IN MAY this year, the George Formby Society will celebrate the centenary of the film star’s birth. But for Basingstoke people, it will be the 60th anniversary of his arrival in the town in April 1944, to make the film He Snoops to Conquer.

George Formby, born in Wigan in 1904, was the son of a comedian, and although he wanted to be a jockey, George eventually decided on a life as a comic, his first appearance being at the Hippodrome in Earlstowne, Lancashire.

His wife, Beryl, managed his career and they travelled around the north of England.

As his popularity increased, he came to the south of England, where his fame led to appearances in a series of low-budget, slapstick comedies.

He portrayed a shy young man with an irrepressible grin and an ever-ready ukulele to accompany his songs, some of which were very popular, including When I’m Cleaning Windows.

From 1934 to 1946 he was one of Britain’s most popular stars, and when the ENSA entertainment organisation was formed in August 1939, to keep the troops amused in Europe during the Second World War, George Formby was one of many singers to travel to France and other countries where servicemen were fighting.

When George returned to London he spent time visiting the London Underground to amuse the hundreds of people sheltering from the Blitz, and play his ukulele with songs that they could sing to.

By 1945, George’s broad northern humour had fallen out of favour with many of the cinema audiences and he discontinued making films. Instead, he returned to the stage and the south of England saw little of him until he appeared in a musical called Zap goes a Million at the Palace Theatre in London in 1951.

He later appeared at the London Palladium and in various resorts in summer season shows, as well as on television, but he was plagued by ill health.

When his wife died in 1960 he became friendly with a schoolteacher and he planned to marry again. But, in February 1961, George died just before the wedding day, aged 56.

George’s visit to Basingstoke in 1944 brought out crowds of people whenever he was seen with the film crew on the streets of the town.

The story of He Snoops to Conquer dealt with the corrupt workings of the town council of “Tangleton”, who were doing nothing about post-war planning in the area.

George played an odd-job man at the town hall who was supposed to destroy letters of complaint from the public concerning the lack of housing, but, instead, he accidentally gets them blown away across the town. The local people realise what is happening and they eject the council members.

Certain scenes were filmed in Church Square – where the Second World War bomb damage was still much in evidence – Eastrop Lane and Lower Brook Street.

In the latter road (which was partly demolished for the 1960s Town Development Scheme) the film set was besieged by dozens of schoolchildren from Brook Street School at home time, and the chatter of their voices almost drowned out George Formby’s words. However, despite this, the scene was left in the film.

While some of the film stars were staying at the Red Lion Hotel in London Street, a private from the Royal Fusiliers entered their rooms and stole some of their property. The police arrested him and he was later sentenced to nine months imprisonment.

The film was put on general release to British cinemas in early 1945, and the local folk crowded into the cinema where it was being screened.

It was the only time they were able to see it, for after it was panned by critics, who said it was “not Formby’s usual type of humour”, it was never seen again.

It has never appeared on television or at any cinemas since that time, and only one print of the negatives has been produced, for the George Formby Society.

This sad state of affairs was probably given a sign of forewarning by an accident on the day that George was to say his farewells to crowds of local folk in the Market Square.

As he stood on the Town Hall balcony to make a short speech, the microphone failed to work.

He shouted down to the people below but the traffic noise prevented many folk hearing him.

Legend tells us that the electrician was chased out of the town!