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Max 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 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. 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 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 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.

 
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