George Formby; Anti-Apartheid Hero

Yes, you read that title right! After blogging about how my neighbours and friendly rivals the Wiganers came by the name ‘pie eater’ earlier in the week, I thought I’d shed the spotlight on a little known fact about one of Wigan’s most famous sons, George Formby.

Back in 1946 and at the height of his fame, Formby was booked on an official tour of South Africa; indeed you can see the Pathe newsreel footage of that visit here. Formby, accompanied by wife and formidable manager Beryl, were initially warmly welcomed with lavish ceremonies such and the kind of ticker tape parade usually associated with a Royal visit, but their presence in the country soon proved difficult for some of the South African political establishment when Formby refused to comply with the practice of racial segregation. Despite apartheid not being introduced until 1948, the general rule was that Black and White communities were not allowed or expected to mix. As a result, entertainment venues were often racially segregated – something which the Formbys most emphatically did not agree with. In short, they refused to play any venue that would segregate an audience based on the colour of their skin.

Formby and his wife and manager, Beryl.

Matters subsequently came to a head when Formby openly embraced a little Black girl who had presented his wife with a box of chocolates. This moment of gratitude and colour blindness from the Lancastrian entertainer soon reached the ear of Daniel François Malan, the leader of the Nationalist Party who was elected the 4th Prime Minister of South Africa two years after Formby’s visit, whereupon he became the chief architect of the apartheid regime that blighted the country until the early 1990s. Malan was unsurprisingly incensed and phoned the Formby’s to complain about the incident.

DF Malan, architect of apartheid

It was not the smartest of moves on Malan’s part. Beryl Formby was a renowned tough cookie, the power behind the Formby throne who shaped his act to the point where he was the UK’s highest paid entertainer, commanding figures like £35,000 per performance. She was also notoriously protective of George and fiercely jealous of his leading ladies. In short, Beryl Formby was not someone you wanted to tussle with, as Malan learnt to his cost when he complained about the incident, warning that such behaviour would not be tolerated. Beryl listened to what he had to say and replied with the perfect put down “Why don’t you piss off, you horrible little man?”

Well, what did the South African National Party expect? The cheery banjulele player’s anti-fascist credentials were long established in his 1940 film Let George Do It! in which Formby parachutes into the Nuremberg Rally, calls Hitler a “windbag” and punches him out! His affinity with the common man and underdog, whom his screen persona owes a great debt too, was just as well known. During his ENSA shows for the troops, he would famously make the officers move from their front row seats to allow the humble privates the better view of the show, whilst in 1942 George fell foul of proponents of the Lord’s Day Observance Society because of his commitment to entertaining the troops. The society, who believed that Sunday should remain a holy day and that all entertainment on that day was unethical, had previously filed suits with the BBC for playing secular music on Sundays, when, in the summer of that year, they commenced a campaign against the entertainment industry, citing a 1667 law which made it illegal. Some sixty leading, high profile entertainers  refused to work on Sundays, but George – the biggest, most successful entertainer of them all – refused to comply. In a statement, he said;  “I’ll hang up my uke on Sundays only when our lads stop fighting and getting killed on Sundays … as far as the Lord’s Day Observance Society are concerned, they can mind their own bloody business. And in any case, what have they done for the war effort except get on everyone’s nerves?” Just one day later, the society withdrew its campaign against the entertainment industry.

George Formby. People’s entertainer. Man of the people. All people.

3 thoughts on “George Formby; Anti-Apartheid Hero”

  1. Mark, greetings from Australia. Terrific post about Beryl and George Formby. I’ll look forward to sharing via facebook and also will check out your other writings. Good wishes, Barry (arrested in the 1970s on anti-apartheid solidarity protest in Melbourne).

    Liked by 2 people

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