Our Patch 6
Max Miller, ‘The Cheeky Chappie,’ was born Thomas Henry Sargent in Hereford Street, Brighton on 21st November 1894.
He was the second child of James Sargent, a labourer and Alice Sargent, nee West, a flower seller. He had three brothers and two sisters. A small family for Victorian Times. His parents were poor and more often than not couldn’t afford to pay the rent and so were forced to move to other parts of the town, usually where the rents were cheaper. Because of this Max had to keep moving schools and so his education was quite poor. When he reached the age of 12 years, he left school altogether. He tried a number of jobs including labouring, delivering milk, selling fresh fish from a barrow and then selling fish and chips. He tried to earn a living as a caddy at the Brighton and Hove Golf course, and he finally trained to be a motor mechanic after his father told him to settle down into a regular job. He seemed to like the motor mechanic job, he earned the nickname of ‘Swanky Sargent.’
The Royal Sussex Regiment
In 1914, at the outbreak of the First World War he volunteered to join the army. He joined the Royal Sussex Regiment and, after serving in France during some of the fiercest of the war, he was posted to India, serving there for just over 12 months. He was then sent to Mesopotamia. While he was there he temporarily lost his sight. He never forgot that experience as he was sure he would go permanently blind and never get his sight back again. Luckily, he regained his sight after three days. During his later years he never forgot those three days without proper sight. He did everything for the blind people, raising money for their welfare and putting on concerts for them to enjoy. While he was in the Army he got together a concert party in order to entertain the troops. This was one of the very first concert parties that was organised. It was about now that he was sure his life was on the stage as a comedian, but not quite the way he turned out to be. He said once, to be a success you have to be different. I think people will agree Max was certainly different.
After the war he returned to England but found that work was in short supply, there was about 20 men and just one job. His mother had died in the 1918 flu epidemic that swept the country. He had enjoyed being on stage while he was in the concert party and he wanted to do that now for a living. He wanted to perform up in London, he knew that was his best chance of a career in show business. After a lot of hard work going around the various theatres to try and get work, he managed to secure one booking at the Shoreditch Hall in 1919; it wasn’t a top booking but it was a start he told his father. Although close on a year had passed since his mother had passed away he was still very upset over her death.
Although he did his very best he wasn’t really experienced enough to take this venue and he lasted just one week. He then returned back to Brighton and wondered quite what to do. The day after returning to Brighton he saw an advertisement for artists to join Jack Sheppard’s Concert Party on the seafront, along in East Brighton. He applied and got a job as a ‘light comedian,’ just for the 1919 summer season. He thought at least I will get the experience that I need for the larger theatres. It was while he was with the concert party that he met a charming girl who he married, it was Frances Kathleen Marsh, she was also a member of the concert party, employed as a contralto.
Whereas Max came from a very poor family with a poor education, Frances 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 Borough Alderman for 43 years and was at one time the Mayor of Brighton from 1949-1950, the statuary one-year term.
During the summer of 1920 Max toured nationwide in ‘The Rogues,’ this was a concert party and during the following year Max and Kathleen toured in a revue/musical called ‘The Girl,’ While they were in Plymouth, on the tour, they were married in the parish church in Tormoham, Devon on Thursday, 17th February 1921, this was a very cold but sunny day. As well as being a very good singer, Kathleen was an astute businesswoman and thereafter did much to develop Max’s career. It was Kathleen who suggested that her husband should change his stage name to Max Miller. It was a little later after that and a press notice described Max as the ‘Cheeky Chappie’ and the nickname stuck, Throughout the rest of his career he was ‘The Cheeky Chappie.’ Max and Kathleen at one time formed a double act for a short while but it quickly became obvious to Kathleen that Max was the star and not Kathleen and his career would go better if he stayed a single act, and of course Kathleen was right again.
Through the 1920’s, Max was regularly touring in revues. In 1922 saw him in a show which was presented by the Sydney Syndigate, ‘There you are then,’ the following year he was found touring with the Ernest Binn Arcadians. Then in 1924 found him in another revue called ‘Crisps.’ However, during that summer he returned to re-join Jack Sheppard on the Brighton seafront. Max dearly wanted to sleep in his own bed at night but he was getting a very good grounding and experience when he starred in the real large theatres later in his career. In 1925, he re-joined ‘Crisps’ and in the November of that year he joined a very good revue called ‘Ten to one on,’ which starred Jimmy James who was a wonderful comedian. This show ran until February 1926 when Max got some work in variety or cine-variety, the latter being a show which was half film and half live acts.
In September 1926 he was booked to appear at the Holborn Empire, this was a big break-through. While he was appearing there he was spotted by the impresario, Tom Arnold. He immediately booked Max to star in his next revue called ‘Piccadilly.’ This show opened in Birmingham and toured all around the country being a great success. His young co-star was 21-year old Florence Desmond. After this show completed its run Max was booked by Fred Karno to appear in a show called ‘The Show.’ And in May he joined a touring cabaret revue called ‘XYZ’ until the end of the year. Max was in great demand by now but still the big-break hadn’t come. Max enjoyed this work but he wanted something where he would be able to sleep in his own bed.
After he had done a few weeks in variety, he was back in the revues, one was called ‘Tipperary Tim,’ by Francis Laider. Actually this kept Max very busy right up until February 1929. Kathleen, who was more or less acting as his manager suggested that in an effort to change his luck, maybe he should change his agent. She had heard of a very good one and got Max to meet him. After meeting this mysterious person who somehow Kathleen had heard about. Max liked what he saw and heard after a brief discussion. It was now he decided to change his agent and signed up with Julius Darewski. Now this was the turning point in his career. This was what Max had wanted for a long time. ‘Is this the start of the big-time he asked himself?’
The London Palladium
In May 1929, he made his first appearance at The London Palladium in variety. He returned there in the October and, in November joined the cast of ‘Fools in Paradise.’ This took him through to March 1930. Although he didn’t know it at the time this was going to be his last revue for some time.
Max made it quite clear that he preferred to appear as a solo artiste and so from 1930 onwards he appeared in variety shows in various large theatres including the London Palladium as well as the Holborn Empire. In those Days instant success was unheard of, and Max, like any other performer, had to work very hard to earn his fame through a long apprenticeship. He had certainly had a very good grounding for the big time but now he was ready and certainly very able.
Royal Variety Show
In May 1931 he was selected to appear in his first Royal Variety Show, in front of Royalty, Max was 37 years old at that time. After appearing in the variety show, he got his name more known and people wanted to know more about Max and of course hear him. He started making regular shows on the radio, it was only going to be a matter of time before he started recording some of his cheeky songs. In 1932 that chance came and he recorded the song, ’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. However, in 1953 he changed to Phillips and then to Pye Records. He was in great demand, each company offering him a better deal. The next thing that interested him was films, he wanted to appear in a film.
He was given a cameo role in a film called ‘The Great Companions,’ in it he played the part of a music publisher selling a song to a pianist, who was played by the famous actor, John Gielgud. Although he was not credited for his role, his three- minute debut was impressive and it certainly got him noticed. This then led him to be signed up to appear in a further 13 films. He had a small part in the first one but he worked up the last and had a starring role. Generally, it was considered that his best film was, ‘Educated Evans’ in 1936. This film was based on an Edgar Wallace story and was filmed by Warner Bros. has since been lost. His next to last film was called ‘Hoots Mon!’ and made in 1940. In this film he played the part of a southern comedian called Harry Hawkins. In the film 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 the idea of his stage act. It is invariably included in any documentary made about him.
Mary from the dairy
Max’s act on a variety Bill usually last somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes. He would be standing in the wings as the orchestra played his signature tune, ‘Mary from the dairy.’ A spotlight would then show up on the curtain close to the wings, the audience know he is about to come onto the stage as the curtains move aside. By this time the audience have got very excited and the applause would start but still no Max. He would wait in the wings for a further 10 seconds or so. He would then give a nod and the curtains would life and there he was wearing a very bright suit, like wearing a pair of curtains. He would wear plus-fours, a kipper style tie, a trilby set at a jaunty angle and a pair of bright coloured shoes. He was certainly dressed for the part. Once the applause had died down, he would start his act, a very risqué act too. However, although it was risqué material he never once swore on stage or in front of his audience, unlike today. He wouldn’t approve of some of today’s comedians, that’s for sure.
In his act he used double entendre’s and when he was telling one of his famous jokes he would leave out the last few words, and the audience filled those in – in their own minds. His act consisted of a few jokes, a few songs and perhaps now and again, something that had caught his eye whilst travelling somewhere. He wasn’t slow at giving his home town a plug every so often. He would have a joke which allowed him to bring in the word ‘Brighton’ in some way. It usually finished with the boss and his secretary staying at a hotel in Brighton for the weekend, something like that. Now and again he would sing a sentimental song and his audience saw a different side to Max. He was a very sentimental man; he could cry if he saw a dead dog or cat in the roadway in his beloved Kemp Town. He used to sing songs like ‘My old Mum,’ (whom he loved beyond belief.) and ‘Twin Sisters,’ There were times when he would have his guitar on stage and strum a few chords while singing one of his songs, and do one of his soft shoe shuffles across the stage. He wrote a few songs during his long career.
It has often been suggested that John Osbourne modelled his famous character, Archie Rice in the ‘Entertainer’ on Max. Osbourne has always denied it but the two characters are pretty close to what they do. He denied any thoughts he had about basing Archie Rice on Max. He would say Archie Rice is a man, Max is a god!
During Max’s lifetime censorship in this country were strict. The Lord Chamberlain was fully responsible for all the censorship laws as well as the interpretation of them. Max’s material needed approval by those bodies but, by using innuendos and leaving out the last few words of a certain joke he could get away with much risqué and saucy material. All of his material that he used on stage didn’t include dirty jokes or swearing. He didn’t believe you needed to stoop low with that type of material. During his act, he would stand looking at the audience and then slowly draw out of his pocket, two small books, one would be white and the other blue. He would explain to the audience that these were his joke books and he would ask the audience would they like to hear jokes from the white book or jokes from the blue one. They always chose the blue one. He would then tell a joke from the white book as if he had made a mistake, this would be a very tame joke. Then he would open the blue book and his act was underway, these were the ‘naughty’ jokes. These were the ones the audience has come along to hear.
A naughty joke such as this: –
When roses are red,
They’re ready for plucking,
When a girl is sixteen,
She’s ready for………. (leaving out any further words) Then he would say ‘Ere, Ere, that’s enough of that!
He would leave the audience to finish the story and then blamed them all when they laughed.
‘I know exactly what you are saying to yourself, you’re wrong, I know what you are saying. You wicked lot. You’re the sort of people that get me a bad name.’
Another one he would use was: –
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
I said, ’Have you hurt yourself?’
She said, ‘No, I am sorry to spoil your fun.’
I said,’ You’re not spoiling my fun, It’ll
Keep on ice.’
Max had a number of catch-phrases, they include the following: –
‘Now, there’s a funny thing.’
‘There’ll never be another.’
‘How’s your memory, Gal.’
And lots more.
It was said that Max was banned twice by the BBC twice, the first time was in 1930 and then again 20 years later in 1950. However, these rumours did a lot in helping Max’s reputation as daring and being quite naughty. In fact, those rumours increased his popularity and led to more bookings.
There is no doubt that Max Miller influenced a lot of up and coming comedians who were just setting out on their careers. People like Walter William Bygraves (Max Bygraves) openly admitted Max had a big influence on his career, they met several times. There is a bronze statue in the Pavilion Grounds of Max. There is a blue plaque on his former house at number 160, Marine Parade in Brighton.
One of Max’s catch phrases was ‘’There’ll never be another,’ and where Max is concerned, that is right, there will never be another ‘Max Miller.
A great friend of Brighton Police
In the old days Brighton police used to have a Police Ball every year. It was the job of the policemen to sell the tickets. The public used to buy the tickets from the policemen and in a way were a bit scared not to buy them, in case the police were not to friendly through the next 12 months. Some years it was hard to sell tickets but if he was free then Max Miller would do a 30 minute spot. It was easy to sell tickets.
During the war because petrol was short, you would see Max cycling through the town with his gas mask in its box hanging over the handlebars. Quite often, if the policeman was just standing on the corner then he would stop and chat with the policeman and perhaps walk along the road with him.
I don’t know if any other stars of that era did that.
If he was appearing at the Hippodrome then he would drop a few free tickets in to the police station.
( you can imagine who got those tickets.)
When he was appearing in London, he would leave his bike at the railway station and cycle home from there. Even then he would stop and chat to the policemen on his way home.
Max had a secret, as you know he wore bright coloured suits, like curtains. The talk used to be that his wife, Kathleen used to make them. That was never admitted by either Kathleen or Max.
I asked him in his older days but he never admitted she did.
I would love to have known, but I don’t.