Sunday, August 19, 2007

'E Don't 'Arf Make You Larf!

by Geoff Collins

People change as they get older; or do they? It's a theory I'd intended to work on until I recently had another look at Mary Poppins (had to wait until I found a cheapo copy 'cos Disney DVDs are sooooo expensive). Having seen Ed Wynn in (the first reel of) Follow the Leader, Stage Door Canteen, early TV shows and finally, having savoured his uniquely treasurable turn as Uncle Albert in Mary P, it must be said that throughout all of this, in spite of immense personal difficulties (some of them self-inflicted) he remains the same recognisable Ed; silly, cheerful and lovable. It's a tribute to his resilience - or perhaps he didn't let it show until he got home.

Now let's consider the imitable Max Wall - I say imitable 'cos he was a gift to the mimics. We'll let Max introduce himself. Imagine a doleful, craggy face saying this in a resigned sort of way, because it's his job, but with just a hint of smiley, forced enthusiasm: "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Wall is the name, standing before you, Max Wall. In the flesh, not a cartoon. You've heard of my grandfather, the Great Wall of China. He was a brick...."

My dad saw Max Wall's stage act in 1940 at the small theatre in Eastchurch aerodrome in Kent. At that point Max, in his early thirties, was a charming stand-up comedian and eccentric dancer, dressed in a sharp suit and "comic" trilby hat. Much of the act still exists in a couple of routines he did for the Pathe newsreel cameras (see www.britishpathe.com) - unrelated gags and quickfire impressions (Captain Bligh, useless boxer Jack Doyle - which he does by going "Ow!" and briskly falling down - and, most bizarrely, "a Cocker Spaniel!": fake ears unrolled from under the hat, panting with spaced-out eyes rolling upwards and his tongue hanging out). There's just the slightest hint of danger here - this nice young man could be a maniac - but mostly his outlook is sunny.

Fast forward thirty-five years. On February 18, 1975, it was my turn to see Max Wall; I was fortunate enough to catch his one-man show Aspects of Max Wall at the Garrick Theatre during a night off from Tax Officer training (thank God I didn't pursue this deadly career). Max was a week or two away from sixty-seven; and he was a living gargoyle. It's virtually impossible to catch the essence of this lugubrious genius in print. Few performers have ever bared their souls in public like this man as he exposed all the pain and frustration and heartache and pain involved in being a comedian. The trilby hat was still there; the ingratiating smile was still there, albeit a bit more skeletal and shark-like; but he was drenched in melancholy. We all knew what Max had been through in his private life; he'd survived it, and he could afford to take his time now. A weak little joke which seemed to go surprisingly well gave him exaggerated paroxysms of joy: "Success! Success!" His celebrated eccentric dancing was announced with a dry, understated "Ladies and gentlemen, I'm now going to do the walking-up-and-down bit for you". At another point he tripped over an invisible obstacle on the stage. "A little hole sticking up" he explained and then, with a rueful look, "How desperate can a comedian be???"

How desperate indeed. Much of the first half of his show involved him in a battle of wits with the pit musicians, who were determined to drown out his attempts to sing "Birth of the Blues". (In his autobiography Max cites Dan Leno as an unwitting influence, but a similar zero-tolerance contempt for accompanists is displayed by the very Maxish Billy Merson in another couple of Pathe clips. Explore!) Max's pianist was black-toupeed dance-band legend Monia Liter. In the midst of admonishing him, Max discovered he liked the sound of Monia's unusual name and repeated it, just for his own amusement, with drawn-out adenoidal slowness: "Monia. Monnnn-YA!" It's a rare variation on something he did all his life, this enjoyment of odd sounds for their own sake ("Where's the stool? [Pause. Brief smile.] Stooooollllll!!!")

Despite his over-loud accompaniment, Max succeeded in giving birth to the Blues and exited to tremendous applause. Back he came, after the interval, as The Professor. Professor Wallofski, well known in the field of classical music, and also well known in the field behind the gasworks "but my visits there... get fewer..." The Professor was a postwar creation; he evolved gradually but eventually took over, giving us our defining image of what we think of as "Max Wall": long, black untidy wig with a bald bit in front, short and shapeless dinner jacket, formal shirt and bow tie, flashy waistcoat, black tights, white socks and oversized elastic-sided boots. In Max's "trilby" act you were faintly aware of a monster lurking beneath the surface. With the Professor, the monster was on full display. A beaming smile could suddenly turn ugly as his face underwent a swift gorilla-like transformation into the evil leer of a Mr. Hyde, at which point this hellish creation would attempt to charm a female member of the audience with a repellent, suddenly-Northern-accented "I loov you! Coom 'ere!" There were gasps as well as laughs. Dangerous, dangerous comedy - but he could always rein it back in with "that's about enough of that, I think" or "You weren't frightened, were you? I don't frighten people any more since I 'ad the nut and bolt taken out of me neck!"

The Professor's attempts to play "Raccchhhmaninoff's Prelude", announced via a wide-mouthed toothy gargle a la Leslie Henson, were hampered by the discovery that his arms were of unequal length, a defect which he earnestly endeavored to correct, in profile, so we could see all the varying lengths of arm and sleeve, until of course both arms were much too long, resulting in another scary knuckle-scraping gorilla impression. A beautifully thrown-away moment had him discovering a flea in his sock, slamming the keyboard lid on it and wiping the remains on his leg.

And so on. Lack of space prevents [thank God, I hear you say!] further description of this memorable evening but readers! try and find the documentary movie Max Wall - Funny Man. It's all there. It works well on film and it's an excellent record of the Max most of us remember. But how in the hell did urbane, cheery 1940 Max Wall metamorph into 1975 Max ?

WOMEN WERE MY DOWNFALL, SAYS BANKRUPT MAX WALL. I clearly remember this exact headline from about 1973. Roy Hudd recalls standing next to Max in the urinal. Max didn't speak to Roy; instead he looked down and addressed his own willie: "You... you little devil! You're the cause of all the trouble!"

It all came apart for Max in the mid-fifties. A disastrous marriage, one of those unions that drag on for decades before either party admits it's been disastrous, eventually broke up. Max was elected the Bad Guy by all concerned and he rarely saw his children again. When he did, they were full of contempt for him; they'd been Carefully Taught. Shortly afterwards, Max's friendship with the beauty queen Jennifer Chimes caused him to be vilified by the lower orders of the British press; although this liaison happened after his marriage break-up, it was re-written by gutter journalists as the cause of it. The British public believed every word of it and this Wicked Man disappeared into the waste lands of the Northern working men's clubs. He survived. Barry Cryer saw him facing a terrible onslaught of heckling and verbal abuse; Max waited, calmly, for it to stop, and then he said quietly "You know, this is the most restful part of my day."

Max wasn't the only comedian to go through such living hell. Bill Fields and Buster Keaton both had similar tales to tell, and it changed them too. It's hardly surprising. Believe me, when your own children (a) are misinformed by their perceived "good parent" to such an extent that they hate you, and (b) they haven't got enough insight to realise any of this, the effect on your well-being and self-esteem can be catastrophic. Nobody can survive such an onslaught of venom and injustice and remain unscathed. We've all got a dark side, but it doesn't help when your family deliberately conspires to make it darker.

Bill Fields, a kindly man beneath his belligerent facade, took revenge by exposing the narrow-minded hypocrisy of family life in his sketches and movies, and you know it's his real family getting a well-deserved blasting. Buster and Max, gentler souls, just let it happen. All three hit the bottle, and their comedy became darker. Bill's persona became tougher and more misanthropic; Buster retreated into an even deeper melancholy. Max Wall became a Grotesque.

Rarely has such a bleak outlook been presented on the British Variety stage; and as Max's comedy became bleaker, the Miracle happened. In the correspondingly bleak early 1970s, he suddenly became Trendy. Max had appeared briefly in the easily avoidable 1968 epic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as one of the professors - although, sadly, not the Professor; he's almost unrecognizable. To save you the considerable discomfort of having to endure the entire film, Max pops up at 1:29, his only substantial line being "I came here to repair the telephone - that was twenty-four years ago!" He then joins the other professors in one of the movie's better musical numbers: "From the Ashes of Disaster Grow the Roses of Success".

How appropriate. Despite his bankruptcy, Max was in demand again and, due to his renewed fashionable status, he began to appear in works by Jarry (Ubu Roi: "my name is Uuuuuboooouuuuuooooo!!!"), Beckett and Osborne. Have you ever endured Sir Larynx Delivery's movie of The Entertainer? Christ! Avoid it at all costs. Thank goodness part of Max's stage version still exists; he makes those false, unfunny lines seem real and relevant because he is Archie Rice. Unlike Classical Actor Sir Larry O, he'd been there; he'd lived it. With that weatherbeaten face, he played clapped-out comic Archie from the inside. A quote from his co-star Angela Pleasance : "He'd come out of a wilderness in his own life, with... great pain and embitteredness, and therefore all this was incorporated into the performance."

And then there's his 1984 version of Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, written for Patrick Magee who generously suggested Max for the revival. "Spoool five..." he mutters as he threads the tape onto the ancient reel-to-reel machine. Then he pauses to enjoy the sound of the word. "Spooooolllllll!!!!" Beckett must have had Max in mind. And with Max's visual-gag-filled version of Waiting For Godot, we see a direct parallel with the play's original American star, similarly-battered vulnerable genius Bert Lahr.

Max's last years were gratifyingly busy. Television appearances, choice parts in movies such as Little Dorrit and Jabberwocky (which looks like a sloppy home movie made by a Python fan; what else can you expect when the cinematographer is called Terry Bedford?; he sounds like a used car dealer), his one-man show Aspects of Max Wall (see above) which was a compendium of all the worlds of showbusiness he'd lived through; and the knowledge that his stature as a National Treasure was assured, if long overdue. He died, sadly if appropriately, after a fall down a flight of steps in a London restaurant. He probably hadn't eaten, but by the end he didn't need to: "I like a few Guinness.... fifty cigarettes a day.... and a bit of the other, when I can get it!!!"

He's gone, but he's still around. Enjoy him wherever you can. Find his autobiography The Fool On the Hill; it'll explain everything. By the time he wrote this scathing, honest book, Max had accepted that he'd known the fame and all its trappings, and all its pitfalls, and he was content to live modestly. We'll never really know the extent of his bitterness, but I'm willing to bet that it was considerable. It's such a shame that he had to endure the darkness in order to express it through his comedy. Swings and roundabouts. At least we can be assured that he knew he was the one and only Max Wall, and that he was unique. We'll never see a greater range, or such humanity. There is nobody, absolutely nobody, remotely like him.

Max Wall; Maxwell George Lorimer, 1908-1990. The funniest man I've ever seen in my entire life. God bless him.

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2 Comments:

Blogger East Side said...

From that British Pathe clip, he reminds me of a cross between Joe E. Brown and Jerry Lewis.

4:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

he was a wonderful comic and a good friend of mine for many, many years. I have many letters from him that talk to me of of his life. We got together whenever I was over there and he was kindness itself. Very funny onstage but very sad off.I think a lot of comics are like that

11:19 PM  

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