Posts Tagged ‘George Formby’

Ahhh, I have my life back, at least as much as it was ever mine in the first place, which means I can get back to all those things that got put on hold while I was studying for my diploma – painting Third Company Blood Angels, trying figure out how to write a novel, and getting the hang of the split stroke. And, of course, looking at some really old and obscure movies off YouTube, which may or may not connect with my other interests.

So it’s time to break out the Second World War comedy-thriller reviews! Marcel Varnel’s Let George Do It! was made in 1940, one of the (these days) less-remembered products of the famous Ealing Studios company. Made in the early days of the war, this is a film which is clearly trying hard to lift the spirits of people with a lot on their mind. Its success can be measured by the fact it was an international hit under a variety of titles – screening in the USSR under the very un-Russian title Dinky-Do. Inevitably, looking at it over seventy years later, it comes across as a bit of a curiosity.

The staff and guests at a hotel in Bergen, Norway are shocked when the resident band’s ukulele player is murdered mid-performance. (If you play the uke as badly as me, this is an occupational hazard, but this guy was supposed to be a pro.) However, there is more afoot than someone taking exception to a badly-executed triplet strum – the dead ukist was in fact working for British Intelligence, on the trail of a Nazi agent feeding shipping information to German U-boats.

Back in London the spymasters of MI6 respond with alacrity – send another ukulele-playing intelligence operative to Norway at once, to replace the dead man! The theatrical agent they are working with (yes, yes, I know this is all soaringly improbable and actually quite silly) assures them this will not be a problem. However a mix-up at the docks, involving the Dinky-Do concert party which the agent also represents, culminates in the wrong man being sent to Bergen. Who can it be? Who could possibly be the leading man of a morale-boosting, rather silly comedy thriller, and do all his own ukulele playing to boot? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Mr George Formby.

Formby is one of those performers who clearly does not hold with any of that ‘dramatic range’ business, as he plays virtually the same character in all of his films – a good-hearted, slightly dim, but ultimately resourceful Lancastrian bloke who can knock out a funny line with the best of them and is a master of the ukulele too (although, and I feel we should be technical here, he very rarely plays a genuine ukulele, more often choosing the uke’s more forthright cousin, the banjolele). His star has faded somewhat in the last couple of decades, but when Let George Do It! was made he was one of the biggest stars in the UK.

Anyway, once George figures out he’s in Bergen, and not Blackpool as he had been expecting, he joins forces with British Intelligence’s girl on the scene (Phyllis Calvert) and together they try to work out how the bad guy (Garry Marsh) is getting his information to the German Navy.

The film doesn’t hang about and all is done and dusted with a minimum of nastiness and maximum of cheer well inside an hour and a half. And I have to say that I enjoyed this film with a degree of sincerity that rather surprised me, because a lot of the comedy stuff is genuinely amusing even now. The resourcefulness of the many scriptwriters in extracting the maximum comic potential from the simple phrase ‘Dinky-Do’ is rather awe-inspiring, and there’s a bit where George has to go through customs with the luggage of a conjuror which is a lot of fun too. On the other hand, there is perhaps a bit too much reliance on Formby blundering into any situation and wreaking complete havoc, and some of the slapstick seems laboured and primitive now. Certainly the film gets broader and more openly ridiculous as it goes on – something which starts off close in tone to a genuine thriller concludes with George being shot out of the torpedo tube of a U-boat onto the deck of a passing ship. I don’t think even Tom Cruise would try to get away with something like that nowadays.

There are four big musical numbers, and – why am I even worrying about these things? – the film doesn’t have to stretch credibility too much to work them in, George being a ukulele player in a band, after all. The biggest of these is ‘Count Your Blessings and Smile’, a nice enough tune but one which features Formby going hands-free. I suspect a lot of people seeking this film out now will be doing so just to marvel at Formby’s legendary right-hand technique, which is given due prominence in ‘Grandad’s Flannelette Nightshirt’, ‘Mr Wu’s A Window Cleaner Now’ and ‘Don’t The Wind Blow Cold’ (yes, these really are the names of songs in the Formby repertoire). For all the naturalism of the way in which the songs are written into the script, George does spend a lot of the time winking and grinning at the camera while actually performing them, but listening to that syncopation I will forgive anything.

Other points of interest in this film include the usual appearances by latterly-famous actors in supporting roles – here, Coral Browne (the future Mrs Vincent Price) plays the villain’s girlfriend, while Bernard Lee is unrecognisable as an angry Norwegian (Lee also appeared in The Third Man, but will probably be best remembered for playing M in the first eleven Bond movies). And, there is a very peculiar sequence in which George, off his face on truth serum, has wild hallucinations – which almost appear to anticipate some of the imagery of A Matter of Life and Death – concluding in him imagining himself flying to the heart of the Reich and sticking one on Hitler. The Americans had Captain America, we had George Formby.

Let George Do It! is generally acclaimed to be the best of Captain Lancashire’s star vehicles, and I must say I’m tempted to observe that if this is the best one, I can’t imagine what the worst must be like. But that would be rather unfair, because this movie is knockabout good fun, has moments of genuine class, and served a very valuable purpose in its day. If George really wants to do it, then I would say go ahead and let him.

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For this week’s ukulele-related witter I thought about sharing with you my thoughts on the subject of practising, or finger-picking, or how one goes about learning a new piece. And yesterday, rather to my alarm, I learned that Dr Kermode also plays the ukulele and I may in fact be coming across as some sort of strumming, film-reviewing wannabe stalker. But anyway, I thought I would use the occasion of the festive season to talk a bit about a seminal figure in the history of the uke.

Now, possibly more than with most instruments, I expect that one’s exposure to the ukulele when growing up is shaped by where you live. So if you grew up in the USA your uke heroes of years gone by were probably people like Arthur Godfrey or Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (maybe even Tiny Tim if you’re particularly warped). If you are Canadian, your experience may well be influenced by the likes of James Hill. But for those of us who live in the UK, the ukulele is virtually synonymous with one man, and one man only: George Formby OBE.

(It is practically obligatory to point out, when writing about Formby in a uke-related context, that the great man’s weapon of choice when performing was not a uke at all, but a banjolele. That said, clips of Formby playing a standard uke are around on the internet, and even one rather jolly song where he doesn’t accompany himself at all. But I digress.)

When I was young, Formby’s movies were on the telly all the time – usually in the afternoons and at weekends, admittedly. These are not prestige productions and the plots do all tend to merge into one – rather in the manner of Jackie Chan, George invariably plays a thinly-disguised version of himself, who stumbles into all manner of odd shenanigans. The plots are not overly complex and regularly pause so George can perform a number on his banjolele.

Even when I was very young, these films were strictly only-if-there’s-nothing-at-all-else-on material, and later on they were often on in the background just to provide noise while I was doing something else. And yet, and yet…  I distinctly remember watching one of these films in my late teens (it may have been Much Too Shy or Bell-Bottom George), and the plot grinding to a halt so Formby could perform a fairly mild and bucolic number about the pleasures of being a country milkman. But my response to the song was ‘Wow, this guy can play the hell out of that ukulele.’ The only thing I can honestly compare it to is the first time I properly listened to someone like Hendrix or Brian May on the electric guitar: a revelatory moment.

I was doing an amateur production of My Mother Said I Never Should a couple of years after that (stage management, I wasn’t in it, obviously) and there’s a Formby song on the ‘soundtrack’. We borrowed a Greatest Hits CD and had it playing all the time while we were working on the show, and my admiration for Formby’s uke skills did not diminish; I even made myself a sneaky copy of that CD, something of which I don’t usually approve. And when I was living in Japan and hanging out down the internet café a lot, the music I was listening to on YouTube was obviously very varied, but I do recall a few Formby sessions going on then as well.

So I’m beginning to wonder if buying the uke was quite the bolt out of a clear sky that it felt like at the time. I’m still rather surprised to find myself playing the thing, but it’s not like I haven’t enjoyed listening to ukulele music for decades.

Of course, comparing Formby to other notable ukulelists , his style is very distinctive – quite simply because with George the real magic has nothing to do with finger-picking or chnking or anything at all connected to the fretting hand. It’s all about the strumming hand. I get the impression that one of the reason why Formby is a divisive figure amongst modern British uke players is because his playing style is so distinctive, and at the same time quite limited. Even I will admit Formby does not seem to have been the most versatile player – but I still really rate him.

First of all, Formby is – and I am by no means professionally qualified to talk about this – an extremely competent strummer, by which I mean fast and rhythmical. The next thing is the repertoire of strumming ‘tricks’ Formby employs: by which I mean things like the Triple Strum, the Split Stroke, the Fan Stroke, the Circle and the Shake.

Now, the modern world being what it is, there is a cottage industry on YouTube of people offering advice and tutorials on how to emulate ‘the Formby Style’. Most of these folk are also banjolele players – and, in passing, I note that they further emulate George by affecting the same kind of gormless stare-to-camera when playing – but so far as I can tell there’s no difference in technique between the regular uke and its circular-bodied cousin.

I should say that most of the tutorials I’ve looked at have been very useful, and I have the mechanics of the Split Stroke more-or-less down in terms of the actual movements of the strumming hand. But this only goes to increase my admiration for Formby’s technique as a) he does the Split Stroke while rattling back and forth between chords and b) he does it at a blisteringly fast tempo. I am working on the Split Stroke as part of my practice routine but I can’t really conceive of ever really approaching that kind of speed.

So the more I learn about Formby and his style, the more I admire him. At the back of my mind is the ambition to master the Formby Style and see about applying it to all sorts of songs – partly, I concede, for the comedy value intrinsic in doing a Formby-esque take on Delilah or Bad Moon Rising. Will I get there? I don’t know. But I think it’s important to have a long term aim, and probably also beneficial to admit that this man is probably a large part of the reason why I picked up a ukulele in the first place.

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A rare collision of different blog strands tonight, as another silly old film review collides with one of my vague and unhelpful disquisitions on the playing, or not, of the ukulele. This is probably more interesting to followers of the latter than the former, simply because Tony Coleman and Margaret Meagher’s Mighty Uke is being released into the world one cinema at a time – or, to put it more accurately, the film-makers are taking it on tour.

I knew that this groundbreaking uke-umentary was only making a single appearance in Oxford. This in itself seemed uncannily well-timed as I only learned of it within hours of taking up the uke myself. While I was also aware of the events supporting the showing, I didn’t know quite what an unusual evening this was to be. I was standing in the ticket line when a disparate group in matching t-shirts arrived and introduced themselves to the Phoenix staff with cheery cries of ‘We’re the Mighty Uke people!’ You don’t get that down the local Odeon.

So I took my place in the theatre, looking around surreptitiously for ukes amongst the crowd (I had, of course, brought my own), but was interrupted by the appearance of a stocky Canadian in a cap in front of the screen. Rather to my surprise this turned out to be the film’s director, Tony Coleman: the ‘Mighty Uke people’ were not particularly rabid fans of the movie, but the actual film-makers themselves. Having the director turn up in person and thank you for coming is a very gratifying experience, and I’m surprised more movies don’t arrange something similar. With the way the evening would go having been explained, the film rolled.

Coleman and Meagher’s film is about the ukulele; partly the history of this remarkable instrument, but mainly concerned with the current boom in its popularity. They set their cards on the table from practically the first sequence, which portrays the celebrated uke soloist Jake Shimabukuro in action: suspicions that anyone involved is going to treat the ukulele as a joke or in a remotely condescending manner at utterly blown away.

From hereon the movie proceeds at a fairly brisk trot for the rest of its 80-minute running time, starting by covering the extent of the current ukulele boom (players from as far afield as Japan and Israel make an appearance), and the reasons for its popularity. The ease of starting to play is, rightly, addressed, along with the pleasingly low expectations surrounding the instrument (both reasons why I myself took up the uke).

After this there is a lengthy segment on the history of the instrument, beginning in Hawaii in 1879 and proceeding through the 20th century, and interviews with notable players both past and present (one of whom, the 103-year-old veteran Bill Tapia, died only days before the screening I went to). These run the gamut from traditional folksy performers, to singer-songwriter Uni and her Ukulele, to Jon Braman (an extraordinary hip-hop ukulele player from New York), to Scandinavian punk uker Elvira Bira, and finally to the Canadian virtuoso James Hill whose talents on the instrument almost seem to defy logic.

From hereon the movie segues again, to look at one of Canada’s most distinguished ukulele groups, the Langley Ukulele Ensemble (of which Hill is an alumnus) and their almost insanely enthusiastic teacher. Needless to say their skills are such that every summer they play a residency in Hawaii, and the film follows them on one such trip.

British audiences will no doubt have one major question: and the answer is, yes, George Formby does appear in the film – but we hardly get to hear that legendary right hand in action, doubtless for rights clearance reasons. The same presumably explains the omission of other noted performers such as the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain or Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. There’s hardly any Jake Shimabukuro in it either, really – the only modern great who gets serious screen-time is Hill, frequently described as the world’s greatest ukulele player, who was clearly heavily involved with the production behind-the-scenes.

Hill has a point when he talks about the extraordinary musical sleight-of-hand a well-played ukulele is capable of – the sounds it generates seem so far in excess of what the musician is doing to it – but I think the appeal of the instrument is far simpler. It’s impossible to listen to decent uke music without feeling just a tiny bit uplifted and cheered, and the sound of massed ukes playing together is, quite simply, absurdly joyous.

A wise man (not me) has said that a great documentary makes you interested in a topic you knew nothing about previously. As a uke player myself, I was probably always going to enjoy a film which celebrated the instrument, but even so I think this is a great little film. I don’t think it’s perfect – the structure doesn’t lend itself to much of a climax and the film seems to stop rather abruptly – but another wise man (and this time it was me) has commented on the suicide-inducing qualities of most allegedly ‘feel good’ movies: I’ve never seen Mighty Uke described in those terms, but for me this was one of the most simply enjoyable films I’ve seen all year.

And the evening did not conclude with the end of the film – following a short intermission, we moved forward to cram the front two or three rows of the theatre, as James Hill himself was accompanying the tour and performed a brief set with his accompanist, the cellist Anne Davison. When not telling fairly droll anecdotes about being interned in Singapore on suspicion of having bird flu, Hill showed off his own skills and the versatility of the uke by playing folk songs, jazz, original compositions, and then rounding off with his celebrated arrangement of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean, playing percussion, rhythm and melody simultaneously on a single uke. One of the most astounding pieces of musicianship I’ve ever seen.

Finally, there was the promised ukulele jam, and it seemed that most of the crowd had brought their own ukes. (Another thing you don’t get down the Odeon – though I suspect if I turned up to the latest Twilight and started strumming along to the action I would be bodily ejected from the showing.) My Makala MK-SC seemed very humble given the distinguished instruments suddenly appearing all around, but this was no time for bashfulness. The sound of twenty-five ukuleles and a cello tuning up simultaneously is not one which is easily described, and only added to my concern that the A-string on my own uke is an octave low, but then the assembled ukes and their players launched into a couple of simple songs, led by Hill (performing a strange human semaphore to indicate chord changes). This was a strangely transcendent moment for me in my playing; the duff noises coming off the A-string and my tendency to get my strumming finger tangled on the upstroke suddenly seemed quite inconsequential (although my inability to get from G to D minor cleanly was more of an issue).

Too soon it was over and we all wafted out of the theatre in a state of elation, united by our affection for the uke. Much to my delight I made the acquaintance of a group of Oxford-based ukers and with any luck I will not be labouring in isolation for very much longer. A good movie, a great experience, and the best night out I’ve had in a long time.

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I took my uke into work this week – not a self-indulgent look-at-me gesture, but I was going up north to visit my family straight afterwards and didn’t want to miss five days practice – and the response from colleagues was gratifyingly positive (one comment from someone in the next room along the lines of ‘why can I hear a harp?’ excepted), although no-one asked the question I’d been sort of expecting, to wit:

‘Why did you pick the ukulele?’

To which the only acceptable answer is surely:

‘You don’t pick the ukulele. You pick the mandolin. You strum a ukulele.

Ah, the joys of uke humour. Just another reason to go with the four-stringed wonder I suppose.

So, anyway, at the end of our last gripping entirely traction-free episode, we left our intrepid uke newbie (i.e. me) coming to grips for the first time with a shiny new MK-SC ukulele, and had established the following tips to ensure a pain-free introduction to the instrument:

  •  Invest in an electronic tuner.
  • Be right-handed.  (Not terribly helpful, that one, I concede. I suppose if you contacted a store in advance and told them you were of the sinister persuasion they might set-up a left-handed uke for you specially.)

Anyway, the three sources I pay most attention to – Woodshed, in Uke for Dummies, Aldrine Guerrero of Ukulele Underground, and Pineapple Pete of Uke School – all agree that the place you absolutely must start with the uke is with the strumming. This is the left hand (don’t start) which goes up and down across the strings and actually generates noise from the instrument.

No plectrum is involved, nor usually – as I had to point out to a guitarist colleague at work the other day – most of the fingers of the hand. Index finger only, hand moving solely from the wrist.


Another righty. Grrr.


As you may imagine, the mechanics of this are not especially taxing, although as a new uker there was an initial degree of physical discomfort until the side of the finger got used to bashing against the strings.

That said – well, one of the things about the uke is that much of the time you are hitting the strings on both the downstroke and the upstroke, usually in rapid succession – if you imagine the beat of the music as being ‘one-and-two-and-three etc’, you’ll be strumming down on the numbers and up on the ‘and’s.

Strumming down is not generally a problem for me. Strumming up is occasionally troublesome, however:  my finger frequently gets tangled in the bottom string or ricochets off at a strange angle, producing a strange noise rather than a strummed chord. Possibly I have the bottom string tuned too slack. Is that even possible? I don’t know.

I suspect the problem may be a) a simple lack of practice and b) trying to go too fast too soon. The former is not an acceptable excuse but as for the latter… well, it was bound to come up sooner or later, but nevertheless – the time has come to drop the F-bomb.

For anyone in the UK, the moment you start talking about ukuleles, one name comes up with the speed of Jake Shimabukuro’s strumming hand. That name is, of course, George Formby (usual qualification that Formby more commonly played the banjolele than the uke goes here). As I mentioned last time, I’ve enjoyed George Formby’s music for decades and the aspiration to do the same is probably a reason why I took up the uke in the first place.

Formby seems to be a polarising influence on the uke community – has his work dated? Is he a limited player of the uke? And so on. But no-one seems to deny what a tremendous strumming hand the man possessed. I mean, good grief, he’s a blur from the wrist down – split strokes, triplet strums, and lots of other tricks that I can name but don’t really understand.

The point I’m trying to make is that ‘sounding like Formby’ is not a realistic prospect for the starting uker. You’re not even going to get remotely close and attempting to do so will only be depressing and demotivating. So there.

Anyway, back to strumming the uke at a realistic level for the beginner. Fretting (i.e. using the other end of the ukulele to actually make chords) I am going to look at in detail in a future instalment, but suffice to say the beginner sources all tend to zero in on C and F, which are one- or two-finger chords and easy to transition between.

Having demonstrated how to do these, both Woodshed and Pineapple Pete announce it is ‘first song time’ – although there’s no actual melody involved, you’re just strumming along with the chords. In both cases, unless you know the song in advance (melody and tempo, etc), you’re not going to be able to produce something recognisable, probably because the chords involved are so basic.

However, it is not all bad news. Pineapple Pete’s website offers a strum-a-long option which allows you to play along with a backing track and get used to the mechanical action and the rhythm and so on.  This isn’t perfect, mainly because the track’s on an imperfect loop, but it does mean you can be involved in a piece of music and getting used to playing to a beat without simply strumming along to a metronome (which is a bit dull).

I must also mention a fourth source I am making use of – ‘A Practical Method for Self-Instruction on the Ukulele and the Banjo Ukulele’ by N.B. Bailey, published in 1914 in San Francisco, available at theuke.com. Not the hippest and funkiest volume for a modern audience, I admit, but it seems to me to contain some really useful material, particularly the strumming exercises with basic chord progressions (the I-IV-V progression in the key of C, etc).

There isn’t actually a tune involved but the chords involved are pleasing to the ear and changing the frets is, I would imagine, good practice for my ugly sausage fingers.

We seem to be on the verge of leaving the arena of strumming for the less comforting terrain of fretwork, and so I shall draw this to a close with the following summary of points which I personally have found useful:

  • Get your physical relationship with the ukulele right (oh, stop it: I mean, hold it in the right way and strum from the wrist with a single finger).
  • Don’t go mad trying to be George Formby: you won’t manage it.
  • Get your guidance from as many different sources as possible (well, present company excepted, if that’s even a coherent thing to say), and especially don’t just stick to a single book or website.
  • At really low levels of uke-ability (i.e., mine), learning to play basic chord progressions is probably more aesthetically pleasing and useful than laboriously strumming your way through ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ or whatever.

Until next time…

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