Turned out nice again

Members of the George Formby Society Sheffield branch at an afternoon practice session: Mick Oxley (left) and Ian Walker with a Formby portrait in the background
Members of the George Formby Society Sheffield branch at an afternoon practice session: Mick Oxley (left) and Ian Walker with a Formby portrait in the background

A THRASH, according to the Sheffield and South Yorkshire branch of the George Formby Society, ‘makes the hairs on the back of your next stand on end.’

The idea of 20 to 25 ukulele players of varying expertise leaping on stage to perform a medley of George Formby songs may not be seen in quite such a positive light by everyone but veteran uke player Tom Fletcher is in no doubt.

Retro'George Formby lived in the Fylde. He spent much of the war entertaining troops on the battlefield and made comedy films including locations in Fleetwood.

Retro'George Formby lived in the Fylde. He spent much of the war entertaining troops on the battlefield and made comedy films including locations in Fleetwood.

“It’s an uplifting sound. You hear this noise when you’re approaching and it makes you smile automatically,” he claims.

The uke is a popular instrument these days. Barack Obama and Russell Brand both have one, it’s said. In Sheffield, the Everly Pregnant Brothers sold out the Lyceum. Local Formbyists claim that sales of ukes have quadrupled over recent years.

Why?

“Fun,” says Daz Barry. “You can get a ukulele for £20 and you can enjoy it straight away. You only have to learn three chords and you can play thousands of songs.”

Teachers are catching on, says Mick Oxley. “It used to be recorder or a violin and parents with cotton wool in their ears. But a ukulele has a mellow sound and only four strings, so it’s easier to play.

“A school can buy 30 ukuleles for a fraction of the price of clarinets and when they all play it sounds nice.”

The George Formby Society is interested in the most famous exponent of the small wooden instrument, of course. The cheerful Lancastrian beams down from a poster on the wall in the Thurgoland conservatory /practice room of local society chairman Ian Walker.

“He originally followed in his father’s footsteps as a music hall artist, even though he originally trained as a jockey. He first performed as George Hoy but by all accounts he was bloody awful,” says Ian.

“His dad, the original George Formby, died young, and young George carried on in his act until one day he came to Barnsley Alhambra after buying a ukulele for 50 bob. He decided to use it on stage and he never looked back.”

His businesslike wife, Beryl, was arguably an even bigger influence on Formby’s post-Barnsley meteoric career than the 50 bob ukulele, Ian added. “He became the country’s biggest singing star of the 30s and 40s, and with Beryl he made millions.”

“His songs were a bit daft and a bit smutty, with plenty of double entendres,” says Mick Oxley. “But he also had a unique style of playing, emulating Beryl’s tap dancing in a way. He was always one of the people, and his style always brings a smile to your face.”

“No matter how young anybody is, if you go into a room with a wooden ukulele, you’ll see their face light up on the first strum of ‘Windows’,” says Daz Barry.

(Members of the society always refer to The Window Cleaner song as ‘Windows’).

The growing number of ukulele (and Formby) enthusiasts comes from the retired and semi-retired, as one might imagine, but also from schoolchildren picking up a love of the uke and young adults who’ve either seen ukuleles on muddy backs at Glastonbury, or like the idea of playing an instrument without too much expense or tuition.

“We have two young lads in the society who are magnificent, and they play their ukuleles at school concerts,” says Mick Oxley.

“We’re trying to encourage young people and kids to pick up a uke to communicate with people. I remember we used to sing round at my grandma’s and we’re losing that, aren’t we?”

The local society meets on the last Friday of the month at Worsborough Sports and Social Club, where there is eating, drinking, an informal concert and, of course, the Thrash.

There’s also now a trial of Thursday night beginners’ sessions at a pub in Wombwell.

This tonight (Thursday) there’s a TV appreciation from Formby enthusiast Frank Skinner, who visited the South Yorkshire society to learn how to play a ukulele.

Of course, the enthusiasm of contemporary uke owners cannot be confined to official engagements at clubs, concert halls and TV studios.

“Some of us go up to Scotland with a hire boat and they know we’re coming now, so the pubs are full,” says Ian. “And when we come to the locks the lock-keepers will say: ‘You’re not coming through here unless you play your ukuleles.’”

“Just recently we got stuck on the M1 near Wakefield when the police closed the motorway because of an accident,” says Mick. “So we jumped out and had a little concert.

“The four us were playing and other people got out of their cars and everyone was singing ‘Windows’ and ‘Lamppost’ with us in a traffic jam on the motorway.”

George Formby’s film directors would have been proud.

“When you get a ukulele out, people are always interested,” says Tom Fletcher. “It’s magical.”

lwww.georgeformby.co.uk. Tel 2888199 or 2303949.