He was the archetypal Northern comedian. Comics from the South of England tended to be brash and outgoing, impressing the audience with how clever they were. In the North this sort of style was not at all popular: Northern comics tended to be self-deprecating, bullied by their women, and often presented themselves as being adrift in the big city while thinking themselves sophisticated. This last theme can be heard in both the records here.
Formby started life working in a Manchester iron foundry, where he picked up a bronchial cough which he later made a feature of his act - his catchphrase, "Coughing better tonight" struck a chord with his audience, many of whom would probably die from the same disease - as did Formby himself, in 1921.
In the first record, he presents himself as a henpecked husband in true northern style. Incidentally, the 'lady' who asks his character "Have we not met before?" in the first chorus would have been recognized by the audiences of the time as a prostitute - no respectable woman would address a strange man in the street.
'John Willie - Come On!' (Jumbo 170)
rec. in London, c. September 1908.
'Playing The Game In The West'
rec. in London. c. August 1910.
His son started in much the same vein - indeed doing his father's material - and went on to develop the style. Interestingly, in his earlier films he is the typical northern 'gowk', bullied by his womenfolk and fairly useless (until he saves the day in the last reel); by the later films the character had softened and was also more self-assured, talking back to the women and taking some charge of situations. This was to broaden the appeal to southern audiences, who were never keen on the 'wet Willie' type of northern comic.
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