MAX Bygraves, the comedian, actor and singer whose music hall act once made him Britain’s best-paid entertainer, has died at the age of 89.
With a routine that relied heavily on nostalgia and his renditions of comic and
saccharine songs, he attracted devotion and good-natured ridicule in almost equal
measure during a remarkable six-decade career.
Famous for his catchphrase “I wanna tell you a story”,
London-born Bygraves, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease two years ago, died at home in Hope Island, Queensland, Australia.
His agent Johnny Mans announced that the entertainer, who sang numbers such as You Need Hands,
You’re A Pink Toothbrush and Tulips From Amsterdam, had died peacefully in his sleep on Friday.
“We have lost one of the best entertainers that Britain has ever produced,” Mans said.
“His death is a great loss to the entertainment profession and a great loss to all of his friends in the industry. He was a friend to everyone … there were no airs and graces.
“He had become confused and often wasn’t sure where he was. He was in good health otherwise, but would have turned 90 on 16 October so was pretty ancient. We were hoping to do a big concert for him soon.”
His friend, the radio disc jockey Ed Stewart, described Bygraves as a “unique talent” who “gave a lot of pleasure to a lot of people. He, as a person, never dated. He was a great character with a great sense of humour, a lovely family and it’s just a shame that he’s gone. But, at nearly 90, he had a good run.”
He added: “There were one or two others at the time but Max was the doyen of them all, and this likeable lad was just on everybody’s radio sets in the days of the BBC when you only had the live programmes. Those programmes and those records of his gave a lot of pleasure to a lot of people and were huge sellers.”
The entertainer with the chirpy Cockney character was born Walter William Bygraves on 16 October, 1922, in Rotherhithe, south-east London, the son of Henry Bygraves, a boxer and docker, and Lilian.
Bygraves was one of nine children brought up in a staunchly Roman Catholic family, living in a council flat in Rotherhithe rented for 8s 4d (about 42p) a week. He used to drag the River Thames for driftwood to earn pocket money. But his way out of poverty opened up when he realised he could make money from his talent for and love of music. He won a school talent competition at the age of 13, and as an altar boy made his first public appearance singing Handel’s Largo in Westminster Cathedral.
As a teenager, he sang at a Dagenham pub for 10 shillings (50p) a night. He later worked with an advertising agency, carrying copy to Fleet Street.
He made his first home in a Romford council house. When the Second World War broke out, he volunteered for the RAF and served five years as a fitter. It was during this time that he realised he could make people laugh and started getting called Max for his impressions of the Cockney comedian Max Miller. After the war, his commanding officer told him about some auditions at the BBC for a show for ex-servicemen. He went along and got work singing, telling jokes and doing impersonations.
He turned professional in 1946 and toured variety theatres throughout Britain, and three years later made his West End debut at the London Palladium. From then on, there was no looking back.
It was around this period he met the comedian Frankie Howerd. He recalled later: “Frankie read my palm and told me that I was going to be a millionaire and top of the bill one day. I thought he had got his wires crossed. Years
later, he reminded me of it and used it to get a free lunch out of me.”
He also appeared onstage with Howerd, Benny Hill, Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan. He appeared in New York’s Palace Theatre with Judy Garland.
But he really made his name in the radio show Educating Archie, which he wrote with his friend Eric Sykes, who died recently. It was Educating
Archie that produced his first catchphrases: “Good idea, son!” and “Big ’ead!”
By 1956, Bygraves was earning £1,000 a week, worth around £20,000 in today’s money. His albums sold more than 6.5 million copies, earning 31 gold discs. He also topped the bill at more Royal Variety Performances than any other artist. He appeared in no fewer than 17 royal shows.
He also starred in television series such as Singalongamax, Max Rolls On, Side By Side and the game show Family Fortunes. Bygraves’ versatility saw him appear in films including Charlie Moon, A Cry From The Streets and Spare The Rod.
He turned his hand to
writing in 1976 with his aptly named autobiography I Wanna Tell You A Story, and his novel The Milkman’s On His Way. In 2002, he was to have another book published, Stars In My Eyes, which he said was “about name-dropping, the laughter moments”.
Despite his musical offerings being the subject of lighthearted mockery by other comedians, including Morecambe and Wise, his record sales were phenomenal. Thirty gold discs and an Ivor Novello award for songwriting were testament to his success.
As well as his own musical royalties, he had a good ear for other people’s tunes. He bought the rights to an unknown musical score. That musical was Lionel Bart’s
Oliver! – and Bygraves made a fortune. He was awarded an OBE in 1983 but described himself as “just an ordinary Cockney bloke who made it”.
He met his wife Gladys –known as Blossom – at a concert at RAF Hornchurch in 1941. She died in 2011, a few years after the couple had moved to Australia from Dorset. They had three children: Christine, Anthony and Maxine.
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