Born in Brighton in 1895 as Thomas Henry Sargent, Max Miller started out as a motor mechanic and made his first appearance at the Shoreditch Music Hall in 1922. By 1926 he was firmly established as a solo act.
Max Miller wore outrageous plus-four suits, florid kipper ties, correspondent shoes, huge diamond rings and a white trilby hat that was a size too small. ‘Why am I dressed like this?’ he would preempt his audience’s asking, ‘I’m a commercial traveller and I’m ready for bed’. He conjured up a world of cheap hotels, boarding houses, pubs and the race-track. A world of commercial travellers, of lusty landladies and willing girls. When he wore a red, white and blue silk outfit during the Coronation Year Show of 1937, he told his audience, 'I know how to dress for these occasions, nice and quiet!'.
He always offered his audience the white gag book (respectable) or the blue gag book (dirty) and they always called for the blue book.
He worked in the music hall tradition of saucy, sexual innuendo spiced with a touch of sentimentality. But with his frank, open face set off by brilliant blue eyes, it was impossible to take offence and there was always the feeling that there was no malice in him – that he was a good chap at heart. Women adored him – he often talked directly to them in his audience and men envied him as he regaled them with tales of his successes (always left ultimately to the imagination).
'I like the girls who do. I like the girls who don’t. I hate the girl who says she will and then she says she won’t. But the girl I like best of all, and I think you’ll say I’m right, is the girl who says she never does but she looks as though she…Here!'
Although his stage routines were saucy, in his private life Miller refused to listen to rude jokes and, despite his constant stage banter about chasing women, he remained married to his wife for 40 years.
Miller was one of the first music hall stars to be hailed by the intellectuals of the 1950s as a comic genius. The playwright John Osborne was a great fan and, in one sense, Archie Rice in his play The Entertainer is a failed Max Miller. Actors Laurence Olivier, Alec McCowan and cartoonist Gerald Scarfe were great admirers.