Uke played in public at Covent Garden Show for the first time in over 40 years

Uke bequeathed to the Victoria and Albert Museum

I was privileged to be involved in a show at the Theatre Museum, Covent Garden, London, which was held to showcase the discovery of one of three of his Baby Gibson banjoleles. The instrument had been left to the Victoria and Albert museum following the death of its owner. Last year the museum held an exhibition of caricatures and the uke was displayed alongside one of George Formby. My friend Mark Walsh got to hear about this and went along to see for himself. He was delighted to see that it was the instrument that he had long felt was unaccounted for. He had seen it in George's possession on film and in photographs but it was never mentioned in discussions as to the whereabouts of George's instruments.

He requested permission to view the ukulele at close quarters and the museum curators very kindly agreed to this. Given the fact that he makes hand-made replicas of the Baby Gibson banjolele, he was very well qualified to assist the museum to identify a whole series of features which established beyond doubt that this was indeed George's uke. Not only that but it was clear that this uke had been used extensively by George Formby and that it was a highly significant and exciting discovery.

He took one of his own ukes with him and after he had demonstrated his own tremendous ability to both sing and play like George, the Museum curators hit upon the idea of organising a show at which Mark could demonstrate the uke to the general public. I was asked to come along on the day and give a presentation on George's life story, which I was naturally delighted to be able to do. We were also able to arrange to have two of George's close relatives - his brother Ted and his niece Geraldine, present on what was obviously going to be a momentous day. We were also to be joined by the Welsh comedian and pantomime dame Wynn Calvin who would be able to inform the audience as to why George Formby remains such a popular and fondly remembered character. Sunday, June 13th 2004 was chosen as the day for the show.

Sadly the week before the event was to take place Ted was unwell and so he was unable to attend on the day. Despite this disappointment, we carried on and it's fair to say we had an absolutely tremendous time. Mark opened the proceedings with an appropriate selection of George's songs. I then gave my presentation on the story of George Formby's life. I tried to emphasise that we were indeed involved in an historic day by referring to the significance of the Museum uke in relation to George's life and the fact that all his ukes were sold off in one go at the auction and, therefore, for so long no-one realised that this uke was missing. It really is an interesting story and it took about half an hour to do justice to it. Mark then brought the first half to a conclusion with four more Formby favourites.

After a twenty minute break we reconvened with a film clip of George playing the "Museum uke" and then came the big moment, when Mark took to the stage and played the uke itself for the first time in public for over 40 years. Unbelievably, as he started his rendition of Sitting On The Top Of Blackpool Tower, it was immediately clear that the uke was sounding as good as it ever had done (in spite having been untouched for all these years - same vellum, same strings). By the time Mark came to the solo, both player and instrument were sufficiently warmed up and it sounded glorious. What a moment this was. After the dust had settled, I took to the stage and we then began a discussion to explain to the audience all the details of the uke, the case and its contents which establish the provenance of the instrument and connect it so closely to George Formby.

After a short pause, the afternoon's entertainment continued with Wynn Calvin explaining why, in his opinion, George was loved by so many. This was all fascinating stuff and was peppered with interesting and hilarious anecdotes and asides. After about an hour Wynn took a well-deserved rest and I sang "Out In The Middle East" - a song that amazingly Mark doesn't know! We had talked a lot about George's contribution to national morale during the war and this song seems to sum that up perfectly. Mark then brought the show to a conclusion, again playing George's uke, with a rendition of "Leaning On A Lamppost". Mark's playing was first class and again the uke sounded tremendous. The audience displayed their appreciation of the contributions of all concerned with generous applause and so all that remained was for the uke to be returned to its safe-keeping in the Museum vaults.

Show report by Andrew Little 15.06.04

Here's a photo of Mark with George's uke.

And here's me with George's uke. Don’t we just look happy!

If you would like to speak to Mark directly he can be contacted by email - or alternatively his mobile number is : 07939 664645
If you would like to write to Mark send your letter to my address (detailed below) and I will forward it to him.




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