Obituary: Max Bygraves
- 1 September 2012
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
With an act that relied on sentiment and nostalgia as much as talent and timing, Max Bygraves was a family favourite, bringing music hall tradition to his audiences.
Bygraves' poverty-stricken background provided him with many an anecdote. The son of an East End boxer, Max - born Walter "Wally" Bygraves - grew up in a two-room council flat with his parents, one grandparent and five siblings for company.
Money was virtually non-existent, so the boy who became one of Britain's highest-paid entertainers left school at 14. He went to the Savoy Hotel in London to work as a pageboy, but they threw him out for being too tall.
Working as a builder at the outbreak of World War II, he once came within 100 yards of a bomb explosion.
He later joined the RAF and on his very first night of service, his impersonation of comedian Max Miller gave him his enduring nickname. His singing and dancing act made him much in demand, and it was during this time that he first met his wife Blossom.
Back from the war, Bygraves's good fortune held out, and he appeared on stage with Frankie Howerd, Benny Hill, Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan.
But he really made his name in the radio show Educating Archie, which he wrote with his friend Eric Sykes. In this, he gave audiences his first catchphrases "good idea, son!" and "big'ead!"
When he first appeared at the London Palladium with Judy Garland in the early 1950s, the American superstar took him back to New York with her. The versatile young Briton performed on Broadway for five months.
Back on English ground, his act established Bygraves firmly in the musical hall tradition and made him a variety show favourite.
And when he told us to Sing-along-a-Max, recording his nostalgic tunes in medley form, his record sales were phenomenal: Thirty gold discs and an Ivor Novello award for songwriting measured his success.
Relaxed and cosy on stage, his professionalism carried him through 20 Royal Variety Shows, but also extended to his business sense.
As well as his own musical royalties, he bought the rights to an unknown musical score when he spotted a tune he liked.
The musical was Lionel Bart's Oliver! - and Bygraves made a fortune.
Defied changes in entertainment
Like Oliver, Bygraves' financial success was all the more marked for the contrast with his childhood, and he never failed to enjoy his pennies.
He retreated to his 84-acre Australian property every winter and drove a Rolls Royce with the licence plate MB1. Mercedes-Benz offered him £15,000 for the registration - but Bygraves refused to part with it.
He delved into serious drama in the 1960s, appearing in the films Cry from the Streets and Spare the Rod and television quiz shows in the 80s with two series of Family Fortunes.
But Bygraves always belonged in the music hall and it was the Variety Club of Great Britain that honoured his 70th birthday with a celebratory lunch.
With his old-fashioned act, Bygraves inspired as much ridicule as affection amongst modern audiences.
But he defied constant changes in entertainment to remain one of Britain's best loved entertainers for more than six decades in showbusiness.