By Jeremy Miles
MAX BYGRAVES wants to tell me a story. Sitting in the front room of his beautiful cliff-top home at Alum Chine in Bournemouth, the tale begins to unfold.
And what a tale it is. How many 77-year-old grandfathers can boast of dining with Groucho, working with Garland and partying with Sinatra Yet that only scratches the surface. Max has stories about everyone, from the Mafia to the Queen Mum.
He admits that he even surprises himself when he thinks about the people he has worked with. Long before the days of Singalongamax he was a big, big name. One of the first British entertainers to star in Vegas, and friend and confidante to America's entertainment elite. "I've been so lucky. I can remember having dinner one night and looking round the table and thinking, 'I'm sitting here with Groucho Marx, Ronald Coleman and Jackie Gleason'. Another time I was at a party with Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner sitting round the pool at James Mason's house. I suppose it's inevitable that I find myself name-dropping sometimes."
He has good reason to recall that particular occasion, for it was the day that his son, Anthony, then just four years old, nearly drowned. Max still looks shocked when he recalls the moment "I was standing talking with Sinatra, Ava Gardner was on the other side of the pool crying - I think they'd had a row or something - and suddenly James Mason came barging between us and leapt into the water with all his clothes on. "We wondered what the hell was going on but then realised that Anthony, who had been swimming, had got tangled up in a rubber ring and was splashing around, spluttering and gasping for breath. It's frightening. He was only feet away and we just hadn't realised. Thank God, James Mason saw what was happening. They pumped a lot of water out of Anthony. I have no doubt he would have drowned if James hadn't been so quick."
These days he says the story is 53-year-old Anthony's claim to fame. "He loves telling people about it". For all his international adventures - Max remembers being warned by the Mafia about letting his act overrun, "I don't think they liked the idea of me cutting into the time available for gambling" - his home and his family remain of paramount importance.
He met his wife Blossom while he was serving in the wartime RAF and she was a young WAAF sergeant. Next month they celebrate 58 years of marriage. "I love my wife," he says. "I can't think of anyone else in showbusiness who has as good, or as strong, a marriage as we do".
So strong in fact that when it was revealed Max had an illegitimate son from a long-past fling, Blossom (and indeed the British public) forgave him immediately.
He's a man clearly besotted. "Blossom is such good fun, such a good sort. We end up laughing almost every day." Apart from Anthony, there are daughters Christine and Maxine plus six grandchildren. Blossom is at the centre of the family and also offers a few down-to-earth home truths when the need arises.
Max told me: "I was moaning the other day about the fact that there are hardly any young people in my audience these days, and she said: Max, you're getting old now. They don't know who you are. If you asked them to spell your name they wouldn't have a clue.' And I'm afraid to an extent it's true. But I still think I've got a lot to offer." Audiences in Bournemouth will be able to find out this summer when Max hosts his own show on Monday and Tuesday nights at the BIC's Tregonwell Hall.
The new show - he's been booked to replace a James Bond evening that never happened - marks a return to health for Max who had to cancel all engagements last year after being diagnosed as suffering from Meniere's disease.
Although, now better, he admits, that this condition of the middle ear which effects the sense of balance made him stop and think. "I was in a bad way for quite a long time and Blossom had been ill too (in recent years she has undergone heart surgery and suffers from bronchial problems).
"It makes you look at things quite seriously. It makes you stop being quite so flippant all the time."
Gazing out across an almost impossibly blue Poole Bay to the Purbeck Hills, it is easy to see why Max loves his £1 million home so much. Owning such an idyllic cliff-top retreat is a huge achievement for a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. When he was growing up in the docklands of south-east London, such luxury was beyond his wildest dreams. "When I was a kid the only holiday we used to get was a week hop-picking in Kent, but when I was about 10 my dad managed to take us on a day trip to Bournemouth.
"It cost a shilling and eight pence. God knows how he swung it, but it was amazing - a day at the seaside. If someone had pointed up at the cliffs then and said, 'Max, one day you're going to own one of those big houses', I'd never have believed them, not in a million years."
He and Blossom moved to Bournemouth in 1969 and, although they have an 84-acre property in Australia and used to own a villa in Spain, this is the place they really think of as home. These days Max, best known as a singalong entertainer with a witty line in stand-up comedy, is very much a Royal favourite. He's a regular on the bill of the Royal Variety Performance and a few years back, at a garden party to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of VE Day, he discovered that the Queen Mum was only too happy to help out on vocals. "She asked what I was going to sing and when I told her it was going to be Goodnight Sergeant Major she sang the thing all the way through. It was amazing. She knew all the words."
Max's showbusiness career really took off in his days back in the RAF when, as Aircraftmen Second Class 1212094 Walter Bygraves, he found himself at concert parties. His five-minute slot as Max Miller was a particular favourite and led to the stage name he would use for the rest of his career.
By the end of the war he was a big name on the military entertainment circuit, but back in civvy street he returned to his roots as a carpenter. Then by chance he got invited to an audition for an ex-servicemens' show at the BBC. "I was queuing outside the London Palladium to see Mickey Rooney when my old commanding officer walked past. He said: “Bygraves, what are you doing here. Get yourself over to the BBC, they're doing auditions.” Still conditioned to obeying orders, Max instantly legged it round to the Beeb to discover himself waiting for an audition next to a young comedian called Frankie Howerd.
"I've never seen nerves like it. He was beside himself with anxiety," remembers Max. "When he came out, I said: 'How did you get on' He just looked at me in complete despair and said, 'Ooh, it was dreadful! Every time I tried to speak all that would come out were things like ooh, er, oh, no, ahh, well missus! It was a disaster! Little did he know that he had just established the act that would keep him going for the next 40 or more years."
Frankie and Max were signed up for a show that also boasted up-and-coming entertainers like Benny Hill, Jimmy Edwards, Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan. Talent spotters soon helped launch Max's career, first in the BBC radio show Educating Archie and then in the West End and on Broadway. Vegas followed. Years later, he's perhaps the ultimate home-grown talent and, in a quintessentially British way, more than happy to be the butt of a thousand self-deprecating jokes - the thieves who send their loot back when they discover they've stolen a bunch of Max Bygraves records etc. But what most people don't realise is that his most commonly quoted catchphrase - "I wanna tell you a story" never actually passed his lips before it was invented by his old chum, the impressionist Mike Yarwood. "I know exactly when it happened. It was back in the 70s and we used to have house parties here with a bunch of old mates like Jimmy Tarbuck, Val Doonican, Kenny Lynch and whoever happened to be doing summer season. "One year Mike was here and I noticed him watching me very closely. I thought: 'Hello, he's up to something.' Sure enough a few weeks later we were watching his TV show and he suddenly turns into me and announces: 'I wanna tell you a story'. I swear I'd never said that in my life before."
Despite his millions Max still wonders what might have been. "I made some great movies but they were at the wrong time. The British film industry was in terrible decline," he says.
And when the big screen break came later in his career - Hitchcock offered him the lead role in his 1972 thriller Frenzy - he was forced to turn it down for contractual reasons. It's clearly an opportunity he still bitterly regrets missing.
Then there was the chance of serious stardom in America when at the height of his fame, he was offered the chance of taking over the Jackie Gleason show in Florida while the US funny man took a summer break. "I went out to Miami and on that very first show there was a musicians' strike that lasted for 16 weeks. I lost a huge opportunity. I really think I would have been a name." He trails off, looking out of the window at the sun dancing across Old Harry Rocks in the distance. And then: "You know, I've had a good life. I mustn't complain." Max Bygraves interviewed in 1999