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Max Miller

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Biography

The British comedian Max Miller, strongly associated with the Cheeky Chappie character he created, was a top star in the land of tea and crumpets from the '30s through the '50s. Nonetheless, one of the best ways to focus attention his way is to mention that he is one of the people pictured on the front cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles. Miller, whose real name was Thomas Sargent, can be seen in the third row of the famous montage, right next to the wax hairdresser's dummy. Scholarly articles have been written about the significance of those chosen to appear on this album cover, a totem of an era in which public taste in comedians would drift away from the vaudeville tradition, perhaps forever. The Beatles must have felt we all needed comedy as much as love — there are a fair number of funnymen on this album cover, including W.C. Fields, Stan Laurel, and Oliver Hardy.

Miller learned his craft performing standup comedy for the large and mixed audiences in variety theaters. He seemed to know what to do, having hung out in such places along the Brighton seaside since he was a lad. Miller was considered brilliant at commanding listeners' complete attention and, in a career cycle repeated by many such comic greats, he went on to work in films. Miller also made his own music including original songs, but should not be confused with the so-called "real" Max Miller, a pianist born with that name who was a fixture on the Chicago jazz scene. The comedian's heyday was no doubt during the Second World War, radio audiences hungry for laughs as well as the moments of peace heralded by such broadcasts. With so many listening, Miller's Cheeky Chappie just had to be the bad boy, pushing the limits of what was allowed by the censors. Where this would lead on the tight little island does not require a sleuth to figure out: the BBC wound up banning some of his broadcasts. There was one period of five years in which Miller was completely barred from the network.

It was apparently in the previous war that Miller, at that point still Sargent but actually a private, realized he could be as funny as the goofs who had entertained him on the Brighton vaudeville scene. Having made fellow grunts chuckle under the worst circumstances, the young entertainer felt he could take on whatever came away his way in the theatrical foxholes of London as well as Brighton. Recordings of his material have allowed it to live on; the Pearl Flapper label, for example, has had several volume of vintage Cheeky Chappie tracks available since 2002.

Critics of the BBC like to view the censorship of Miller as an extreme example of state-controlled media fascism: "Hitler couldn't even manage to censor Karl Valentin" is a comment that has been made in reference to the Bavarian comic superstar. Valentin's comic valentines were more overtly political, however, whereas the jokes Miller mailed were simply smutty, although hardly by the standards of the next century. The latter humorist mastered the double entendre instead of coming right out with profanity. His comic style has often been labeled "seaside humour." The seaside was where he spent most of his life, hanging around with normal blokes rather than showbiz peers or young worshipers such as the Beatles themselves. Miller commented thusly on these social preferences: "I much prefer a retired bus driver to anybody in show business."

Top Songs

Birth Name:

Thomas Sargent

Born:

1894

Genre
Years Active:

'30s, '40s, '50s

Contemporaries