Bronze statue of Miller at the Pavilion Gardens, Brighton
|Birth name||Thomas Henry Sargent|
21 November 1894|
Hereford Street, Brighton, Sussex
|Died||7 May 1963
25 Burlington Street, Brighton, Sussex
|Spouse||Frances Kathleen Marsh|
Thomas Henry Sargent (21 November 1894 - 7 May 1963), best known by his stage name Max Miller and also known as "The Cheeky Chappie", was a British comedian who was widely regarded as the greatest stand-up comedian of his generation. He made films, toured in revues and music hall, and sang and recorded songs, some of which he wrote. He was known for his flamboyant suits, his wicked charm, and his risqué jokes which often got him into trouble with the censors.
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.
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.
Through the 20's, 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 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.
Miller tells one of his trademark jokes
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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,She's ready for ... 'Ere
They're ready for plucking.
When a girl is sixteen,
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