With my little ukelele in my hand


Most people of a certain age have at least heard of George Formby, even if they don’t really know anything else about him. David Skinner likes him a lot. So do I. And so, fairly strangely I’ve always thought, do Italian language students learning English. The freakier the student, the more dreadlocked, the more apparently rebellious, the more they rock out to a fine ukelele solo in the classroom.

Which makes no sense to me, but it works.

I give them a lyric sheet. If I feel like it, and I usually do, I tell them how George got really rich doing these silly songs and how the BBC kept trying to ban him for obscenity, and how they actually did ban When I’m Cleaning Windows. I ask them to find the obscene words, which is a bit of a challenge because Mr Formby wasn’t stupid, however he appeared on stage. There aren’t any. Not a single word you couldn’t happily say in front of your grandmother, Lancashire accent or no.

It wasn’t the words he said that got him banned. Like a lot of older English humour, it was the words he didn’t say that did it. And if you can work out what someone didn’t say then your English is coming on pretty well.

There was a laughably intense article in the Guardian claiming that the BBC had banned the record because of the immorality of singing about a window cleaner peering through hotel windows, noting that a bridegroom was doing fine and wishing he had his job instead of a chamois leather, peering only briefly at the Madonna-like film star staying there after seeing on unexpected – and unwanted – inspection that she was nearer 80 than 18.

I don’t think it was that at all. I think it was the seemingly innocuous line ‘pyjamas lying side by side, ladies nighties I have spied.’

The specific mention of ladies’ nighties makes pyjamas conspicuously male. And here, m’lud, there was unarguable evidence of two – and I hesitate to describe the baseness of this allegation to the court, but yet I must – yes, two men sharing the same bed. At a time when they’d both have been sent to prison even if they were lucky enough not to get electric shock treatment to cure them of gayness. Perhaps Mr Rees-Mogg might revise this policy when he’s Home Secretary, but for now the nonsensical non-issue makes it hard to decipher exactly why the BBC foamed at the mouth over this song in particular if that wasn’t the (ahem) root cause. As it were.

But anyway. I tell the kids to mark up every single word on the lyric sheet they don’t understand – yes I know you’re not supposed to do that, and it’s bollocks – and tell them specifically that if they mark every word on the page then utterly good, because they’ll then know them by the end of the lesson. And also that if they don’t mark a word as unknown and they don’t know it when I ask them then there will be trouble.

We put the words on the board, we see if anyone in the class knows them, if they don’t then I draw them, if they still don’t get it I tell them, then they translate it back into Italian and write it down. It doesn’t sound it but it’s hard work. One class got 127 new words out of five songs once. Which given you need 400 to get by in a new language isn’t bad going from listening to silly songs written a long time ago, 99.5% of which are in everyday use now.

New words learned we read through, first me then them. Then we sing it. Growl it, anyway. Nobody’s yet done the air uke solo, but dreadlock shaking and foot tapping is pretty much standard.

Should I be giving teenagers a thorough grounding in 1930s smut? Not in any text book I ever saw. I did it once for a joke, Formby being the only CD in my bag and being desperate for something to do, and it worked spectacularly. So I kept it. On a two-week course you get to dig around the more obscure parts of the Formby back catalogue, but nothing quite stirs the heart so much as deprived teenagers from some Milanese high-rise bellowing about Mr Wu’s mangling of George’s dicky.

Turned out nice, as Mr Formby said, after all.

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Turned out nice again

George Formby played the ukelele when his father George Formby died and he got too heavy to train racehorses. After a year or two he was earning what would now be £15,000 a week. All he did was sing, write silly songs and play the ukelele. So it’s a bit hard to see why the BBC banned him.

But they did.

The song that got most up their nose was ‘When I’m Cleaning Windows.’

Pretending to be a window cleaner the song romps through the things a window cleaner sees. Honeymooners billing and cooing, a drunk so dehydrated he drank his bath, a woman who must surely be Madonna’s grandma ‘nearer 80 than 18.’ There isn’t a single swear-word or explicit sexual reference in the song. Not one. There never was in any of Formby’s stuff. He had more sense and the past is another country; they did things differently there. And he made people laugh. A lot.

Forty Years On

He managed it, churning out films and songs all of that time, because the audience was in on the joke. And it was a joke. Nothing he sang was even as risque as a Carry On film, although Sid James probably would have appreciated Formby hugely, I’d guess.

So why the ban?

The Guardian, bless it and its teenage writers scribing Comment Is Free (or as close to free as anyone desperate for what they fondly beleive will be a start in serious journalism with out an Oxbridge education will settle for, £80 being the going rate last time I checked), though it was this verse that made the BBC go full Whitehouse:

Pyjamas lying side by side/Ladies nighties I have spied/I’ve often see what goes inside/When I’m cleaning windows.

They thought it was the ‘ladies nighties’ reference, thinking an oblique reference to nudity would do it. Given that there are references to flashing and proto-cougarism later in the song, I don’t think that’s it at all.

If nighties are synonymous with ladies’ night attire, it follows that pyjamas, for the purpose of the song, serve as cladding for men during the hours of darkness. And here, m’lud, we have clear evidence of the depravity this buch toothed grinning corruper of a nation’s morals was capable of; the veritable torrent of filth that flowed from his lips. This was, after all, a society that rewarded Alan Turing, the man who if anyone did, won the war singlehanded by setting up the mechanism to crack the Enigma code and inventing modern computing by  chemically castrating him because he liked going to bed with people of the same sex.  They kept on at him until he killed himself. Well done, Alan. Congrats and all that, a tad obliged and so on, but we think you’re a disgusting pervert and frankly, we’re better off without people like you. As a grateful nation put it at the time.

So if this chippy Lancastrian thought he was going to get away with this kind of smut polluting the airwaves then he’d jolly well got another thought coming. I think that was the reason. But who knows now? Perhaps they just didn’t like ukeleles.

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