Sunday, September 02, 2012

Max Bygraves (1922-2012)

Max Bygraves, who died this week, was one of the biggest stars of  British 'light entertainment' in the the post-World War Two period.

His roots were among the dockers of Rotherhithe, where he was born close to Surrey Docks in Swan Lane Buildings (council flats) in Rotherhithe Street in 1922. His father was a casual dockworker as well as a boxer who fought under the name Battling Tom Smith. They were a Roman Catholic family, presumably of Irish origin like many who worked on the docks, and Bygraves went to St Josephs School in Paradise Street. According to his autobiography (Max Bygraves in His Own Words, 1997), he sang in the school choir including at a concert in Westminster Cathedral.

After leaving school, he worked as a messenger and runner for an advertising company and then a carpenter before joining the RAF during the war. His impersonations of comedian Max Miller earned him the nickname 'Max' - his real name was Walter William Bygraves. Apparently Bygraves had seen Miller perform at the New Cross Empire.

Bygraves got married and had a child during the war, and the young family lived in rooms in Plumstead Common and Woolwich before Max became a star via a BBC ex-servicemen's show.

According to Cinema Treasures, Bygraves' 1956 film Charley Moon was filmed in the New Cross Empire with 'many scenes filmed in the auditorium, on-stage and brief exterior shots' (including presumably the 'If I had three wishes' scene, below):

(The Empire, which was in Deptford Broadway on the corner of Watsons Street, was closed in 1954 but was used a location for films before it was demolished in 1958. Cinema Treasures reports that as well as Charley Moon, it features as an opera in Errol Flynn and Anna Neagle's "King’s Rhapsody" and in the 1956 film "The Long Arm" starring Jack Hawkins, with 'brief exterior shots and a side alley, plus a scene in the auditorium').

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