Max Bygraves: fifties children’s favourite

News recently of the death of Max Bygraves sent me whirling back in time to those halcyon days of childhood innocence in the 1950s when, at 9:00 each Saturday morning, kids would sit by the old valve radio, waiting in anticipation for Uncle Mac to utter the immortal words ‘Hello children, everywhere’ to usher in another weekly helping of Children’s Favourites on the BBC Light Programme.

In the days before rock’n’roll, the novelty song was king – they filled the airwaves during that hour and scarred a generation for life.  For those who grew up in the fifties, it is impossible to eradicate the memory of the evil Troll (‘I’m a troll, foll-de-roll’) in ‘The Three Billy Goats Gruff’ waiting under the rickety-rackety bridge for the billy goats gruff to come clip-clopping along, or ‘The Runaway Train’ coming over the hill (‘and she blew’), or the ‘The Laughing Policeman’, who laughed until he cried, with all his blessed might, and in the process drove a generation of kids out of their minds.

Introduced by the demonic whistling strings of the signature tune ‘Puffing Billy’, the songs played on Children’s Favourites haunt the memory, as evocative of the fifties as marbles, hula hoops, collecting cards in PG Tips, plastic submarines powdered by baking powder in cereal packets, Dan Dare and the Beano.

The songs? There was a troupe of deranged but relentlessly cheerful Austrian children fal-da-reeing their way through ‘The Happy Wanderer’, Christopher Robin saying his prayers, Nellie the Elephant trumpety-trumping on the road to Mandalay, Burl Ives reminiscing about an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, the Beep Beep song about a Bubble Car that  overtakes a limousine, and a crew with very deep voices singing ‘I am a Mole and I live in a Hole’.  Amazing.

Max Bygraves was one of the chief culprits at this crime scene, reciting some nonsense about ‘Gilly Gilly Ossenfeffer Katzellen Bogen by the Sea’ and serenading a toothbrush (‘Every time I hear you whistle…… it makes my nylon bristle…….’) for god’s sake in ‘I’m a Pink Toothbrush, you’re a Blue Toothbrush':

You’re a pink toothbrush, I’m a blue toothbrush 
Have we met somewhere before?
You’re a pink toothbrush and I think toothbrush
That we met by the bathroom door

The really valuable aspect of that clip is that it contains both of the catchphrases for which Max Bygraves was famous – ‘I wanna tell you a story’ and ‘That’s a good idea son’.  Marvellous!  He made a hit record of the latter with Archie Andrews and Peter Brough, the ventriloquist and dummy act.  That’s the fifties for you – a ventriloquist’s dummy on the radio.  The pair had a hit radio series, Educating Archie, and no-one at the time thought it strange.

Born in 1922, Bygraves was  the son of a professional boxer and part-time docker. He got his stage name during the war as a result of his Max Miller impressions, performed in RAF reviews. He was one of nine children in a staunchly Roman Catholic family, living in a council flat in Rotherhithe. He used to drag the River Thames for driftwood to earn pocket money.  But his way out of poverty opened up when he realised he could make money from singing.  He had won a school talent competition at the age of 13, and as an altar boy made his first public appearance singing Handel’s Largo in Westminster Cathedral.

Here are two more timeless Bygraves classics from the fifties:

Funny thing, though: I think my earliest sense of  justice and fair play came from two of the Danny Kaye tunes that seemed to crop up every week on the show: ‘The Ugly Duckling’ and ‘Tubby the Tuba’.  And didn’t I learn the geography of the United States from Perry Como’s ‘Delaware’?

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11 thoughts on “Max Bygraves: fifties children’s favourite

  1. Ahh the age of innocence Gerry!
    All those songs coming rushing back to me now, as they still do, sometimes in the strangest of places and at the oddest of times….funny how the brain works isn’t it?
    I was talking about the passing of Max, Bygraves not Headroom, the other day when the subject of ventriloquists came up and I ventured that the finest of them all was Arthur Worsley with his ‘dummy’ the quite irascible Charlie Brown, who at times seemed to get a little bit too close for comfort to the dummy in the old scary film ‘Magic starring a young psychotic Anthony Hopkins who loses the plot and the dummy ‘takes over’.
    This is not a radical idea apparently, as there used to be a story passed around by ventriloquists, but which actually happened to Arthur. He was rehearsing a radio show….yes, you are right, how odd for such an act to be on the radio, even more strange that we should go along with it, and apparently the producer did not pick up a line that ‘Charlie Brown’ had ‘spoken. Immediately the producer said, ‘Arthur I didn’t pick that last line up. Could you put Charlie closer to the microphone?’
    Doh!
    He was a master vent was Arthur, invited numerous times on the Ed Sullivan show, highly regarded by him and show business in general and very self deprecating with it, often ending with the classic line spoken by Charlie after he had furiously berated Arthur, ‘How is it son. How is it, that every time I shout, you spit in my face?’
    A shame there isn’t more stuff of them on You Tube. Arthur was a very private man.
    I always had a lot of affection for Shari Lewis too, ‘Lambchops’ the sock mutton and a very attractive and talented woman…that’s Shari, not ‘Lambchops’.
    My first record was Tommy Steele, ‘Little White Bull’, so totally non PC these days. Imagine a record company releasing that these days, ‘Highly Offended’ of Frodsham would have an e mail off in a jot!
    I used to have an old ‘His Masters Voice’ stylus, large horn, record player, a wind up job, but with no little Jack Russell to listen with me and I would play that song to death. Written by Lionel Bart I believe.
    Any quick look on the internet brings up scores of these songs, ‘I taut I taw a puddy tat…Mel Blanc, and not forgetting the old classic from Eric and Ern, ”Boom Oo Yata – Ta – Ta’ which I venture that not with even a tonne of explanation or translation could you make an American understand! (Sorry USA!) oh and the ‘Ying Tong’ song…..English genius!
    The passing of an age, an innocent age, or so it seemed, forgetting conveniently the wars raging around the world, the Cuban crisis and Elvis. My God the TV cameras were told to film him from the waist up only! Revolution!
    Of course, and excuse me from diverting just a little, but I feel older by the day, especially with the passing of Neil Armstrong. Now, and whatever feelings people may have about the unquantifiable amounts of money spent and all the other issues, here was a hero, quiet, diffident, hating crass commercialism, he even threatened to sue his barber of 20 years for selling his cut hair for $3000. The barber could not get the hair back, so donated the money to a charity of Armstrong’s choice. As an emissary of Earth he was perfect, unlike many explorers of the past who went in search of golden fleeces at any price, he went to do a job and simply did it. There were no little green men there, no treasures awaiting, and even if there had been, Armstrong would have dealt with it all with grace and empathy and simply slipped away on his return.
    So goodbye Max, Eric and Ern, Arthur and Neil, goodbye and thankyou.

    • Days of innocence, indeed. But, as you rightly point out, change was coming. I remember Saturday Skiffle Club replaced 30 minutes of Reginald Dixon performing on his organ in Blackpool – soon expanding to 2 hours and renamed Saturday Club. I can still hear in my head the voice of presenter Brian Matthews. It was in those 2 hours (often frustratingly interrupted because Saturday morning was usually the time appointed by parents for children to perform chores (like going to the local shop to get the lead acid accumulator that powered one of the radios to the shop to be recharged). But that was where I first heard Lonnie Donegan, the Vipers – and the Beatles.

    • It isn’t – but perhaps one day I’ll post the photo of me in a dolly tub in the backyard at about three years. I do believe Dad is wearing his war medals, but big ‘sis looks a real cool cat.

  2. I agree, Max Bygraves raises all sorts of warm memories of Radio BBC Home Service and Light Programme (later to become Radio 4 & Radio 2.for those of you under 50).Recollections of Crystal sets,Sputniks, Dan Dare, Topper & Beano remind me that those who portray the ’50s as grey and dour cannot have been alive in that time, or maybe they weren’t children in that decade.

  3. Gerry, you can STILL hear the voice of Brian Matthew (is there an ‘s’ on the end?) 0800-1000 Saturday mornings on Radio 2! A warm glowing memory, but also,tempered with grim reality, thanks to my Dad and his recollections of war, his reading out loud of the Daily Express (it was a serious,though Tory, newspaper in those days) I knew what DienBienPhu was [perhaps at the age of 6 it was the sound of the word], where Suez was, who Nasser was [slightly coloured by Beaverbrook's Express].At the age of 8, I think, we stood with neighbours looking up at the night sky imagining we could see the Sputnik and contemplating the journey to the Moon and Mars.

    • Blimey, he must be ancient now! Funny how these old tunes can bring the memories flooding back. My Dad took the much-mourned News Chronicle (later swallowed by the Daily Mail) and I distinctly remember bringing the paper up to my parents in bed one morning in 1956, and being transfixed by large and vivid photos of Soviet tanks and street barricades in Budapest. I’d have been 8 then, and that was the first time that I became aware of world events or politics.

  4. “Driven out of their mind” is exactly how it was for me too. No wonder we became rebels – anything to escape all this! We couldn’t afford a ‘record player’ until 1963 when my parents finally relented and bought a Dansette. Everything changed then! But before that, radio was all we had. My last memory of this period , before I finally head-butted the bedroom wall, was someone (not Sinatra; Dinah Shore maybe) singing – relentlessly, repeatedly, interminably –

    “Love and marriage, love and marriage
    Go together like a horse and carriage.
    This I tell you, Bruh-thuh
    You can’t have one without the…
    Uh-thuh”

    GET ME OUTTA HERE!!! AAAARGHHH…..

  5. My old man’s a dustman
    I am Henery the Eighth I am
    Hello Mother Hello Father here I am at camp Grenada…
    There I was, digging this hole…
    There’s a hole in my bucket
    They’re coming to take me away haha
    Puff the Magic Dragon

    To name but a few

    Daily Express was a broadsheet nicknamed the EXCESS due to its right-wing political bent!

    Thanks for making me feel my age, my friend!!!!
    LOL
    Tess

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