-stringed wooden number that came by way of Portugal, Hawaii and the US, but wasn’t loud enough for rowdy venues until somebody stuck a resonator on it (Formby himself initially played the traditional uke, until he started playing music halls or working men’s clubs, presumably). The resulting instrument is less melodious, but much better for rhythm: “a sort of ukulele equivalent of tap-dancing,” as Simon puts it.

And Formby had a playing style which is still apparently more-or-less synonymous only with him, which – like any master, I suppose – he is thought to have picked up in dribs and drabs and then bent to his will, a form of syncopation which may owe something to Latin American music, but which is surprisingly hard for most people to match, technically, even now.

Then there were the lyrics, which were deemed sufficiently saucy to get him banned by the BBC. Not outrageous enough to perturb the head of state, though, clearly. According to – ahem – Gyles Brandreth, the Queen once told her correspondence secretary that she knew all the words to Formby’s songs, and sang along to them. The imagination runneth over; but apparently when someone thought to tidy up the text before a live performance to the young princesses, the Queen Mother (then Queen) told them that the kids already knew the real versions.

Formby died 60 years ago (this month, in fact), and the society which honours him was founded before the year was out. It typically meets three or four times annually at the Imperial Hotel in Blackpool, and much more often in smaller, regional groups up and down the country. “It’s like discovering three hundred cousins you never knew about, and they’re all incredibly nice,” says Simon, of the Blackpool meetups.

But then the shadow of Covid crept into and over Europe in the spring of last year, and it became clear that the March convention (the start of the GFS ‘season’) wasn’t going to happen. “Some of us were chatting on Messenger, and we’d been told the first lockdown was only going to be three weeks, and it was sunny, and everyone was still quite optimistic. So we set up the first Zoom meeting on 21 March.”

The idea of corralling a number of amateur musicians of a certain vintage onto Zoom may well be thought to have its obvious pitfalls (Simon laments that there is a 94-year-old GFS banjo-maker for whom this really is a bridge too far – and fair enough!); but ironically it was precisely because of the average age of the the would-be thrashers that the project took off quite as quickly as it did:

Even before the first lockdown, because so many of them were over 70 and thus in the ‘vulnerable’ category, they were already being warned to stay at home. As a direct result, the Blackpool convention had been cancelled early on, so we were already missing the idea of being there when one of us read an article about a choir that was rehearsing online, and thought ‘Well, maybe that’s a possibility?’

Along with a Scottish lady called Suzanne McIntosh (now their administrative matriarch), Simon bounced ideas around about the format, etc., and then just started with a few people, trying to work out how to use the tech. Though everyone knows how to use Zoom now, going from flash to bang with septuagenarians who were also trying to manipulate a ukulele… Well, anyway – within a month or so, most of the technical issues had been ironed out.

“The whole idea of a thrash is that everybody just gets up and plays along to a shortened version of a given song: a verse, a chorus, and then a little bit again which is where Formby would have done his solo. You can have 80 players all together, and nobody can hear anybody, so you just play and it doesn’t matter.”

But even though a Blackpool thrash is an entirely non-judgemental forum, musically, “we rapidly discovered that on Zoom you can’t all play instruments simultaneously: basically, everyone’s broadband speeds are different, and if you play together, it becomes even more cacophonous than some would argue it is at the best of times.”

So most of the week they strum along to GFS backing tracks (“commercially available, albeit to a rather select clientele!”), with everyone muted in his or her own home while the actual playing’s happening. This, says Peter Pollard (a former vice president of the GFS) is no bad thing, “as we can accommodate the most expert players and the complete novices, and even people who do not play at all but just like to watch the action and listen to the tunes.”

A good few members have known each other for decades

Then at the weekends the thrash is lead live by the Music Director of the Society, a man called Matthew Richards who’s a piano tuner by trade. “Matt’s a brilliant player,” says Simon. “Almost as good as Formby.” The GFS has workable scores for 127 songs out of Formby’s catalogue, they get through about 10-12 songs in a session, and in between the songs there is a lot of banter. A good few members have known each other for decades. There’s a lot of bad joke telling, and chatting about each other’s birthdays and anniversaries, who’s had their Covid jab, that sort of thing. “It’s as sociable as you can be.” Each session lasts the standard 40 free Zoom minutes – thought Peter enjoys it so much he offers two slots back-to-back when he is leading.

Obviously, the chief advantage of Zoom lies in its shrinkage of the physical world, and though the society’s membership skews North for reasons every bit as obvious as it skews elderly, Simon runs the Tuesday thrash from South West London; on Thursday and Friday it’s Peter in Yorkshire; and on Monday and Wednesday it’s Andrew Pepper’s turn in Cyprus.

But the differences aren’t only geographical. Andrew – “our technical whizzkid” – has created an app that automatically mutes and unmutes attendees at the crucial moments as well as throwing up the chords on screen, and his playlists are themed according to title. Matt imposes fancy-dress regs on Sundays (headgear a speciality). Apparently he performed the entire Halloween set without removing his raccoon mask.

Peter likes to pretend that Zoom is his own private radio show (“very funny,” Simon vouches, “quite near the knuckle at times, goes off into these flights of fancy: sort of like a Terry Wogan of the Formby world”). At 75 he is the oldest host, “but [in his own objective assessment] definitely the best looking.” He’s also rather deaf. “My sessions are the most chaotic. I get the words wrong, misinterpret what people are telling me, press the wrong buttons, forget which song I should be playing next, and have spilt beer over my keyboard and myself on two occasions – to the great delight of everyone else.”

Simon freestyles the mute/unmute commands in different languages – Swahili, German, Welsh – to keep things interesting. He’s a dab hand with the sound effects. And he decided to tell jokes before quite learning how to not be timed out, so the first one took three weeks to find its punchline.

He’s also introduced a minor element of competition:

When you go to Blackpool there is a predominance of people playing the better-known things like ‘When I’m Cleaning Windows’ and ‘Leaning on a Lamppost’, and it is possible to tire of hearing those songs for the eighth time in a weekend. So I chose songs at random, so we can play the lesser-known ones, and as of about a month ago I thought why don’t we play bingo at the same time? I play about 12 songs between 1 and 127, and we see who’s got the most numbers on their card.

I’m told it is unusual for anyone apart from him to get more than two numbers. But potential winners are threatened with a trip to Batley Gasworks (not, to my knowledge, a euphemism), this last being the fault of Peter, who, hailing from thereabouts, has made the town such a key locus of the thrasherverse that the Mayor of Batley put in an appearance during one night’s thrash.

As you might just about have sussed by now, the Zoom battalions of the GFS are rich in personality. And Caroline Stewart, former Chair of the Society, says it “can be surreal at times when you have police officers, funeral directors, solicitors and teachers performing alongside youngsters and professional musicians”. In real life, Caroline is, herself, the Operations Engineer of a nuclear power station.

“Enthusiasm,” Simon says, “sneaks up on you. Many of us have odd enthusiasms, and you can’t always say exactly where they came from.” But obviously I asked his fellow thrashers how they’d come to love George Formby quite enough to end up this involved.

The stories are as weird and wonderful as you could hope, from having one’s tonsils out, aged 3, next to a chap who played the ukulele, to someone offering free lessons at the local bowls club. One lady got stung by jellyfish while holidaying on the Isle of Bute, so her husband bought her “beautiful long-necked mahogany soprano ukulele” as a consolation. Another got into this whole mess by accident, having brought her mandolin to a ukulele workshop. Several share origin stories involving Frank Skinner’s Formby documentary of about 10 years ago, or the 1991 Warrington Museum thirtieth anniversary exhibition. In the pandemic context, Peter notes that if he hadn’t been ill and convalescing back in 1991, he’d never even have known of the existence of the GFS. (It has a website now, of course. Pollard created it.)

The group has not had any on-screen misbehaviour yet, but even that’s a close-run thing

In Simon’s own case, though, I think I have a bit more of the puzzle – knowing as I do that he had only recently sold most of his much-loved cricket gear before he took up ukulele-playing (in one of the sillier games on record, Simon and I have in fact captained teams against each other – taking the broadest possible definition of ‘captaincy’). He gave his bat away to his (ex-)girlfriend: the one who’d given him the ukulele. Their relationship did not last, but – in at least two perfect illustrations of what one might call (lovingly) the ‘tragic’ gene – both their new-found passions did, the ex- in question remaining to this day obsessed with village cricket (where I have played with her too, once or twice). “It’s not so bad that I cry every time I play the ukulele,” Simon reflects. “Though seeing photos of her with her new partner and my old cricket bat… that did hurt a little bit!”

Simon is not, in any case, one to be caught hiding his light under a bushel (and other things that should be Formby song titles). He confesses that at least one friend advised him not to, on a date, mention George Formby. Simon ignored the advice, and the feedback on the evening was, alas, exactly as you might imagine. “But then I had a date with somebody two Septembers ago, and we were getting on very well, and so I said, on the pavement, ‘I ought to tell you that I really like George Formby…’ She started singing ‘Leaning on a Lamppost’ to me, and we went out for the next six months. So you never know!”

The group has not had any on-screen misbehaviour yet, but even that’s a close-run thing. One member is a naturist from Maryland (Formby sings about nudist camps a fair bit: enough to warrant a mention in the naturist magazines of North America, anyway), though Simon’s keen to stress he’s not full-time. And then there is the grandmother whose most requested song (non-Formby, non-canonical) is ‘Spotted Dick’. Jon Baddeley, the Zoomers’ unofficial expert/archivist, says there’s often much talk of the need for a cold shower.

There’s also the small matter of two-time Grammy-winning bluegrass musician Marcy Marxer, who drops in from time to time. And Anette Battenberg, director of a south-west German cultural centre, who found out about the Zoom thrashes via Facebook (“George Formby is completely unknown in Germany”), and – in true German style – “only wanted to see how the participants technically solved playing together. But then I stuck with it, and even joined the George Formby Society. I felt I owed these wonderful people at least that.”

For every player who tunes in once a week or so, there are those whose commitment is nigh-on Stakhanovite. Angie Parker has only missed two Zoom sessions in the entire year, both thanks to internet failures. Peter has only missed one since he joined – ironically, while he was out for his Covid inoculation.

I ask if such zealous involvement might not have domestic repercussions? Caroline laughs that perhaps her husband has regretted his generosity on more than one occasion. Anette wonders if her upstairs neighbours are allergic to Formby by now. And Simon acknowledges he “would probably never have taken up the banjo ukulele if my wife was still living here. It’s not a quiet instrument.”

It’s clear the social and health benefits are quite considerable

There is, however, “a chap I know of who doesn’t attend the thrashes very much – even though his wife does – who leaves the house himself when he practises and goes to a nearby airfield and sits there in his car and plays. He’s made a stand for his music that fits over the steering wheel.” Once, not very surprisingly, this gentleman was approached by RAF security to find out what the hell he was could be up to. On explanation he was told, “They are never gonna believe this one…”

By and large, though, it’s clear the social and health benefits are quite considerable. As Simon puts it, “It’s friendly and the music is perky, and the lyrics are often funny and sometimes saucy, and you’re kind of flashing back in time. Your cares and woes just sort of disappear for a while. It’s very hard to listen to George Formby and still be grumpy.”

In the absence of the Blackpool get-togethers, Peter feels “the online thrash has been a wonderful way of staying in touch with friends from the society and has also helped to create new friendships as well. The real value is in giving people something to look forward to each day of the week, no matter what the world is doing or no matter what the distance between us all is.”

Jon Baddeley agrees “it’s not just about the songs” anymore. “It has become part of our lives,” adds Caroline. “For some, shielding alone, it is a lifeline. It keeps us playing and we have a laugh doing it.” And Angie notes that they all know “who the regular ‘Zoomers’ are, and if one has been missing for a while then someone will always check up to make sure they’re OK.” Even for Anette, “when we had an 8pm curfew in Germany, it was just nice and comforting to know that you could still meet some people in the evening.”

It’s clear that this has caught (and/or reflected) the public mood more than a little, and the Zoomers have had a reasonable amount of press over the past months (including Simon’s frequent letters to The Telegraph).

Musically speaking, even Peter – who reckons he’s missed only one convention in his 30 years of membership – says he has grown to like many Formby songs that he would not have thought much about previously. And as Angie points out, “without the Zoom sessions I doubt I’d have picked up my uke much – as who wants to play to themselves?”

I ask Simon if he thinks he has improved, playing-wise, over the course of 360+ thrashes:

My standard is probably early-intermediate, and I’m not sure that my playing actually did improve that much during the lockdown; but for the past two months I’ve been having lessons from one of the top ukulele – and indeed banjo ukulele – players in the country. I think he may have been the only person to study music at Oxford and offer the ukulele as his performance instrument! My playing has improved considerably since we started, mainly from him telling me that I was doing everything wrong and that I had to start from scratch.

I merely mention here that Simon was, when I first knew him, also having lessons with Sir Alastair Cook’s batting coach.

In Caroline’s assessment, “this is now more than just a few Formby fans playing their ukes. It’s a support network, an escape from lockdown, a place where newcomers are made welcome, and most of all it’s a substitute for our beloved Blackpool conventions.”

On Zoom players are logging in from as far away as Hawaii and Canada

This year’s June dates have already been axed, and fingers are crossed for the September slot. But on Zoom, meanwhile, players are logging in from as far away as Hawaii, Canada and, hopefully, on Saturday, Australia. Simon reflects, sympathetically, that “a lot of the references, and a lot of the Yorkshire dialect must go, I was going to say, ‘over their heads’, but probably ‘under their feet’ is more accurate. But they still come back!” Even with the one-year milestone now imminent, all the folks I’ve spoken to were quite adamant that they will keep on thrashing.

Tonight will see the Zoomers of the George Formby Society perform their 365th consecutive nightly thrash. The special session will be introduced by the current Mayor of Blackpool, with greetings from the owner of the Imperial Hotel, guest appearances from two leading comedians with an interest in George Formby, and owners of several of Formby’s own banjukes. The press release also mentions a communiqué “from a famous long-standing fan who knew him in his prime” (and if you can think of any aged, high-born folks who once knew all the words, you might be on to something…). The weekend will close with a cricket club-type end-of-season awards ceremony.

The headline item, though, is their attempt to set not one but two world records. To wit: the longest continual daily virtual thrash; and the most ukulele players playing George Formby’s music remotely at one time. I ask if these are ‘new’ records, and if not, what the current benchmarks look like.

We honestly don’t know. One problem is you sort of have to suggest to the Guinness people what you’re going for. And there was a massive Singaporean ukulele get-together years ago, of over two thousand people, I think, and we can’t clearly go for that. Also, when you submit a potential record, you also have to submit a fee… so we’re trying to be a little bit more specialised.

I say that that seems sensible, and Simon laughs, just slightly thoughtfully.

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