So another light in the galaxy of stars has been extinguised, with the passing of Max Bygraves on Friday in Australia, saw another performer of the variety theatres and also at the early age of Independent Television exit the stage. Bygraves who had moved to Australia to live with his daughter had been diagnosed with Altzheimer's disease in later life. As earlier this year his family put out in the press appeals to send Max postcards from fans of his work and general fans as they would remind him of his career and what he done. late October, he would have been 90 and for nearly fifty years Max performed on stage at the leading variety venues throughout the country, also on television with various series through out his career as well as guest spots on other shows.
Max himself has born Walter William Bygraves in Rotherhithe, London in 1922 to his father a professional flyweight boxer Battling Tom Smith and his mother as well. He grew up in a council flat with five siblings, his parents and a grandparent. Attending St Jospeph's School in Rotherhithe, his talent of singing was apparent when singing with his school choir in Westminster Catherdral.
After leaving school at 14, Max went and become a pageboy at the Savoy hotel, but this didnt last long as he was thrown out for being too tall. So he went and became a messenger for a advertising agency in Fleet Street, surrounded by the national press, this seemingly seemed like a fitting place for Max to start his working career with the fame he was to achieve. With the outbreak of World War II, he became a fitter in the RAF and also working as a carpenter, but it was here where Max met WAAF Sergeant Gladys 'Blossom' Murray in 1942 and they got married in that year, having three children Christine, Anthony who followed his father into showbusiness and also Maxine as well.
It was around this time, that Max put his talents for singing to good use by becoming a performer touring around the variety theatres of the time, as he went he added more comedy into his act with nod to comedian Max Miller, where he had taken his name to use as a stage name. Going from town to town, his popularity grew and grew before with the advent of commercial television that the huge variety performers of the day, combined touring with appearing on television. Appearances on Sunday Night at the London Paladium and also Crackerjack cemented with popularity to no end, so much that he appeared on no less then twenty Royal Variety Performances added to any number of appearances on The Good Old Days and other variety shows. But he had grown to one of the top performers in the country when television came calling again for him to be the star of his own shows and specials.
In 2010, three of Max's entertainment specials made for Thames Television were released onto DVD after many years of being in the archives. The first of which shows the pulling power of a star of Max's quality including George Burns, Jim Backus and Judith Durham from Australia as well. Add in Geoff Love and his Orchestra plus The Mike Sammes Singers, this entertainment of huge quality as well. Max starts off the show with great song introducing the participants in that week's show one by one, before going into a comedy routine, it may seem out of place today but Max's style keeps the audience laughing along with asides and silly jokes as well. This also gives Max the chance to perform some schitck with Geoff Love usually referring to his speech impediment or skin colour, considering the time that it was made in which was a different one to today which is just part of his act. But Geoff always dukes it out with Max to hold his own, now this takes the form of any front of curtain comedy which Max would have been used to on the variety stage whilst scene hands changed the scenery behind the curtains. But it takes his comedy and gives a use to hold the programme together and make it more then just a man singing for an hour on stage.
His friendship with Judy Garland shows Max's appeal not only here but in America plus with quality of George Burns appearing on his specials shows made them special in themselves, allowing the vaudeville stars from Hollywood to come over to London and do their act sometimes for the first time on British Television. But this led to Max going to America going to to perform his act over there, but it was Britain was his bread and butter. Max's series of this style of this show lasted for just over a decade from 1969 to 1980 in many forms and with many titles. During this even supplimenting this with many album releases to tie-in with the television series and apart from them. One of the most, not strangest album one which is a lot different from Max's usual ones is Disco-a-longa Max, trying to capture the disco wave that was taking place during the late 1970's with him performing several of his standards but with a disco beat behind them. Well, I susposed if Reginald Bosanquet can just speak over a disco track, then sure Max can have a go himself as most people had tried themselves.
Come the early 1980's the specials and series had dried up, but Max continued to record albums and make guest spots on other shows, when in 1983 a opportunity came up which not many people were to see coming at all. When Bob Monkhouse left Central after launching Family Fortunes in 1980 to go to the BBC in 1983, there was a host shaped hole in the middle of Family Fortunes and with Jon Scoffield, the head of Entertainment at Central had to fill it. Now William G. Stewart who had done the early Family Fortunes had left the show but when Bob Monkhouse left he had first refusal to come back to produce the shows, so he did but with an idea of who to get to present. William G. Stewart later on went onto The Price is Right where he used another variety performer whose career was bubbling under and bring them back to where they should be with Leslie Crowther, but before that he used the trick first with taking Max Bygraves who after his Thames shows had finished wasn't doing much and put him forward to be the new host of Family Fortunes, where Crowther had worked well, this was not to work as well.
From the first programme, where Max seems to be in his element, slowly over time that with the requirement to be a more straighter host then a entertainer, he does seem to be out of his depth a little. As the game slows down, he doesn't remember prize cues and seeming going too slow and costing the family the big money prize at the end. Although not a great host, Max was give three series and over time he did get better, but he is remember as the host on the now infamous 'Turkey' episode with Bob Johnston in the Big Money game the answer 'Turkey' to each question. But even before then, with the strange and silly answers flowing about more freely then usually, its little wonder that Max could keep the show going along at his steady pace. Though remembered for all the other reason, this is where he reaches his zenith as having finally settled into the role at last, Max just lets the game flow knowing that how bad it can get it will still make for a good television and great laugh for the people at home watching.
After three series, Central decided to give Family Fortunes a break before coming back with Les Dennis in 1987, but Max kept the show going along when it could have easily been cut from the schedules when Bob Monkhouse left and did a decent job of presenting.
Even after leaving Family Fortunes, Max kept on appearing on other television programmes as a guest and sometimes even singing as well, but he was never to have another weekly show ever again, but the story doesn't end there though. He kept on recording right into his 70's and even in 1999, tried for the Christmas Number One spot with Milly the Millenium Bug, sadly it didn't get there or even chart but this was a throw-back to Max's older songs but it sounded fresh and new, even though he wasn't on television any more and living his life down in Bournemouth, it gave a reminder of why Max was so good at his peak and brought some fun once again.
Max was sadly not to make his 90th birthday later this year, but the memories of his days as variety performer, singer, television star and gameshow host remind us of why he was one of the great performers to held up there with Morecambe and Wise, Bruce Forsyth, Des O'Connor, Jimmy Tarbuck etc. He memories live on through records, CDs, DVDs and through old recordings as well, he wanted to tell us a story and he did do and one of the greatest ones told of one of the great performers. So thanks for the memories Max, your place has been assured that your name will always go in up lights...
(Max Bygraves 1922-2012)