With two decades of live television and stand-up comedy under his belt, Frank Skinner has had more than his share of nerve-racking moments. Yet none of them, he confesses, were quite as anxiety-inducing as stepping up to a microphone, ukulele in hand, to perform solo for a crowd of George Formby fans at their annual convention in Blackpool.
“They’re wonderful people, but they’re quite a demanding audience. They have very high standards and they watch your every move.”
As it happens, 54-year-old Skinner ended up acquitting himself pretty well on stage – much to his relief, given that his performance has been captured for posterity in a BBC4 documentary in which the Birmingham-born comedian explores George Formby’s life and legacy.
Skinner may seem an odd choice of presenter, but he’s a lifelong fan who jumped at the chance to investigate Formby’s story – and it is an extraordinary tale. When Formby died in 1961, aged 56, more than 150,000 fans lined the 20-mile route of his funeral procession.
With his trademark toothy grin and ukulele, Formby was an unlikely star, but he was an astonishingly successful one nonetheless. The mists of time may have distanced us from his achievements, but between 1938 and 1943, the Wigan-born performer was not just the UK’s but the world’s leading box-office attraction – his films rating ahead of stars like Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant and Errol Flynn.
In the process he earned himself a fortune, as Skinner reveals. “He made about 24 movies and he used to get about £35,000 a film — by modern standards that’s about £1,500,000. He was big time.”
His career was managed with steely precision by his wife Beryl, a former clog dancer seven years his senior whom Formby married at just 19 and who is generally credited with creating the Formby persona. “His wife changed the way he dressed, putting him in black tie. But most crucially she put the ukulele at the heart of his performance,” says Skinner.
And it’s the ukulele, he says, that is the key to Formby’s enduring popularity. Usually when you’re a fan of someone it’s a spectator sport, but George Formby fans all walk in his path, ukulele in hand.” It’s certainly the cornerstone of his own Formby enthusiasm, which has scaled new heights since he took up the instrument.
Raised in a music-loving household in Birmingham, Skinner can trace his affection for Formby back to his early childhood, when the entire family would hum along to his songs on the radio, but he says it’s only since taking up the ukulele four years ago that his admiration became fully fledged.
“It’s then that I really started to get it,” he says. “It’s such a craft and you realise Formby’s affable half-wit persona is only half the story.”
His route to ukulele ownership was an unlikely one, in many ways, unfolding against the backdrop of Fantasy Football League, the show he co-presented for a decade alongside David Baddiel.
“I wanted a way of explaining the rules of football that wasn’t just very dry, so I had the idea of dressing up as George Formby with a ukulele and doing it while strumming a few chords,” he recalls. “Baddiel loved it because the whole George Formby thing fitted in with his vision of me as the ultimate working-class boy.”
Four years ago, Baddiel presented him with a beautiful top-of-the-range instrument for his 50th birthday. “It was funny timing, because around the same time I was working on a television programme learning to play the banjo. Once I got the ukulele it became ‘the other woman.’”
Today, he now owns five instruments and counting. “There’s a saying I heard at the George Formby convention: ‘No one has one ukulele.’ And it’s true. Once you’ve got one you want to assemble more around you. I met people up there who’ve got 20. You tell yourself it’s because you want one that sounds a little bit more this way or that way, but really it’s because you just want more.”
For all its slightly comic resonance, Skinner says the instrument is deceptively tough. “It’s a bit like backgammon. It’s very easy to play and very difficult to play well. Once you start, you realise very quickly how brilliant Formby was.”
Skinner has had numerous lessons over the years, but says that the pleasure of ukulele ownership is not just about mastery. “Even though I’m not very good, I get a lot of pleasure out of playing. The one I play most is just out, on a table in the flat. So if I go to make a cup of coffee I walk past and pick it up and strum a couple of George Formby songs. It’s not something that ever gets put away.”
It turns out he’s not alone in his affection: there is, he jokes, a “secret celebrity underworld” of ukulele fans, including Nicky Campbell and Harry Hill. His long-term partner, Cathy Mason is, however, yet to be converted. “She’s not a fan of George Formby and she’s certainly not a fan of me playing the ukulele.”
Then again, there are like-minded souls a-plenty at the George Formby convention, an annual affair in Blackpool to which countless enthusiasts travel from all over the globe. Skinner attended the convention earlier this year and admits to loving every minute. “I didn’t meet a single person I didn’t like. People who like George Formby tend to have a warmth to them. George is profoundly anti-cool, that’s the thing.”
In one rather joyous scene in the documentary he’s filmed joining in what’s known as the “thrash”, a communal ukulele strum. “I don’t think I really appreciated the society until I took part in the thrash,” he says. “It’s a wonderful feeling.”
He plans to return to the convention, although not until he’s stepped up his solo abilities a notch or two. “I will definitely go back, but I don’t want to do it until I really feel I can play properly.”
It could be a lifetime’s work, he says, but he has no problem with that. “The ukulele is a beautiful thing to have in your life. It’s like a little bottle of joy.”
Frank Skinner on George Formby is tonight, 9pm, BBC4.
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 18 October.