Max Miller (comedian)
Bronze statue of Miller at the Pavilion Gardens, Brighton
|Birth name||Thomas Henry Sargent|
|Born||21 November 1894|
Hereford Street, Kemptown, Brighton, East Sussex, England
|Died||7 May 1963 (aged 68)|
25 Burlington Street, Brighton, East Sussex, England
|Resting place||Downs Crematorium, Brighton, East Sussex, England|
|Spouse||Frances Kathleen Marsh|
Thomas Henry Sargent (21 November 1894 – 7 May 1963), known professionally by his stage names Max Miller and The Cheeky Chappie, was an English comedian who was widely regarded as the greatest stand-up of his generation. He came from humble beginnings. He left school at the age of 12. At the outbreak of the First World War, he volunteered for the army. During his time in the forces, he started a troop concert party. On leaving the army, he took up work as a light comedian, dancer, and singer. He toured extensively appearing in variety, revues and by the early 1930s reached the top of the bill in the large music halls including the London Palladium. He recorded many songs, some which he wrote. He appeared frequently on radio, but television did not really suit his style. He appeared and starred in 14 feature films. He was known for his flamboyant suits, his wicked charm, and his risqué jokes which often got him into trouble with the censors. He made his last recording in January 1963 and died four months later.
Miller was born as Thomas Henry Sargent on 21 November 1894 in Hereford Street, Kemptown, Brighton, Sussex. He was the second child of James Sargent, a labourer and Alice (née West), a flower seller; Miller had three brothers and two sisters. His parents were poor and often unable to pay rent so were forced to move to other parts of the town. Owing to this, Miller frequently changed schools until he reached 12, when he left altogether. He tried various jobs, labouring, delivering milk, selling fish and chips, caddying at the Brighton and Hove Golf Course and finally trained to be a motor mechanic. As a youth he was nicknamed "Swanky Sargent".
On the outbreak of the war in 1914, Miller volunteered for the army. He joined the Royal Sussex Regiment and, after serving in France, was posted to India and a year later to Mesopotamia, where he was temporarily blinded for three days. This experience stayed with him all his life, and in later years he did much work to help the blind. During his time in the army, he started a troops’ concert party.
Start of career in show business
Demobilized from the army, he found work to be in short supply. He had lost his mother to the 1918 flu pandemic. He had his sights on performing in London and obtained a booking in the Shoreditch Hall in 1919. He was not experienced enough for the type of venue and lasted only a week. Returning to Brighton he saw an advertisement for artists to join Jack Sheppard's concert party in an alfresco theatre on Brighton beach. He applied and joined as a light comedian for the 1919 summer season. While with the concert party, he met his wife Frances Kathleen Marsh, who was a contralto in the group.
Kathleen Marsh came from a middle-class family whose parents came to Brighton from Dorset shortly before she was born in 1896. Her elder brother Ernest Marsh served as a Brighton alderman for 43 years and became mayor of the then town from 1949 to 1950.
In summer 1920 Harry toured nationwide in The Rogues, a concert party. The following year Harry and Kathleen toured in a revue/musical called The Girl. While in Plymouth they married at the parish church in Tormoham, Devon on 17 February 1921. As well as being a performer, Kathleen was an astute businesswoman and thereafter did much to develop her husband's career. She suggested that he should change his name to Max Miller. Later a press notice described Max as the Cheeky Chappie, and the nickname stuck.
On the road to stardom
Through the '20s, he was regularly touring in revues. In 1922 he was in a show presented by the Sydney Syndicate, There You Are Then. In 1923 he toured with the Ernest Binn Arcadians. 1924 saw him joining a revue called Crisps. But during that summer he returned to Jack Sheppard's Concert Party on the Brighton seafront. In 1925 he continued in the revue Crisps and in November joined the cast of Ten to One On which starred Jimmy James. This show ran until February 1926 when he got work in variety or cine-variety, the latter a show half film and half live acts. In September he was booked in the Holborn Empire, his first engagement there, where he was spotted by impresario Tom Arnold who booked him to star in his next revue, Piccadilly. It opened in Birmingham and toured the country. His co-star was the 21-year-old Florence Desmond. After that he was booked by Fred Karno to appear in The Show and in May joined a touring cabaret revue called XYZ to the end of the year. After a few weeks in variety, he was back in revue starring in Francis Laider's Tipperary Tim. This kept him busy until February 1929 when he appointed a new agent, Julius Darewski. This was a turning point in his career. In May he made his first appearance at the London Palladium in variety. He returned there in October and, in November, joined the cast of Fools in Paradise which took him to March 1930. This would be his last revue for some time.
Miller much preferred to perform solo, and from 1930 onwards, he appeared in variety in various large theatres including the London Palladium and the Holborn Empire. In those days instant success was unheard of, and Miller, like any other performer, had to earn his fame through a long apprenticeship. In May 1931 he appeared in his first Royal Variety Performance. Radio broadcasts followed.
In 1932 he made his first recording, Confessions of a Cheeky Chappie, on the Broadcast Twelve Records label. After this initial success, he was wooed by HMV and made a number of records for them. In 1953 he changed to Philips and then to Pye.
Miller was given a cameo role in the film The Good Companions. In it he played the part of a music publisher selling a song to a pianist, played by John Gielgud. Although he was not credited for his role, his three-minute debut was impressive, got him noticed and led to his making a further 13 films working up from small parts to starring roles. Considered his best film, Educated Evans (1936), which was based on an Edgar Wallace story and filmed by Warner Bros., has been lost. His last but one film was Hoots Mon! (1940). He played the part of a southern English comedian called Harry Hawkins. In the film there is a scene in which Harry Hawkins appears on the stage in a variety theatre. The act is Miller's, and the sequence is the only one in existence giving us an idea of his stage act. It is invariably included in any documentary made about him.
Miller's act on a variety bill usually lasted between 20 and 30 minutes. It would begin with the orchestra playing his signature tune, Mary from the Dairy. A spotlight aimed on the curtain by the wings would anticipate his appearance. There would be excitement in the audience. He would sometimes wait for up to 10 seconds until he appeared leading to resounding applause, walk to the microphone and just stand there in his costume, a gloriously colourful suit with plus-fours, a kipper tie, trilby and co-respondent shoes and wait for the laughter to begin.
Although Miller's material was risqué, he never swore on stage and disapproved of those who did. He used double entendre and when telling a joke would often leave out the last word or words for the audience to complete.
His act would be punctuated by songs, sentimental songs like My Old Mum or comic songs such as Twin Sisters. Sometimes he would accompany himself on guitar or entertain with a soft shoe shuffle. He wrote and co-wrote a number of songs.
He was very much a southern English comedian. He preferred being booked in theatres in London or the south, so he could return to his beloved Brighton after a show. But in 1932 he embarked on his only overseas tour, when he sailed to Cape Town to appear in Johannesburg and Pretoria, South Africa.
After a number of years as a solo act in variety, he appeared in George Black’s wartime revue Haw Haw! at the Holborn Empire from December 1939 to July 1940. George Black's next revue Apple Sauce opened in August 1940 at the Holborn Empire co-starring Vera Lynn. After the theatre was bombed, the show transferred to the London Palladium where it ran until November 1941. After that Miller was back touring in variety and broke all records as the highest paid variety artist, earning £1,025 in a single week at the Coventry Hippodrome in February, 1943.
In 1947, he topped the bill in Bernard Delfont presents International Variety at the London Casino. In his review of the show, Lionel Hale, theatre critic of the Daily Mail, described Miller as the "Gold of the music hall".
Miller appeared in three Royal Variety Performances (1931, 1937 and 1950). In the last he was annoyed that he was only given six minutes while the American comedian Jack Benny got 20 minutes, so he abandoned his script and went on for 12 minutes ending with riotous applause. But this had a devastating effect on the schedule. Val Parnell, the producer, was furious and told Miller that he would never work for him again. However, after 18 months of Miller's touring in secondary theatres, he was invited back to the "number ones", the Moss Empires and returned in triumph to the London Palladium. This revitalised his career and with it came a new recording contract, this time with Philips. He was back on radio and appeared on television, but his television appearances were never a great success. The new medium did not suit his style; he needed the feedback only a live theatre audience could give him and the freedom to use his naughty material.
Miller appeared regularly in all the large variety halls in and around London, the Hackney Empire, Chelsea Palace, Chiswick, Finsbury Park and Wood Green Empires, Metropolitan Music Hall and it was in the latter he recorded the LP, Max at the Met in 1957.
The final years
In 1958 Miller suffered a heart attack. After recovery he needed to take life easier. His last West End appearance took place at the Palace Theatre in April 1959 and the last ever in variety in Folkestone in December 1960. He continued to make records, his last in January 1963 with Lonnie Donegan. He died on 7 May 1963 in his home and was cremated in the Downs Crematorium, Brighton. A memorial tablet is mounted on a wall in the Garden of Remembrance. His wife Kathleen outlived him by nine years, dying in a Hove nursing home in 1972.
With dwindling work in variety, brought about by the increasing popularity of television, he commented, "When I'm dead and gone, the game's finished."
It has frequently been suggested that John Osborne modelled the character Archie Rice in his play The Entertainer on Miller. John Osborne denied it and in his autobiography he wrote, "This is not so. Archie was a man. Max was a god, a saloon-bar Priapus".
The laws on censorship were strict during Miller's lifetime. Those responsible for censorship were the Lord Chamberlain in London and local watch committees in the provinces. Miller's material needed approval by those bodies but by using innuendo, leaving out the last word or words of a joke, he could get away with much risqué and saucy material. However, he never swore or told a 'dirty joke' on stage.
In one of his acts he would take from his pocket two books, one a white book and the other a blue book, explaining to the audience that these are joke books and asking them which the audience would like; the crowd almost always chose the blue book. The jokes in the ‘blue book’ were the naughty ones. For example:
I went skating the other week with a young lady on ice and we'd been going around for quite a while and she kept on falling down.
I said, “Have you hurt yourself?”
She said, “No, I'm sorry to spoil your fun.”
I said, “You're not spoiling my fun. It'll keep on ice.”
Or he would leave the last word out for the audience to finish and blamed them if they laughed.
When roses are red,
They're ready for plucking.
When a girl is sixteen,
She's ready for ... ’Ere
He would then say, "I know exactly what you are saying to yourself, you're wrong, I know what you're saying. You wicked lot. You're the sort of people that get me a bad name!"
It was said that Miller was banned by the BBC twice, first in the 1930s and then in the 1950s. But these rumours only helped Miller's reputation as daring and naughty, and led to increased box office sales.
Miller influenced many comedians during his lifetime and since. His jokes live on and are often told by other comedians. The late comedian Walter William Bygraves became known as "Max Bygraves" after his impersonation of Miller. Miller is also featured on the cover of the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band".
The biography, Max Miller the Cheeky Chappie by John M. East was published in 1977. A paperback version was issued in 1993 with additional material. Two paperbacks containing Miller's jokes have been published: The Max Miller Blue Book compiled by Barry Took and illustrated by cartoonist Trog (1975) and The Max Miller Appreciation Society's Blue Book compiled by members with a foreword by Roy Hudd (2001).
Several radio and television documentaries have been produced including Gerald Scarfe’s The Girls Who Do (40 Minutes, BBC, 1989) and Heroes of Comedy: Max Miller (1994). Here's a Funny Thing a play featuring John Bardon by R.W. Shakespeare which had been staged at the Edinburgh Fringe and at the Fortune Theatre in London was broadcast on Channel Four in November 1982
In 1999 the Max Miller Appreciation Society was formed in Brighton. Its main purpose is to keep his memory alive. It has erected a bronze statue sculptured by Peter Webster in the Royal Pavilion Gardens, New Road, Brighton (unveiled 1 May 2005; re-sited August 2007) and mounted two blue plaques on his former homes on Ashcroft in Kingston Lane, Shoreham-by-Sea (2000) and at 160 Marine Parade, Brighton (2006). In 2009 the Society curated an exhibition devoted to Miller's life and career in Bardsley's Fish Restaurant, Baker Street, Brighton.
He was renowned for his use of catchphrases, in performance
- "Now, there's a funny thing"
- "Listen! Listen!"
- "There'll never be another"
- "They don't make 'em anymore, duck!"
- "It's people like you who give me a bad name"
- "It's all clever stuff, no rubbish!"
- "How's your memory, gal?"
- "Miller's the name, Lady"
- "I don't care what I say, do I?"
- "That's nice, Maxie"
- "You can't help liking him"
- " 'Ere!"
- Oct-1932 Confessions of a Cheeky Chappie, pts 1 and 2: 78 rpm Broadcast Twelve 3266
- Oct-1935 Confessions of a Cheeky Chappie, pts 1 and 2: 78 rpm Rex 8604
- Mar-1935 Max the Auctioneer, pts 1 and 2: 78 rpm Rex 8665
- Dec-1936 Mary from the Dairy/ The Woman Improver: 78 rpm HMV BD385
- Jan-1937 Ophelia/Down in the Valley: 78 rpm HMV BD396
- Jan-1937 Backscratcher/Impshe: 78 rpm HMV BD408
- Feb-1937 Why Should the Dustman Get It All? /You Can't Blame Me for That: 78 rpm HMV BD417
- May-1937 How the So and So Can I Be Happy? /The Girl Next Door: 78 rpm HMV BD419
- Jun-1937 The Love Bug Will Bite You/Julietta: 78 rpm HMV BD427
- Jul-1937 You Can't Go Away Like That/Weeping Willow: 78 rpm HMV BD432
- Sep-1937 The Windmill/La De Da: 78 rpm HMV BD439
- Oct-1937 Put It Down/The Old Oak Tree: 78 rpm HMV BD450
- Nov-1937 I Never Thought That She'd Do That To Me/Let's All Have a Charabanc Ride: 78 rpm HMV BD458
- Mar-1937 Voice of the Stars extracts from the film Don't Get Me Wrong: 78 rpm VS4
- Dec-1937 Just Another Sally/The Christmas Dinner: 78 rpm HMV BD475
- Jan-1938 Annie the Farmer's Daughter/Ain't Love Grand?: 78 rpm HMV BD482
- Mar-1938 She Said She Wouldn't/I'm the Only Bit of Comfort She's Got: 78 rpm HMV BD505
- Apr-1938 Winnie the Whistler/Doh Rae Me: 78 rpm HMV BD533
- May-1938 Every Sunday Afternoon/Um Ta Ra Rae: 78 rpm HMV BD541
- Jul-1938 Does She Still Remember? /I Bought a Horse: 78 rpm HMV BD563
- Sep-1938 The Girls Who Work Where I Work/Happy School Days: 78 rpm HMV BD583
- Nov-1938 She Was She Was She Was/Just in Fun: 78 rpm HMV BD597
- Dec-1938 Max Miller in the Theatre: At the Holborn Empire: 78 rpm HMV BD615
- Dec-1938 Max Miller in the Theatre: At the Holborn Empire: 78 rpm HMV BD616
- Dec-1938 Max Miller in the Theatre: At the Holborn Empire: 78 rpm HMV BD617
- Mar-1939 Max Miller in the Theatre Again: Holborn Empire: Second House: 78 rpm HMV BD646
- Mar-1939 Max Miller in the Theatre Again: Holborn Empire: Second House: 78 rpm HMV BD647
- Mar-1939 Max Miller in the Theatre Again: Holborn Empire: Second House: 78 rpm HMV BD648
- Jun-1939 At the Bathing Parade/Everything Happens to Me 78 rpm HMV BD697
- Jul-1939 No, No, No/Maria Fell for Me: 78 rpm HMV BD710
- Dec 1939 Max Miller in the Theatre: At the Finsbury Park Empire: 78 rpm HMV BD770
- Dec 1939 Max Miller in the Theatre: At the Finsbury Park Empire: 78 rpm HMV BD771
- Dec 1939 Max Miller in the Theatre: At the Finsbury Park Empire: 78 rpm HMV BD772
- Dec-1940 Max Miller with the Forces (Somewhere in England): 78 rpm HMV BD883
- Dec-1940 Max Miller with the Forces (Somewhere in England): 78 rpm HMV BD884
- Dec-1940 Max Miller with the Forces (Somewhere in England): 78 rpm HMV BD885
- Dec-1941 Max Miller Entertains the War Workers: 78 rpm HMV BD980
- Dec-1941 Max Miller Entertains the War Workers: 78 rpm HMV BD981
- Dec-1941 Max Miller Entertains the War Workers: 78 rpm HMV BD982
- Jan 1942 That's the Way to Fall in Love/When You're Feeling Lonely/She'll Never Be the Same Again: 78 rpm HMV BD987
- Nov-1942 Max Miller in the Theatre: At the Finsbury Park Empire: 78 rpm HMV BD1022
- Nov-1942 Max Miller in the Theatre: At the Finsbury Park Empire: 78 rpm HMV BD1023
- Mar-1950 Come Hither with Your Zither/ I Never See Maggie Alone: 78 rpm HMV BD9878
- Dec-1953 Let's Have a Ride on Your Bicycle/My Old Mum: 78 rpm Philips PB199
- Mar-1954 Mary from the Dairy/ Voulez Vous Promenade?: 78 rpm Philips PB236
- Apr-1954 Pleasant Dreams/Oh Yes! She Knows Her Onions: (with the Beverley Sisters) 78 rpm Philips PB274
- Jun-1954 Friends and Neighbours/Two Little People: 78 rpm Philips PB296
- Nov-1954 Someone Else I'd Like to Be/Don't Forget Your First Sweetheart: 78 rpm Philips PB362
- Apr-1955 Something Money Can't Buy/London Belongs to Me: 78 rpm Philips PB427
- Oct-1955 The Budgie Song/Ain't It Ni-ice!: 78 rpm Philips PB518
- May-1956 The Girls I Like/The Mother Brown Story: 78 rpm Nixa N15050
- Nov-1957 Max at the Met (recorded at The Metropolitan Music Hall, London): LP Nixa NPT19026
- Jun-1958 Be Sincere/With a Little Bit of Luck: 78 rpm Nixa N15141
- Jun-1961 Influence/There's Always Someone Worse Off Than You: 45 rpm Pye 7N15349
- Jun-1961 That's Nice Maxie (recorded at the Black Lion, Patcham, Brighton): LP Pye NPL18064
- Sep-1962 The Cheeky Chappie (recorded at the Star Sound Studios, London): LP Pye NPL18079
- Jan-1963 The Market Song/Tit Bits: with Lonnie Donegan 45 rpm Pye 7N 15493
Since these recordings were released, most have been re-issues as compilations on LPs, cassettes and CDs)
- The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. 38. Oxford University Press. 2004. pp. 215–216. ISBN 0-19-861388-1.
- Baker, Richard Anthony (2011). Old Time Variety - An Illustrated History. Barnsley: Remember When. pp. 53–54. ISBN 978-1-84468-1242.
- East, John E. (1977). Max Miller the Cheeky Chappie. London: W. H. Allen. p. 11. ISBN 0491-02260-3.
- Forces War Record/9875764/private-h-t-sargent-british-army-royal-sussex-regiment/
- "The Incomparable Max Miller". The Stage: 1. 21 February 1952.
- "Kathleen Marsh Contralto, Soubrette & Dancer". The Stage: 4. 28 July 1921.
- "The Girl". The Stage: 4. 30 December 1920.
- Baker, Richard Anthony (2011). Old Time Variety: an Illustrated History. Barnsley: Remember When. p. 54. ISBN 978 1 84468 124 2.
- "BRIGHTON Jack Sheppard's Entertainers". The Stage: 19. 12 June 1924.
- Gänzl, Kurt (1986). The British Musical Theatre Volume II. Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 290, 294. ISBN 978-0333397442.
- "London Palladium Bill". The Stage: 3, 13. 16 May 1929.
- "Royal Variety Performance". The Stage: 4. 14 May 1931.
- Morley, Sheridan (2001). John Gielgud: The Authorised Biography of John Gielgud. London: Hodder & Stoughton. p. 90. ISBN 0-340-36803-9.
- Major, John (2012). My Old Man - A Personal History of Music Hall. London: Harper Press. p. 90. ISBN 978-0-00-745013-8.
- Balmoral Castle Passenger List: date of departure 22 April 1932 (The National Archives)
- "Apple Sauce". The Stage: 3. 27 February 1941.
- East, John M. (1977). Max Miller the Cheeky Chappie. London: W. H. Allen. p. 126. ISBN 0491-02260-3.
- Daily Mail, 28 October 1947
- Fisher, John (1973). Funny Way to be a Hero. London: Muller. p. 95. ISBN 9780584100976.
- Max at the Met: Nixa NPT 19026
- The Market Song and Tit Bits: Pye 7N 15493
- Times Obituary, 9 May 1963
- East, John M. (1977). Max Miller the Cheeky Chappie. London: W H Allen. p. 12. ISBN 0491-02260-3.
- Osborne, John (1981). A Better Class of Person: An Autobiography 1929-1956. Dutton. p. 205. ISBN 0525066349.
- Beyond a Joke Richard A Baker
- That's Nice Maxie: Pye LP #NPL18064 (1961)
- Fisher, John (1973). Funny Way to be a Hero. London: Muller. p. 89. ISBN 0584100973.
- Daily Express,p.23, 30 September 1936.
- Bygraves, Max (1976). I Wanna Tell You a Story. London: W. H. Allen. p. 75. ISBN 0491015968.
- Took, Barry (1975). The Max Miller Blue Book. London: Robson Books. ISBN 0-903895-53-6.
- The Max Miller Appreciation Society's Blue Book. Brighton: The Max Miller Appreciation Society. 2001. ISBN 0-9541345-0-8.
- "Distilling the Essence of Genius Max Miller". The Stage: 11. 29 January 1981.
- Fisher, John (1973), Funny Way to be a Hero, London, Muller, pp. 86–96, ISBN 978-0584100976
- East, John M. (1977), Max Miller the Cheeky Chappie, London, W H Allen, ISBN 0491-02260-3
- Osborne, John (1981), A Better Class of Person: An Autobiography: 1929-1956, London, Dutton, pp. 203–205, ISBN 0525066349
- Wilmot, Roger (1986), Kindly Leave the Stage: The Story of Variety 1919-1960 Methuen, pp. 122–125, ISBN 978-0413592903
- Baker, Richard Anthony (2011), Old Time Variety: An Illustrated History Barnsley, Remember When, pp. 52–59, ISBN 978-1844681242
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