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’?