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About a couple of weeks ago I caught a little piece on The One Show about Max Bygraves, a name from my childhood and someone I hadn't thought about much, if at all, since I gave up singing along to such things as 'Gilly Gilly Osenfeffer Katzenellen Bogan by the Sea' and 'You're a Pink Toothbrush, I'm a Blue Toothbrush.' The person talking about him was his son, Anthony, and the piece was delivered with great affection for his Dad. A day or so later whilst in the library there was Max's autobiography sitting on the shelf just asking to be read.
I should perhaps explain for younger readers that my title refers to one of Max Bygraves' catchphrases. For those of you who are mere babies rather than baby-boomers, Max was big in the Fifties and Sixties and even the Seventies, before slowly drifting into relative obscurity though popping up every so often to record another Singalonga record for the Wartime generation. I thought he'd been dead for years but apparently not: He's living out his twilight years in Australia. I'm always a little wary of autobiographies mainly because they tend to be filled with dropped name and it's difficult for anyone to tell their story without making themselves the hero and generally bigging themselves up somewhat. Max Bygraves' book is filled with dropped names, it's true, after all he rubbed shoulders all his showbiz life with the great and the good, but he tells his story in a very unassuming and self-deprecating way and the sheer likability of the man comes shining through each page.
The foreword to the book is written by Johnny Mans, Max's theatrical agent, who says "He's a great raconteur who achieves an instant rapport with his audience" and I can attest to that. Max Bygraves tells his life story (or at least his life from 1922 till 1997) in an easy and chatty style, totally without self-aggrandisement and in a manner which is never boring. This is the story of a Rotherhithe boy made good.
One slight word of warning, although I'm sure no offence was intended, Max is of the generation who don't believe in being politically correct and though I'm sure he isn't a homophobe there's a part of the book where he refers to gay people as 'nancy boys', because that's how they were spoken of at the time of which he's writing, and I suppose some people may find this offensive. It is relevant to his life story if only to demonstrate to the readers just how naïve he was as a lad.
Max Bygraves wasn't born a Max at all but was, in fact, a Walter, the son of Henry and Lily Bygraves. Henry had an alter-ego, Battling Tom Smith, a professional prize fighter, ex-professional soldier and sometime docker and from Max's account his childhood was extremely poor but happy. Every page of these early chapters is filled with one liners such as when talking about his childhood days "Going for a 'dip' in the river at Rotherhithe wasn't quite the same as everywhere else. The 'dip' was short for Diphtheria! It's a wonder any of us survived when you look at it through the eyes of present-day health visitors and social workers."
I found these early chapters to be a real eye opener, detailing what life was like for thousands of people crammed into the East End in the decade or so after the First World War. This is poverty before the Welfare State had really got going but the Bygraves were more fortunate than most: their parents were hard working, honest and upstanding and put family before everything. Walter's father was also big on education and having spent four years of his army life in France, he set about teaching his children French as well as how to survive on very little money. Even when the young Walter left school and began work as a messenger for an advertising company in Holborn, money was still tight and most of his wages went towards supporting the family but he'd save up his tips and treat himself to a night at the Holborn Empire every so often which fuelled his love of the theatre and entertainment.
When the Second World War began, Walter was only 17 but as soon as he was 18 he joined the RAF. On his first night when all the new recruits were in the NAAFI, the call went out for anyone who'd done any entertaining and he volunteered to do a turn: a Max Miller impersonation which by all accounts was very well received and from that day on young Walter Bygraves was known as Max. It was during his relatively early days in the RAF that Max met Blossom, a young WAAF and began a rather precarious courtship. Blossom was a spiritualist but when she asked Max if he believed in spiritis, he replied "Only out of a bottle" which she didn't find particularly funny. After such a rocky start it's surprising to discover that Max went on to marry Blossom and 69 years later, they're still together! As Max says "We were married in September 1942 and we've never had a cross word since - I know when to keep my mouth shut!" (They just don't tell 'em like they used to!)
When Max volunteered for the RAF, he'd hoped to be flight crew but it was discovered he had a problem with his eyesight. As ground crew, Max had a relatively easy war when compared to many, never being stationed overseas and during his service, he also began to appear in various RAF concert parties. By the time the War was eventually over, Max had become a family man with a young daughter and he was working in the building trade by day and doing various gigs by night, all of which was proving pretty exhausting. Eventually, Max and Blossom made the decision to head for Australia rather than remain in post-War Britain. However, before they set sail, Max was offered a spot in a new BBC Radio Show 'They're Out' so plans for Australia were immediately put on hold as it looked as though Max had made it into show business. It may seem strange to us now but a radio slot in those days was really hitting the big time with expected audiences averaging 30 million!
The chapters dealing with Max's early showbiz career don't go into laborious detail but are peppered with names from the Fifties such as Ted Ray, Jimmy Edwards, Eric Sykes and Donald Peers. Max tells the odd anecdote to show that it wasn't all beer and skittles. At one stage, he was left high and dry when during a ten week tour, rather trustingly, he gave half his weekly wages to a certain Eric Payne, who at the end of the tour promptly disappeared with said savings. When Max joined the cast of 'Educating Archie' starring Peter Brough - a radio ventriloquist?! he had definitely arrived as the show turned Max into a celebrity, along with one of his co-stars, Julie Andrews. By the way, anybody who's seen film of Peter Brough and his pal, Archie Andrews, will understand why he was a radio ventriloquist: he was no darned good!
And as for Australia, as Max's fame grew his tours began to take in more far flung destinations and during one visit to Australia, he and Blossom made the decision to buy a property out there, despite knowing they'd have very little leisure time to spend out there whilst he was working at such a hectic pace.
Halfway through the book, Max suddenly begins to write in diary format which threw me a bit. Starting with December 1996 he records daily happenings but he also does a lot of reflecting on his earlier life with quite a few extra anecdotes and wisecracks thrown in for good measure. The book also has a chapter at the end entitled 'Stars in my eyes' involving quite a bit of name dropping, where Max goes into detail about some of the people he's worked with over the years. He's keen to point out that these people are included because he admires them rather than to demonstrate just how many famous people he's known over the years.
You won't find any salacious gossip or startling revelations here either. This is a book written by a nice man who only says nice things about the people he's known, even those who've treated him less than fairly! Even the sad events in his life, such as the death of his parents, are glossed over with a light touch giving the impression that this is a man who always looks at the world with smiles, though sometimes he's smiling through his tears.
There are quite a few black and white photographs accompanying the text, many of them shots from the family album and they all show a happy, family man.
Although this was an enjoyable read, I must admit to finding the earlier parts of the book dealing with his childhood and youth much more interesting than his later show business career and I wish that he'd spent more time writing about those early days. I'm sure for any entertainer being asked to appear on the Royal Variety Show is just about the pinnacle of their career but as I've refrained from watching any of these events since about 1966, who appeared alongside him and what the Queen said to him in the line-up made for a completely underwhelming read.
The book is available from Amazon from 1p plus postage. It isn't a work of great literature, and despite there not being any startling new facts or anything particularly exciting recorded here, it's an enjoyable as well as a light and easy autobiographical read. Though I didn't feel I knew Max Bygraves any better when I'd finished reading it than I did at the beginning, it confirm my opinion that he's a nice chap without any airs and graces who's extremely thankful for the good things his fame and fortune have brought him.