One of the most famous songs of all time is surely ‘When I’m Cleaning Windows’ – the chirpy ditty written and performed by Lancashire-born singer, musician, actor and comedian George Formby. The song was first performed in the 1936 film, ‘Keep Your Seats Please’, which was a British comedy in which Formby starred alongside Alastair Sim.
When it was later released on record, it caused outrage due to what the censors felt were racy lyrics. Subsequently, it was banned by the BBC and couldn’t be played on the radio!
The ban related to the suggestion that the window cleaner inadvertently saw honeymoon couples through the window on his round, telling the audience, “You should see them bill and coo – you’d be surprised at things they do!”
Although the lyrics were accepted as part of the film – in which 32-year-old Formby played George Withers, who was a young man who learned he was to inherit some valuable jewellery from his aunt – they were vetoed right away by the BBC.
The ban wasn’t lifted until 1941, after Formby informed the BBC that the song was a favourite of the royal family. He pointed out that he had sung it for the King and Queen at the Royal Variety Performance and that no offence had been caused. The BBC finally relented and permitted it to be played on air.
Born in May 1904 in Wigan, Formby was one of the biggest stars of his day in the 1930s and ’40s. He almost didn’t become a film star, as he was a stable boy and jockey in his youth. He became a stable boy at the tender age of seven and was riding professionally by the time he was 10.
He began playing in music halls at the age of 17, after the sudden death of his father in 1921. His dad, George Formby Senior, had been a famous stage actor and comedian.
George Senior hadn’t wanted young George, or any of his six siblings, to enter show business, preferring them to find a ‘proper’ job instead, but the teenager had different ideas and was encouraged by his mother to pursue a stage career.
After two years learning his craft, during which time he married his sweetheart, Beryl, young George began to enjoy success. He broke into the music business in 1932, when he made a record with the Jack Hylton Band. The B-side, Chinese Blues, became a cult hit and turned into his signature tune, Chinese Laundry Blues.
Formby’s career spanned 40 years until his death in 1961. During the four decades, he made 21 hit films, wrote and sang more than 300 songs (including recording more than 230 hit records), he made hundreds of stage performances and appeared in two Royal Command Performances.
During World War II, he travelled to war zones to entertain the troops, performing live to boost morale for around three million Allied servicemen and women in Europe and across the Middle East.
He also made personal appearances in the US and gained a following in Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand. By 1939, he was noted as the highest paid entertainer in Great Britain, earning more than £100,000 a year – the equivalent of £1.7 million today. He was the equivalent of today’s A-list celebrity icons.
His success was attributed to his unique brand of Lancashire humour, combined with his skills as a musician – he played the ukulele to accompany many of his catchy and popular songs.
When I’m Cleaning Windows was also called The Window Cleaner, but everyone knew it by its more popular title. Sales of the record were huge and led to Regal Zonophone awarding Formby a silver disc after it sold more than 100,000 copies. It remained one of his most popular hits and brought the house down every time it was performed live, particularly for the troops.
Unfortunately, the entertainer died following a heart attack on 6th March 1961, at the young age of 56 years. After a lifetime of making people laugh, he will never be forgotten. His nostalgic films are still screened to this day!
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