When I was a child, I was often taken to the Pier Theatre in Bournemouth to see “Maxy” – his career started out with him being called Wally, ironically enough, given the change in the meaning of that word in the intervening period, as his first name was Walter – either in a variety show (remember them?) or playing a lead like Buttons in a pantomime.
A family entertainer. There used to be lots of them, although they now seem an endangered species.
My dear old mother adored Max. He was whimsical, funny, and clean (mother was a bit of a puritan on the quiet) and had a beautiful and peculiarly accented voice which was utterly unmistakable.
His punchline, “I wanna tell you a story” was instantly recognised, impersonated and repeated around the Anglophone world. Only bad luck prevented him becoming as big a star in the States as he was throughout the British Empire.
And now, he’s dead, of the same disease that took my Mum – Alzheimers – in World Alzheimer’s Awareness Week, too.
Max seems to have been following me around the world. We used to live in the same town – Bournemouth, or “Costa Geriatrica” as my friends and I called it – although if I recall correctly he lived in a clifftop mansion right in the middle of the swankiest bit of town overlooking the sea, with a Roller parked in the drive, and we lived in a modest bungalow a few streets back from the sea in an unfashionable suburb.
Max Bygraves as “cheeky chappie” Max Miller
Then again, he was a megastar, and I was the son of a widow who worked as a school playground attendant. But when Maxy smiled at you, it was obvious, despite his legendary “tightness” with money, that the warmth of his love for his audience matched that of theirs for him. Then Bygraves and his wife moved from Bournemouth to Queensland, Australia, in 2008. She died there in 2011, aged 88. I hope they both enjoyed the sunshine.
Tight with money?
Yes, so it was rumoured. Like many who make it big in entertainment, he originally came from straightened circumstances. Bygraves was born the son of poor Catholic parents in London. He grew up in a two-room council flat with his five siblings, his parents and a grandparent. His father was a professional flyweight boxer, known as Battling Tom Smith, and a casual dockworker. Presumably money came into the household sporadically. He attended St Joseph’s School, Paradise Street, Rotherhithe, and sang with his school choir at Westminster Cathedral.
War-time found him an apprentice carpenter by day and, by night, entertaining in local air raid shelters. With two younger sisters evacuated, a brother serving and his docker father often posted to ports throughout Britain, the flat seemed spacious.
The docks proved to be a magnet for enemy bombers and took a pasting. Infuriated by a near miss whilst repairing war damage, he volunteered for the RAF two months before his eighteenth birthday where he appeared in well over 1,000 RAF concert parties acquiring on the way the title of the ‘Best Act in Fighter Command’ as well as being Aircraftsman Second Class 1212094 and doing his share of guard duties on draughty airfields.
His peak year as a singer came in 1958. His two most famous hit singles, “You need hands” and “Tulips from Amsterdam” both went to number 3 in what we used to call “the hit parade” and were played constantly for a generation. When he later morphed into a game show host he just built his popularity further. His two most famous songs can be heard here:
Max Bygraves started in show business with impersonations of Charles Chaplin and Max Miller. As a boy, he had seen the legendary entertainer at the New Cross Empire. “He was magic to watch. There was nobody to touch him,” says Max. His namesake was much later a poignant guest on Eamonn Andrews’ ‘This is your Life’ which featured Max in 1963.
At much the same time he found himself sitting next to Charlie Chaplin whilst waiting for a haircut at Ivan’s in Jermyn Street!
After being de-mobbed from the services, Max learned his trade in the 200 variety theatres that, together with radio, made up the popular entertainment world of the day. He had become a top act by the fifties, as well as making his name in radio at a time when audiences made up half the nation, and television was in its infancy.
Max Bygraves and Judy Garland – his fellow stars loved him as much as the public.
The London Palladium was then the world’s premier variety theatre, attracting the world’s top acts. His first appearance there was to deputise over three shows for the long-established Liverpudlian comic, Ted Ray, whilst still carrying out an engagement at the Finsbury Park Empire.
This was in 1950 when Dorothy Lamour somewhat improbably adorned the top of the bill following her success in the Road films with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. Max seized his opportunity and impressed the great Val Parnell and was rewarded with seasons starring Abbott and Costello and then Donald Peers. All in all he appeared in fourteen shows at the Palladium in ten years.
An appearance on the Palladium bill with Judy Garland led to an invitation to appear with her at the Palace Theatre, New York. Max opened there on his 29th birthday and went on tour America in 1950-52 (when he took along the entire Bygraves family). Son Anthony’s first claim to fame at the age of five was to be rescued from drowning from a Hollywood pool by actor James Mason and Frank Sinatra accompanied by Ava Gardner (and an anxious dad).
As one of the first UK imports into the US from the world of variety since Harry Lauder, Max made a raft of friends amongst the top rank of American stars including Milton Berle, Clark Gable, Jack Benny, Jimmie Durante, and many other superstars of the time. All of which made for a rich vein of anecdotes to be mined for his various books.
What a line up. I can hardly imagine what a show like this would cost today.
It was only a prolonged strike by the Musicians’ Union which prevented him taking over the Jackie Gleason Show on prime time television during the great man’s absence on holiday. Having run out of dollars (this was the time of exchange controls), he spent some time in Bermuda preparing and waiting for the strike to end. How differently things may have turned out if the dispute had been settled earlier! Eventually a young family and heavy commitments at home caused him to abandon his ambitions in the new world and return home where he was already a headline act and stardom beckoned.
He starred in a number of West End shows like ‘Do Ra Me’ which ran for eight months of 1961 at the Prince of Wales but found the constraints of musical theatre, where each performance had to be identical and the cast were dependent on each other for their cues. Max was happier to evolve and develop a performance, reacting to audiences and circumstances. He found himself working the club scene more as variety theatres morphed into bingo halls and rock and roll took over the entertainment world.
The decades passed with television keeping him in the public eye with summer seasons in the UK followed by winter tours in Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and Canada. Max managed to circle the planet no less than thirty times during his career.
Max’s first TV performance was transmitted live in 1947 from Alexandra Palace. This was eventually followed by a multitude of guest appearances on shows like ‘Saturday Night at the London Palladium’, and ‘The Black and White Minstrel Show’. 1972 saw the start of the series ‘Max’ with band leader Geoff Love, a much-loved (if you will pardon the pun) partnership that lasted over fifteen years. This success lead to ‘Max at the Royalty’, and ‘I Wanna sing you a story’ and then ‘Singalongamax’.
These programmes often attracted audiences in the region of 25 million apiece, enormous by present day standards, and they also helped generate huge record sales.
It is not widely remembered that Max had a film career of sorts. His feature films included ‘Charlie Moon’ (1954) and ‘A Cry from the Streets’ (1960) where he drew no salary, successfully gambling on garnering a percentage of the profits. These led, many years later, to a long meeting in London with famed film director Alfred Hitchcock, who liked what he saw in ‘A cry from the streets’, when he was offered a part in the film ‘Frenzy’. A variety date in Manchester proved impossible to shift and the part went to another. Hitchcock did promise to consider Max for a part in his next film but ‘Frenzy’ proved to be his last and he passed to the great projector room in the sky soon after.
Max Bygraves’ first appearance at a Royal Command variety show was before George VI in 1950. It was scripted by Eric Sykes who remained a close friend (and who died very recently as well) and was followed by no less than sixteen further Royal Variety appearances.
His first Royal Command appearance in 1950 led to him join radio’s ‘Educating Archie’ which made him a household name and where catch phrases like ‘Big ’ed’, ‘Good idea…………son!’, and ‘I’ve arrived and to prove it I’m ‘ere’ passed into the language and are often repeated today, fifty years later, without realisation of their origins! The show ran for 11 years on BBC radio (the main writer was close friend Eric Sykes) and was also the springboard for a golden age of top names including Julie Andrews, Eric Sykes, Beryl Reid, Harry Secombe, (who sat at the next desk to my father at school in Swansea), Hattie Jacques and Tony Hancock.
Max was awarded the OBE for his services to entertainment. Thanks for the memories, Max. Sleep well.