Born in Brixton, South London, into a music hall family on March 12 1908, Max (real name Maxwell George Lorimer) became one of the most original and versatile entertainers of the twentieth century. His father Jack Lorimer, The Hielan’ Laddie, was a popular Scots comedian who appeared at many major theatres and wrote and recorded his own songs. His mother, Stella Stahl, was a singer who often appeared on the same bill as her husband. His grandparents, Will Mitcham and Maudie Ross, were also music hall performers.
The young Max, 'a child in the wings', as he put it, became steeped in the atmosphere of music hall and encountered many early stars of the day.
Max’s future career was very nearly cut short however by an incident that occurred in 1916 when he was eight years old. A German Zeppelin flying over Brixton dropped a gas bomb on the Lorimer household. The resultant devastating explosion demolished the house and caused the death of his younger brother William and their nanny. Max and his elder brother Alec survived when the iron-framed bed they shared was flipped over by the blast protecting them from any further injury. By the early 1920s Max’s father had died and Stella was re-married to another music hall artiste, Harry Wallace, who became Max’s professional mentor. Aged 14, Max joined a touring pantomime company and gave himself the stage name Max Wall, taken from Harry’s surname.
Max soon discovered that he had a special gift for eccentric dancing and learned his craft by watching visiting American masters such as Hal Sherman, Barry Oliver and Sliding Billy Watson. After an apprenticeship in clubs, music hall and cabaret Max started working on the Continent as a speciality act and shared bills with Maurice Chevalier at the Casino de Paris and the great Swiss clown Grock – who became a major comic influence – at the Paris Empire.
Max’s first West End appearance was in The London Revue (Lyceum 1925) starring the legendary silent movie queen of cliff-hanging serials, Pearl White. As an acrobatic and tap dancer Max still worked on the halls and began to be billed as The Boy With The Obedient Feet. In between his strenuous dance routines, Max began to tell gags and eventually made the transition from silent act to bill-topping comedian, with the encouragement of black American singing duo Layton and Johnstone.
From his earliest appearances in the thirties, Max’s droll and resonant voice made him ideal for radio and many of his songs, such as Me and My Tune and Ginger are well remembered from his guest spots with guitar in shows such as Music Hall and Variety Bandbox for which he wrote his own scripts.
Max also scripted his own BBC series, Our Shed, in 1946, which many people remember affectionately today. He was invited to join the original Goons but declined, preferring a solo career. His BBC television series in 1956, one of the first starring vehicles for a comedian, was very popular and allowed him to introduce many acts he felt needed encouragement.
In the 1950s before variety died, Max met with success touring his own bills showcasing emerging talents such as Julie Andrews and Beryl Reid. In 1955 he reached the peak of his stardom playing Hines with Joy Nichols and Edmund Hockridge in the British production of The Pajama Game at the London Coliseum. Following his marriage breakup he was then boycotted by managements and ignored in the press. By the 1960s Max’s comic creation Professor Wallofski had become a popular figure in the Northern clubs and his down-to-earth approach endeared him to many of the working people who had previously only known him via radio and TV. His throwaway gags and trumpet playing adapted well to the rough and ready ambience of such venues as Batley Variety Club and Wakefield Theatre Club. His resilient philosophy and ability to improvise enabled him to survive when many other ex-variety acts didn’t.
Max suddenly found himself in demand under the hallowed proscenium arch of the ‘legitimate’ theatre. In 1966 under the direction of Iain Cuthbertson, Max attracted favourable reviews playing Père Ubu in Alfred Jarry’s surrealistic comedy Ubu Roi.
In 1974 at Greenwich Theatre John Osborne reprised his play The Entertainer, casting Max as the fading music hall star Archie Rice. Max brought a lifetime of experience on the halls to the the part and made it his own. Critics and contemporaries alike praised his performance comparing him very favourably to Laurence Olivier who had created the role 17 years previously. As a result of Max’s tour-de-force as Archie, his own one man show, Aspects of Max Wall, transferred to the West End where it was favourably received. Max also found an affinity with the works of Samuel Beckett, resulting in acclaimed performances in Krapp’s Last Tape in 1974 and Waiting for Godot in 1981. The two men became good friends. Max played character roles in a number of well-known soap operas on television. Terry Gilliam cast him (in an inspired duo with John le Mesurier) as King Bruno the Questionable in his 1977 Python-esque film Jabberwocky.
Max even embraced the world of rock music. In 1972 he travelled with the cult band Mott the Hoople on their successful Circus tour. In 1977 he recorded a version of Ian Dury’s England’s Glory released on Stiff Records. Ian always regarded Max as one of his boyhood heroes and on a number of occasions invited him to introduce The Blockheads prior to a performance. This met with mixed success as the young audiences had only experienced Max on television in his eccentrically manic Professor Wallofski character. Max once remarked ruefully to Ian off-stage at the Hammersmith Odeon “They only want the walk.”
A highlight of Max's later career was his menacing role as Flintwinch in Christine Edzard’s 1988 film of Little Dorrit.
On the 21st May 1990, when leaving Simpson’s restaurant in the Strand, Max fell, badly fracturing his skull. He never regained consciousness and died early next morning in Westminster Hospital. He was 82. The epitaph on his headstone in Highgate Cemetery reads:
“I believe that since my life began
The most I’ve had is just
A talent to amuse.”