Max Bygraves Obituary

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There was never much intellectual cachet in being an admirer of Max Bygraves. True, he was at one time, at £500,000 a year, Britain's highest-paid performer. But critics were at best patronisingly receptive and the intelligentsia tended to grope for the off switch whenever he was on radio or TV.

Only the public loved him for over 50 years as a mischievously smiling raconteur, full-throated sentimental singer, TV spectacular host, reluctant gameshow compere (his two years with Family Fortunes convinced him it was not his medium), pantomime and pierhead star — that almost always suspect being, an "all-round entertainer".

Bygraves, who has died aged 89, always had the persona of the old rugged working class (though he survived its demise): the cheerful cockney stevedore, smart-alecky but good natured, with a reassuringly imposing presence and the sort of innocent bawdiness that would not upset old ladies. This image was entirely suited to the voice suggesting syrup-soaked gravel, the expansive arm gestures, the chummily unemphatic manner which absolved jokes that in another mouth might have been offensive.

The stevedore persona was not all artifice. Bygraves grew up in an East End home in which a family of six slept in one bed, making poverty more tolerable by resorting to wisecracks. His father, a prizefighter who gave it up to become a casual docker, tended to fend off his young son's questions about life and sex with jokes. When in early adolescence Max asked him why hair was beginning to grow in his crotch, his father told him it was God's punishment for his misdeeds: "You're turning into a coconut."

Because prize fights could sometimes earn Bygraves senior £30 a week – a fortune for his time and class – life for Max was relatively easy; as he grew to his full commanding height a dignified and humorous self-confidence became his hallmark. He sang with his school choir at Westminster Cathedral and when his father dressed him up in his old first world war army cap, gave him a broom for a rifle and got him to sing the popular song Why Did I Join the Army? in front of dockers, the collections for him encouraged the thought of professional showbusiness.

But when he left school at 14 he went into an advertising agency, W S Crawford, ferrying copy to newspapers and popping into the Holborn Empire to see variety acts whenever he could afford it. When the war and the shortage of paper arrived, advertising slumped and the boy got a job as carpenter's apprentice, building air raid shelters. After being blown off a roof he was repairing during an air raid, he volunteered for the RAF, was made a fitter and met his future wife, Blossom, a WAAF by whom he was to have one son and two daughters.

Stationed near Kew, he started entertaining in pubs with impressions of Max Miller, Frank Sinatra and the Inkspots, the popular singers. By the time the war ended, he had resolved to turn professional. Eked out with building work, he toured London theatres with songs and gags. At the Grand Theatre, Clapham, he was spotted by the agent Gordon Norval, who got him initially six weeks' work and then more and more.

The going was hard. Despite their love of England, he and his wife had just decided to emigrate to Australia when a letter arrived from the BBC asking him to repeat the audition act he had recently given. He stayed and featured in the radio series They're Out, with other demobbed entertainers such as Spike Milligan, Jimmy Edwards, Frankie Howerd, Harry Secombe and Benny Hill. He went on to do a show called For the Fun of It with Howerd, made his first two films for the producer Arthur Dent, was seen by the leading impresario Val Parnell at Finsbury Park Empire and was asked to stand in for the ill comedian Ted Ray at the top London variety venue, the Palladium.

For many years the Palladium became something like his professional home – he appeared in 14 shows in 10 years, and eventually in 19 Royal Variety Performances. After the first of these, Judy Garland asked him to do shows with her in the US, where (wrongly) he did not expect his cockney humour to register.

Though he may have been naturally laid-back, he did work on the art of unforced pace. This came fully into its own after a confusion of props in a stage show which had attracted only a tiny audience. Bygraves took a single chair with its back to the audience and sat facing the audience with his arms loosely draped over the chair back. His gags went over better than ever; henceforth his delivery was always apparently casual.

Like many variety big earners, he was sometimes taken for a ride by conmen but he also made some shrewd business decisions. He bought all rights of the improvident Lionel Bart's Oliver for £350, got more than his money back by making a record of one of its numbers, and farmed out another to Shirley Bassey with similar results. Many of his own songs, like You Need Hands, became bestsellers; for years he was the top-selling British recording artist, doing more than 30 gold discs. His catchphrases like "A good idea, son" and "I wanna tell you a story", which he regarded as better value than a press agent (which he felt he did not need), became national property.

In later years he settled to a routine of overseas show visits, especially in Australia and South Africa, which he had often visited before the end of apartheid, protesting that an entertainer should not concern himself with politics. Personally he was generous to family, friends and old associates and worked for theatre charities. He won several showbusiness awards and was awarded the OBE in 1983. Bygraves was widowed in May last year.

• Max Bygraves, born 16 October 1922; died 31 August 2012

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Dennis Barker, for guardian.co.uk on Saturday 1st September 2012 15.30 Europe/London

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