Thursday, 10 November 2016

George Formby and Max Miller - two goliaths of 20th Century British Comedy

Having recently watched Frank Skinner's excellent TV documentary on George Formby (above) and read John East's biography of Max Miller (right), I was struck by some of the similarities between these two British 20th century comedy icons.

  • George and Max were proud Lancastrian (Wigan) and Sussex-born (Brighton) comedians respectively who built their careers on working class humour and pride in their roots (although George was actually working class made good as his father George Formby Sr had already dragged the family out of poverty through his own music hall success)
  • Both changed their names (George Formby from 'George Hoy', Max Miller from 'Thomas Henry Sargant')
  • Both George and Max began their careers in the music hall and both progressed to films, although sadly in Max's case his film career was short-lived as he had the misfortune to be cast in several low-budget films which did not capture the public imagination or cast him to make best use of his talents. He was also ten years older than Formby and found it harder to get into his natural stride on film. Max was always more comfortable treading the boards and playing to a live audience and it showed.
  • Both married female performers (Beryl Ingham and Kathleen Marsh, respectively) in the early 1920s
  • Both attempted comedy double acts with their new wives with limited success before it was realised that the men were the stronger performers at which point both wives made the decision to sacrifice their own stage ambitions and devote their lives to raising their husband's star.
  • Both wives proved fiercely astute managers who drove a hard bargain and were widely feared by the showbusiness world (though it needs to be remembered that they were operating in an almost exclusively male environment in an age where women had little choice but to be fierce in order to be taken seriously).
  • Both wives edited, approved and coached their husbands with their material and acts (George and Max both struggled with literacy). Kathleen also made most of Max's famously flamboyant stage clothes.
  • Both comedians were always impeccably dressed for their performances, although Max would revel in his sartorial derring do with floral fabrics which dared to tease the inflexible masculine norms of the times.
  • Neither comedian had children, Kathleen lost a baby, after which she was advised not to risk another pregnancy for medical reasons and Beryl chose to have a hysterectomy shortly after marriage as she did not want children
  • Both wives followed their husbands everywhere they performed in their heyday and kept them on a short leash in terms of drink and female temptation (Beryl went as far as to prohibit George from kissing any leading lady, even if the script required it, so his films often involve a romantic moment comically interrupted at the crucial scene. Beryl also made sure she appeared in as many off-screen photographs with George as possible, lest anyone get any ideas!) 
  • Both comedians were known for their comic songs and stock-in-trade cheeky double entendres, though Max was far more risque compared to George's mock gormless hero of the hour, coining the term 'blue jokes', a reference to his 'blue book' of jokes, tame as these seem by today's standards. However George went on to have the stellar film career, which eluded music hall 'There'll never be another' Max, albeit Max also made a few films.
  • Both were excused from conscription in WWII and became famed for entertaining the troops as their contribution to the war effort (George was awarded an OBE)
  • Both were exceptionally mean with money, using their manager wives as an excuse (George was famously only given 5 shillings a week 'pocket money')
  • Both shared a love of luxury cars. George also had a boat, Lady Beryl.
  • Both comedians lived in the same area all their lives, although their houses became larger as they grew in stature and both dabbled in smallholdings with a few animals for a while. Amusingly each of George's homes was christened 'Beryldene'.
  • It was rare for either comedian to spend a night away from home, though this was not necessarily about devotion - both were highly reliant on their wives, almost to an unhealthy degree, to manage every aspect of their lives and careers. Max even called Kathleen 'Mum'. 
  • Both comedians would eventually confess (George publicly, Max privately) towards the end of their lives that their marriages had not been entirely happy unions and they had been deprived of marital relations for many years (no matter that their wives would assume jealous reactions of almost epic proportions if they dared exchange more than a glance with another female).
  • Both managed to conduct one or two affairs despite stringent marital controls. Or perhaps because of...
  • George died in 1961 and Max died in 1963, both following heart problems and having suffered from depression as health and career declined in their final years. 
  • Both comedians have societies devoted to them. The George Formby Society and The Max Miller Appreciation Society, still going strong over 50 years after their deaths. Both are also commemorated as bronze statues in their home towns.

In conclusion, these comedy giants were almost brothers by other mothers in my view and I wonder if this ever struck them on the occasions that they met. The world would certainly have been all the poorer without them.
I think it's only right that Beryl and Kathleen are remembered too though. Whatever personal frustrations went on behind closed doors in their marriages, Beryl and Kathleen were undoubtedly devoted to their husbands and sacrificed everything for them (which in itself must have been a hard pill to swallow and not without its tensions). But their talents went on to shine in other respects and they struck their own pioneering blow for female equality in the world of stage management, intentionally or not.

Perhaps too it was hard to sustain a romantic relationship when Beryl and Kathleen knew and helped with every last detail of their husbands' lives and were no nonsense business partners as well as spouses. Beryl's last few years were also spent battling leukaemia (and alcoholism to control the pain) which can't have been easy for her.

           (Shyer) Kathleen Marsh Miller           

Beryl and George Formby

George and Beryl attempt to make it as a double act (1920s)

Kathleen and Max also attempt to make it as a double act (1920s)