Hailed by his friend and comic Jimmy Tarbuck as “the king of the Palladium”, Max Bygraves rose from rags to riches in a career that spanned five decades, at one time being Britain’s highest paid performer and reportedly the country’s biggest single taxpayer.
For much of those 50 years, he appeared to have the luck – as well as the fortune – of Midas, finding success on the variety stage, in cabaret, radio, television, film, and, most conspicuously, with his long-running series of Singalongamax recordings that earned him sales in the tens of millions, plus 31 gold, 15 silver and three platinum discs.
Born Walter William Bygraves to a prize fighter turned docker father, he was one of six children in a two-room flat that was also home to three adults. Leaving school – where he had been a chorister – at 14, he had a succession of jobs, including as a messenger boy, shoe repairer and carpenter’s apprentice before enlisting as a fitter in the Royal Air Force in 1940.
Already experienced in talent contests and performing in pubs, Bygraves began entertaining troops by impersonating popular singers of the day and telling jokes that earned him what was to become his stage name. But by adding a hefty dash of sentiment and nostalgia to an act that was part music hall, part crooner, part cheeky chappie, he was as far removed from his namesake Max Miller as it was possible to be.
“I do saucy, but never blue, humour onstage,” he once said. “Mine is family entertainment. I never use four letter words and I wouldn’t know how to form them.”
Demobbed at war’s end, he set his sights on a professional career and found himself appearing in They’re Out, a BBC radio show that also featured young rising stars Jimmy Edwards, Spike Milligan and Frankie Howerd – with whom he later toured in the 1946 revue For the Fun of It.
By the end of the decade, Bygraves had appeared in three films, all released in 1949, of which the first was the comedy Bless ‘Em All. The following year, standing in for Ted Ray at the invitation of Val Parnell, he made his debut at the London Palladium and would go on to make 14 appearances there over the next decade. In all, he would return to the theatre for 19 Royal Variety Performances.
Having supported Hollywood legend Judy Garland during a month-long residency, he was whisked away by her to Broadway and then on to Hollywood to appear in her television show.
During the early part of the 1950s, a long stint in the hit radio show Educating Archie, in which he replaced the 14 year-old Julie Andrews, gave him access to a wider audience, and he produced several novelty song recordings with the show’s ventriloquist dummy star.
“I was talking to a block of wood,” he recalled. “But it gave me the catchphrase, ‘A good idea, son’. Tony Hancock was in the same series and hated Archie, wanting him to develop woodworm.”
Bygraves’ profile continued to grow throughout the decade, with notable appearances in the revues Wonderful Time and We’re Having a Ball. He began to enjoy success as a songwriter, too, taking what was to become his signature tune, You Need Hands, towards the top of the pop charts.
With changing fashions in the 1960s, Bygraves turned to television, appearing in Whack-O! (1960) and Drama 61-67 (1964), before co-writing his own eponymous show, Max, with Spike Mullins in 1969.
His other film work included the title role in Charley Moon (1956), A Cry from the Streets (1958), and Spare the Rod (1961). He was said to have been Alfred Hitchcock’s first choice for Frenzy in 1972, but was prevented from taking the role by a booking to perform cabaret in Manchester. His last onscreen appearance was playing Bud Flanagan in the Bill Cotton produced Call Up the Stars, in 1995.
As a songwriter, he enjoyed success with novelty songs such as You’re a Pink Toothbrush, I’m a Blue Toothbrush and Gilly, Gilly, Ossenfeffer, Katzenellen Bogen by the Sea. But it was as a singer that he excelled, drawing a large and loyal fan base that bought his easy listening Singalongamax series in volumes that defied the dominance of pop music, and with an ease typical of Bygraves’ laid-back stage persona. He recorded his last album, a charity release for the Royal British Legion, in 2001.
A two-year foray into hosting ITV gameshow Family Fortunes (1983-85) was one of the few projects he considered a failure, although his ear for a good tune was to make him a fortune when he bought the rights to Lionel Bart’s Oliver! for £350 and later sold them for £250,000.
Bygraves wrote the first of four memoirs in 1976, I Wanna Tell You a Story, echoing his most famous catchphrase, and his last, Stars in My Eyes – A Life in Show Business, in 2002. His only novel, The Milkman’s on His Way, was published in 1977.
Twice named personality of the year by the Variety Club of Great Britain, he spent much of his later years touring to ex-pats abroad and, more controversially, in South Africa while the apartheid regime was still in operation. He was appointed an OBE in 1983.
In 2005, he emigrated to Australia with his wife, Blossom, whom he had married in 1942 and with whom he had three children. He also had three other children as a result of affairs. In recent years he had suffered with Alzheimer’s disease.
Bygraves was born in Rotherhithe, east London, on October 16, 1922. He died at the age of 89, little more than a year since the death of his wife, in his sleep at home in Hope Island, Queensland, on August 31.