The Formby Project

This project began with a simple idea – use the iconography of oppression, the enormous and threatening full face portrait, to celebrate those who uplift us…


George Formby was an entertainer who came to prominence during the economic depression of the 1930s. Moving from music hall turn to film and recording star, his fame was at its peak in World War 2 during which he performed for over 3 million allied troops, and for the populous of blitzed cities. It is perhaps those unpaid performances that cemented him into the affections and memory the British. 2011 is the 50 anniversary of his death.

Our own recession and military conflict has thrown up no similar comic hero so the time seemed right to exhume him in artwork…

2010’Refix’ of 1940 poster for Let George Do It (acrylic on board, 102x85cm)

In addition to the large portrait this project has included research and writing, 3 art installations (in Penzance, Falmouth and Wigan), several collaborations (with elderly person’s day centres, musicians, academics, schools, galleries, a campsite, a shopping mall, night club and the George Formby Society) and public participation in a various of forms. The last series of events, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his death, was funded by Arts Council England.
Part of the  End of Pier series (2010) (acrylic on board 120x60cm)

Participants have ranged in age from 3 to 103. Older people, many forgetful of our own time, have shared their recollections of George and his. Young people have met and appreciated him for the first time, enthusiasts have  given their time and talents and an academic seminar explored his legacy and Wigan’s ambivalence to her most famous son. A popular feature was the ‘colouring in’ tables where people created their own portrait of George.


The images above show pupils from Westleigh High School creating the portrait on 2nd April 2011 at the Museum of Wigan Life, Wigan.

Members of the George Formby Society performing on 2/4/11

Finished portrait hanging in The Grand Arcade Wigan, April 2011


The following recollections are selected from those collected in conversations with elderly people following performance of Formby songs at day centres and during other reminiscence sessions:

‘I saw him at the Lewisham Hippodrome as a kid with my Dad. My mum was a very fierce woman and he took me to the Hippodrome a few times to get a break from her. We saw Tommy Trinder too, and Max Miller. He used to say ‘here it is Mrs’ and get his tie out. (Charles, 90)

‘I saw him once during the war. I was working in the Land Army near Wadebridge and he was driven past and waved. I was 18. I didn’t recognize him but one of the escort stopped and told us who he was. He had been entertaining the troops and was going back to the aerodrome at St Mawgan.’  (Joan, 80)

‘I never saw him, but a young man took me to see the Crazy Gang. At the end they sang the National Anthem and he stood up – he was in the navy. I laughed at him. We didn’t go out again.’(Dolores, 80)

‘My parents had his records during the war. I worked in an airframe factory in Middlesex and he came and did a lunchtime concert for the workers once, but I didn’t see it. He did a lot of that. He always seemed a bit old fashioned to me though.’  (Nelly, 90)

‘I remember the TT one, and It’s in the air. They were good. I liked the Lancashire humour – I’m from Manchester. I still miss the tripe, raw with vinegar and pepper. Lovely. I used to buy it from the UCP tripe shops. You can’t get it down here.’  (Ken, 79)

‘He was smutty and too daft to laugh at. I never liked him.’  (Edith, 90)

‘I was on the Broads rowing with my mates, in 1948, and we passed his boat ‘The Lady Beryl’. He was sitting on it and chatted to us. Then he played a couple of songs on his uke just for us. I’ll never forget it.’ (Ray, 80).

‘I saw a lot of his films. I remember the TT races one because my cousin rode in them. He rode a bike called a ‘Brough Superior, in the 30s. George Formby wasn’t exactly handsome, but he had a nice smile, and a good figure. I liked him.’ (Mildred, 93).

‘I loved George Formby. I saw the one he sang the window cleaner song in with my mum when I was about 6. In 1951 I went to work in London and he was on in a musical called ‘Zip Goes a Million’. It was good but he looked a lot older and had put on weight so I was disappointed really. Another day we met Jimmy Durante outside St Paul’s. A lot of the buildings were still bombed out but they wanted two girls on his arms to photograph. I never saw the photo. I wonder where it is now?’ (Stella, 76).

‘I saw him several times in the 50s with my parents, in Blackpool mainly. He did sketches as well as singing and some were rude. There was one in a bedroom and I remember my mum feeding me toffees to distract me. I was about 8.’ (Marjorie, 67)

‘I saw him when I was 7 at Blackpool Tower ballroom and got to go backstage to meet him. The circus changed in the same place and Charlie Carola the clown was there. Frightened me to death because I’d never seen a clown in make-up. That’s why I remember it.’ (Frank, 63)

‘I never saw Formby, other than at the picture. Not everyone’s cup of tea. I saw Gracie Fields though, with my mum at the Palace Theatre in Reading. I must have been 10, sitting in the gods…. When I was a policeman I went the golf course at Sunningdale with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, when they came to do a charity match. Ted Ray was with them and he was much funnier than the other two.’ (Arthur, 95)



A collaboration with a member of electrohouse/dubstep trio Atomic Drop (Ken Barrett jnr) lead to a series of remixes and refixes of formby songs, first presented within a clubbinbg set at Club Nirvana, Wigan of 1st April 2011.



168 portraits were coloured in by people of all ages during installations and related events in Penzance, Falmouth and Wigan between February 2010 and April 2011. They are all viewable on the following  YouTube link, accompanied by a remix of Leaning on a Lampost…

Download the lyrics and tab (ukulele) to six songs.

George Formby Society website.