Max Bygraves

 

Further to your obituary of 3 September, Max Bygraves is justly remembered as a great all-round entertainer, writes Robert Chesshyre, the last of a kind whose roots were deep in the music hall of yesteryear. It is less well known that he was occasionally a straight film actor, and it was in that context that, as a teenager in 1958, I met him.

He starred in A Cry from the Streets, directed by Lewis Gilbert and based on a novel by my aunt, Elizabeth Coxhead. He and Elizabeth became pals and I was invited to watch a day's shooting in a Buckinghamshire wood. The plot, briefly, concerned the fate of two children orphaned when their father murdered their mother and was, in consequence, hanged.

Their social worker was played by Barbara Murray, very much the upper middle class stereotype of the 1950s. Bygraves was the electrician who did jobs at the children's home, and he and Murray fell for each other and he fell also for the children, taking them on trips. For Bygraves' benefit a couple of songs had been inserted into the film, and I recall vividly singing along with the child actors (principally Colin Petersen and Dana Wilson) as they practised.

The song "You gotta to have rain" was pure Bygraves, and the opening lyrics were: "If you didn't have rain every now and again/Then you couldn't have flowers…" It was magical sitting on a log being charmed by Bygraves and belting our hearts out. His enormous warmth, concentrated on a few children, rapidly drew into the circle the rest of the cast and the film technicians, and we sang to rival the woodland birds.

I have to say that watching the film today – it is available on DVD and is occasionally still shown on television – it's apparent that Bygraves was not the greatest of film actors, and was wise to return to his day job at the London Palladium. But in person he was charm personified and utterly unselfconscious. He told a story that I still remember.

His wife, Blossom, had just taken up golf, and by coincidence a man called at the Bygraves' front door with a cheap set of lady's clubs for sale (Bygraves admitted that they were almost certainly of dodgy provenance). Sensing a bargain – despite his growing wealth, his former childhood poverty still cast its shadow – Bygraves snapped up the clubs and proudly presented them to Blossom.

It was only then that the penny dropped. The reason why the clubs were so cheap was that they were for left-handers. Blossom was right-handed. Bygraves hadn't realised that there was a difference in clubs. He smiled ruefully as he told the tale. He had got, he admitted, exactly what he deserved.

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