Fine Time Fontayne is known to Coliseum audiences as the co-writer of the Coliseum’s panto and for his star turn every Christmas as the Coliseum’s Pantomime Dame, as well as regular appearances as what he jokingly calls a ‘proper actor’ with roles like the Fool in King Lear, directed by Jonathan Miller for Northern Broadsides. Fine Time Fontayne plays the Wigan born entertainer George Formby in Our Gracie.
We chatted to Fine Time about his connection to the theatre of the pre-war years.
“My much loved, much strummed ukulele actually came from George Formby, via a World War Two tribute act, George Hornby – there’s nothing new about those tribute acts – and would you Adam and Eve it he also did a roller skating act. It was actually George Hornby who taught me to play the ukulele. I love being connected to the theatre of the past, especially when I’m working in a theatre like the Coliseum that was knocking around when variety was, arguably, at its peak, entertaining millions every week.”
Talking with Fine Time, a myriad of connections with those stars of yesteryear is revealed including a further connection to George Formby. In the 1950s musical Zip Goes A Million, Formby played a Lancastrian window cleaner who becomes an accidental theatrical ‘angel’ – an investor in the show. The show, which actually had a month long try out run just up the road at Manchester’s Palace Theatre in 1951, went on to London’s West End where Formby actually suffered a heart attack, which he survived, six months into the run meaning he had to retire from the show. Zip Goes A Million also featured the talents of the American actress Barbara Perry who played the show girl, Lilac Delaney.
The year after Fine Time had played George Formby in Oldham Coliseum Theatre’s production of Cleaning Windows, he went up to the Edinburgh Festival and met Barbara Perry and got to compare notes with someone who’d worked with George Formby.
“It was wonderful to meet Barbara Perry and talk about the very international life the stars of variety from that period led. As well as working with George Formby, she’d worked with Eddie Cantor, Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and many of the Hollywood ‘Greats’. It’s interesting to think those who some might consider nowadays to be a Lancastrian curiosity like Gracie Fields and George Formby were actually very much more than that; they were part of this international firmament of stars. We listened to Gracie Field’s Desert Island Discs recorded on Christmas Day in 1961 as part of the prep for the show, and it’s fantastic to hear her Rochdale burr with a very definite cross over into Received Pronunciation and a transatlantic accent. These stars were much more than ‘local entertainment’; they were the international stars of the day”