More About Max
The One and Only
Britain's top comedian in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, was born in Brighton, on the south coast of England in 1894. He excelled as a stand-up comic playing to large audiences in variety theatres, where his skill was such that he could hold an audience in the palm of his hand. He was master of the double entendre. He was mischievous, brash and quick-witted; he dressed over the top and he certainly lived up to the name the Cheeky Chappie. Even the poorest jokes got a laugh; his timing and delivery were legendary.
The Early Years
Born in Hereford Street, Kemptown, Brighton, Sussex as Thomas Henry Sargent on 21st. November, 1894, the second child of James Sargent, a labourer and Alice (née West), a flower seller. Known as Harry, he had three brothers and two sisters. His parents were very poor and often unable to pay the rent so were forced to move to other parts of the town and surrounding areas. Harry therefore found himself frequently changing schools until he reached 12, when he left. He tried various jobs, labouring, delivering milk, selling fish and chips, caddying at Brighton and Hove Golf Course and finally trained to be a motor mechanic. He loved showing off and would wear clothes too big for him. He was nicknamed "Swanky Sargent".
On the outbreak of war in 1914, he 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. When in Mesopotamia, he was temporarily blinded for three days. This experience stayed with him all his life and, in later years, he did much to help the blind. During his time in the army, he started a troops’ concert party.
Start of Career in Show Business
Demobbed from the army, he found work to be in short supply. He lost his mother to the 1918 flu pandemic. Harry had his sights on London and got a booking in the Shoreditch Hall in 1919. He lasted a week. Harry wasn’t ready for London yet. Back in Brighton he spotted 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. Whilst with the concert party, he met his wife 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 Brighton 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 revusical called The Girl. Whilst 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. This stuck.
Max and Kathleen formed a double act for a while but it became obvious to her that Max was the stronger performer and that he would be better as a solo act.
On the Road to Stardom
It was back to touring in revues which took Max all over Great Britain and Ireland. 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.
The Turning Point
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. Max 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 Max, like any other performer, had to earn their 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 finally to Pye.
Max was given a cameo role in the film The Good Companions (1933). 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! 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 Max’s. This clip, of Max on stage as Harry Hawkins, is the only one in existence giving us an idea of his stage act. It is invariably included in any documentary made about him.
Max’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 entrance. . There would be excitement in the audience. Max 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. He knew then that he had the audience in the palm of his hand. Although Max's material was risqué, Max 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 Max 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 Max 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 Max as the ‘Gold of the music hall’.
Max appeared in three Royal Variety Performances (1931, 1937 and 1950). In the last he was fighting mad that he was only given 6 minutes whilst 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 Max that he would never work for him again. However after 18 months of Max touring in secondary theatres, he was invited back to the ‘number one’s’, 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. However 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 and the freedom to use his naughty material. However Max 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, considered by some as his best, Max at the Met in 1957.
The Final Years
In 1958 Max 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 the 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 9 years, dying in a Hove nursing home in 1972.
With dwindling work in variety, brought about by the increasing popularity of television, Max 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 Max. 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".