Bygraves started in show business with impersonations of Charles
Chaplin and Max Miller, from whom he borrowed the name Max. 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, 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.
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
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. 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.
Max then took up residence at the Victoria Palace
for two years following in the footsteps of the Crazy Gang. He
also 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
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 has managed to circle the planet no less than thirty times!
Radio, Television and Films
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 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. He even tried his hand at a
quiz show (‘Family Fortunes’) despite having
never managed to watch one all the way through.
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 remains a close
friend and was followed by no less than sixteen further Royal
Variety appearances. Amongst his proudest achievements is the
award of the OBE.
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, Hattie Jacques
and Tony Hancock.