Walter William Bygraves (16 October 1922 – 31 August 2012), best known by the stage name Max Bygraves (adopted in honour of Max Miller), was an English comedian, singer, actor and variety performer. He appeared on his own television shows, sometimes performing comedy sketches between songs. He made twenty Royal Variety Performance appearances and presented numerous programmes, including Family Fortunes. His catchphrase “I wanna tell you a story” became an integral part of his act, although it had originated with comedian Mike Yarwood impersonating Bygraves.
Bygraves was born to Henry and Lillian (née McDonnell) Bygraves (who wed in 1919) in Rotherhithe in London, where he grew up in a two-room council flat with his five siblings, his parents and a grandparent. His father was a professional flyweight boxer, known as Battling Tom Smith, and a casual dockworker. Brought up Catholic, he attended St Joseph's School, Paradise Street, Rotherhithe, and sang with his school choir at Westminster Cathedral. He left school at 14, working at the Savoy Hotel in London as a pageboy, but was sacked for being too tall. He later put some of his success as a variety performer down to his lanky physique. He was 6 ft 3 in (1.91 m) tall, but weighed only 13 stone (83 kg) in adult life. He then became a messenger for W S Crawfords, an advertising agency at 233 High Holborn before serving as a fitter in the Royal Air Force in the Second World War and working as a carpenter. He changed his name to Max Bygraves in honour of comedian Max Miller.
After the end of the war, Bygraves worked on building sites, while entertaining in pubs in the evenings. He toured in a variety show with Frankie Howerd, who in turn introduced him to Eric Sykes, and they began writing routines together. He made his first appearance at the London Palladium supporting Abbott and Costello, and in 1951 Judy Garland invited him to perform in New York. With Sykes, he also developed the radio show Educating Archie, starring ventriloquist Peter Brough and his dummy Archie Andrews, and also featuring Bygraves in the role of Archie's teacher. The idea for the programme came from record producer Wally Ridley, who also produced Bygraves' records during the 1950s. Bygraves became a successful recording artist with seven top ten hits on the UK Singles Chart between 1952 and 1960.
Many were novelty songs. One of his most popular recordngs, "You Need Hands" in 1958, was written by Bygraves under the pseudonym Roy Irwin (or Erwin), a name picked at random from a telephone directory. He also wrote its follow-up, "Gotta Have Rain". His producer Wally Ridley said of Bygraves: "Max's great talent was that he could punch lines, which was absolutely great for us. We'd give him songs with very short lines and he'd punch them out marvellously. Give him a long line and he would stumble over it, although I just flipped when I was given 'Gilly Gilly Ossenfeffer Katzenellen Bogen By The Sea'. I thought, 'Fabulous, fabulous, this is a major hit for us.' I took it to Max and his wife, Blossom, said, 'That's no good, what does it mean?'... The song was absolutely perfect for Max and its whole secret was 'What the hell does it mean?"
He also occasionally worked as an actor, appearing in British films including Bless 'Em All (1948) and Tom Brown's Schooldays (1951). He portrayed the title character in the 1956 film Charley Moon and starred in the 1961 drama Spare the Rod. In 1959, Bygraves bought the past and future rights to the Lionel Bart musical Oliver! for £350 at a time when Bart was experiencing severe financial difficulties. Bygraves later sold them for £250,000. In the 1950s and 1960s, Bygraves appeared as a guest on several television variety programmes, both in the UK and United States. These included Ed Sullivan, Jack Benny and Jackie Gleason, in America. He was the subject of This Is Your Life in 1961 when he was surprised by Eamonn Andrews while rehearsing his new show, Do Re Mi at London’s Prince of Wales Theatre. He appeared in several TV series including the sitcom Roamin' Holiday and the variety shows Max and Max Bygraves at the Royalty.
From 1983 to 1985, Bygraves hosted Family Fortunes, taking over from his friend and fellow comedian Bob Monkhouse. He would later be succeeded as host in 1987 by Les Dennis. From 1972, Bygraves recorded a series of albums, Sing Along With Max (later Singalongamax), in which he sang medleys of familiar songs aimed at an older audience. The albums, for Pye Records, sold millions of copies and led to spinoff shows and more recordings. In 1977, UK publishing house W. H. Allen published Bygraves' comic novel The Milkman's on His Way. Bygraves' catchphrase was said to be: "I wanna tell you a story". It was actually Mike Yarwood who made up that phrase, from Bygraves' "I want to tell you a joke", though Bygraves adopted Yarwood's version as the title of his own memoirs. Another well-known phrase of his was "That's a good idea, son!".
Bygraves married WAAF sergeant Gladys "Blossom" Murray in 1942. The couple had three children: Christine, Anthony and Maxine. Bygraves also had three other children from extramarital affairs: John Rice, Beverly Mayhew-Sass and Stephen Rose. On 9 August 1974, Bygraves became stuck on a cliff near his house in Westbourne, Bournemouth, when a kite flown by his grandson Michael became trapped beneath the edge of the cliff. He suffered friction burns on his hands and was in shock when police and firefighters helped him to safety. In 1999, Bygraves underwent treatment for an ear disorder, having cancelled a number of performances on his doctor's advice. He and Blossom Bygraves moved from Bournemouth to Queensland, Australia, in 2008. She died there in May 2011, aged 88.
Bygraves was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2010, and he died from this illness at his daughter's home in Australia on the evening of 31 August 2012.
In 1982, he was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE).
- Bless 'Em All (1948)
- The Nitwits on Parade (1949)
- Skimpy in the Navy (1949)
- Tom Brown's Schooldays (1951)
- Charley Moon (1956)
- A Cry from the Streets (1958)
- Bobbikins (1959)
- Spare the Rod (1961)
- The Alf Garnett Saga (1972)
- The Jigsaw Man (1983) Uncredited cameo appearance; (policeman)
- Whack-O! (1960)
- Jack Meets Max Bygraves (1963) The Jack Benny Program Season 13 - Episode 13
- The Royal Variety Performance (1961; 1963 etc.)
- The Jack Benny Program (1963)
- It's Sad About Eddie (1964)
- Max (1969–74)
- Max Bygraves Says "I Wanna Tell You a Story" (1976–77)
- Singalongamax (1978–80)
- Max Bygraves - Side by Side (1982)
- Family Fortunes (1983–85)
- The Mind of David Berglas (1986)
- Call Up the Stars (1995)
- Against the Odds RAF Documentary (2001)
- Show Stoppers (1962)
- Sing Along with Max (1972) No. 4
- Sing Along with Max Vol. 2 (1972) No. 11
- Singalongamax Vol. 3 (1973) No. 5
- Singalongamax Vol. 4 (1973) No. 7
- Singalongapartysong (1973) No. 15
- You Make Me Feel Like Singing a Song (1974) No. 39
- Singalongaxmas (1974) No. 21
- 100 Golden Greats (1976) No. 3
- Lingalongamax (1978) No. 39
- The Song and Dance Men (1978) No. 67
- Singalongawaryears (1989) No. 5
- Singalongawaryears Volume 2 (1989) No. 33