Born: October 16, 1922; Died: August 31, 2012.
The variety entertainer Max Bygraves, who has died at the age of 89, made his first professional appearance at the Roxy Theatre in Falkirk in 1943 and remained a star of stage and screen for much of the next 60 years.
The son of a professional flyweight boxer, he was a regular at Royal Variety Performances, presented quiz shows on ITV during the 1980s and became best known for his cosy – some said dated – act, his fondness for nostalgic songs, and a handful of familiar catchphrases that made him a favourite of TV impressionists. "At one time I had more catchphrases than I could handle," he once said. "I had the whole country saying things like 'I've arrived and to prove it I'm here!' 'A good idea – son' 'Bighead!' 'Dollar lolly'."
Belonging to the same generation of variety artistes as Bruce Forsyth and his friend Eric Sykes, Bygraves traded his experience in the variety halls into a lengthy TV career that included presenting Family Fortunes in the mid-1980s. For large stretches of his career critics found his act weak and predictable, but he managed to sustain it for decades and his SingalongaMax recordings gave him a late flourish, commercially if not critically.
Born in Rotherhithe, one of six children brought up in a two-bedroom flat, Bygraves was christened Walter. He got the nickname Max after impersonating the comedian Max Miller in RAF reviews during the war.
He started off as a soprano but moved into variety with appearances at the New Cross Empire in London while still young. Turning up on stage singing It's My Mother's Birthday Today carrying a mongrel dog got him noticed. Bygraves thankfully proved better house trained than the dog. But it wasn't until after the war – during which he worked as a fitter in the RAF – that he began to forge a career on stage.
He made his Royal Variety debut in 1950 and soon was supporting Judy Garland at the Palladium, which led to an invite to appear with her in New York.
Throughout the fifties and sixties he was a mainstay on British stages and also in the charts with recordings of You Need Hands (his own composition) and Tulips From Amsterdam. By the late sixties he had moved on to TV, where variety acts were to survive and thrive after variety theatres disappeared.
Bygraves clearly had an astute idea of what worked for him. And for others. He was clever enough to buy the rights to Lionel Bart's score for Oliver! for a mere £350. The return would be much greater. The income from the musical, added to his own success, made him a multi-millionaire. He was rich enough to buy an 84-acre Australian property where he'd spend every winter, and he drove a Rolls Royce with the licence plate MB1.
He appeared in several films including Spare the Rod and Charlie Moon and even wrote a novel, The Milkman's On His Way, about a working-class boy who becomes the world's highest-paid pop star. Bygraves couldn't quite claim to be that, but his sing-along recordings earned him 31 gold discs and he was familiar enough for impressionists to ensure the audience knew who they were doing simply by saying "I wanna to tell you a story." The catchphrase was also the title of his 1976 autobiography. In 1982 he was awarded an OBE.
In 2005 he emigrated to Australia, making his last appearances in the UK in 2006 with revival shows in Blackpool and London.
In his last years he suffered from Alzheimer's disease and since the death last year of his wife Blossom, to whom he was married for more than 70 years, he was cared for by his daughter Christine in Queensland. Until a year ago he was still able to sing along to his old albums, his son Anthony has revealed.
He is survived by his son and two daughters.
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