It’s one of the great joys of my life to have the kind of job that allows me to work with my heroes. When I was a kid, if someone told me that I would one day count as a friend the man with the giant leek on the cover of the album we played on Welsh match days, I wouldn’t have. never believed.
Max Boyce’s status in our house was as mythical as the factory he created under the coal and clay where they make the outer halves that will play for Wales one day. So it was a pleasure to open a package from the man himself this week and find an autographed copy of his new book: Max Boyce Hymns & Arias – The Selected Poems, Songs and Stories.
It’s a beautiful, illustrated volume capturing five decades of creativity and made even more special by Max’s personal note written on the title page that references the “good memories” we share.
Good memories indeed. It’s a privilege to be able to say, “I was there” on the production crew of almost every TV and radio show Max has appeared in since 1998.
Learn more about Max Boyce here.
It was the year he made a triumphant return to BBC Wales with An Evening with Max Boyce, an entertainment special that set the network to break audience records.
A young Dot Davies and I were researchers on the show and while modest in the production hierarchy, he made sure we felt a vital part of his team. “You are more than a point to me – you are an exclamation point!” He would joke.
In 2003, I traveled with Max to Australia for the Rugby World Cup where we were filming a video diary, recording a radio series and having a huge concert at the Sydney Opera House to be broadcast at home.
I will always remember him looking at those famous architectural shells and whispering, “I never thought I could be intimidated by a building. But the next day, he appropriated the world’s most iconic stage, performed in front of an enthusiastic sold-out crowd. At the time, an unknown singer called Katherine Jenkins provided her support number.
After spending six weeks on tour with Max Down Under, I was stunned by his comedic endurance and the energy of his stage performances.
In Sydney, we endured one of the longest working days we’ve ever had, starting with Max appearing on an Australian breakfast show at 7:00 am and ending in a Chinese restaurant at 5:00 am the next morning, sharing shots of unoaked chardonnay with the rugby world of S4C. cutting crew.
The next day we had to climb the Sydney Harbor Bridge at 8:00 am to record a TV track. There was only one problem: Max, myself and our cameraman Terry all failed the pre-climb breathalyzer test. We were told to come back at 4:00 PM.
At lunchtime, as Terry and I laid our heads on the table, moaning through our huge hangovers, Max was on stage entertaining 600 hard-core Australian businessmen. It was a tough corporate audience, but by the end of lunch he had the whole room on his feet, performing his alternate Haka to the beat of Humpty Dumpty.
An hour later the three of us were climbing the Sydney Harbor Bridge – Terry and I were still sick like parrots, Max leaping ahead like a puppy.
Special television broadcasts celebrating the World Rugby Tournament followed every four years. With Max at the head of the bill, securing high profile guests was never an issue – from Rob Brydon, who revealed he had been an all-star drama student when Max was on stage , to Jonah Lomu who recalled the warm welcome he had received at Glynneath RFC.
In the studio, I witnessed the intense preparation that Max puts on stage. Behind every seemingly spontaneous punchline lie weeks, months, and even years of comic creation.
On the road, trips with Max from Murrayfield to Melbourne have given insight into how he connects with his audiences and how appreciated he is by fans of all ages. It’s not just those who were there in the leek and rosette days – I’ve seen 20-year-old boys jump on tables to recite The Incredible Plan in his honor.
And as you would expect from the man who gave us The Scottish Trip, Max is a big tourist. (He christened me ‘Magellan’ when our own trip to Scotland to record the Caledonian episode of Max Boyce’s Six Nations series nearly ended in disaster when I booked our Cardiff-Edinburgh flights throughout. the other. And he almost forgave me for the punch planning a trip to Treviso for the Italian program which seemed to cover most of Western Europe.)
The trips with Max were also a social education. Wine lover and culinary adventurer – he blindly swears he’s eaten a whole frog in asp – Max always encourages us to try the menu choice furthest to the left. The occasional impromptu party followed memorable meals on the road. The talks with Cliff Morgan and Philip Madoc were interspersed with a surprise trip to Ronnie Scott.
Morgan and Madoc were the guests of The Final Curtain, a radio format designed by Max that invited famous personalities to choose how they would spend their last fancy day on earth.
It brought many unexpected moments, including Dafydd Iwan revealing his wish to share a hot air balloon ride with Jennifer Lopez and Rhodri Morgan avoiding human guests on his fantastic farewell to swim with a dolphin. “I thought you would choose Nye Bevan, not Flipper!” Max joked as the couple laughed together.
In 2013, it was Max’s turn to reflect as I produced a celebratory studio show dotted with guest stars for his 70th birthday, not to mention TV and radio documentaries recounting the story of his legendary album Live at Treorchy. . Its follow-up, We All Had Doctors Papers, remains the only comedy LP to top the UK charts, keeping Elton John, Rod Stewart and 10cc at number one.
And last year, Max proved his appeal persists in the digital age as his warm, witty, and moving pandemic poem – When Just the Tide Went Out – garnered millions of hits across the globe.
This most recent success did not surprise me. A deep appreciation for Max’s unique talent comes with my long association. Reading his collected works highlighted these gifts and brought back bright memories of all these programs and performances.
But there is a story in the book that gives a new perspective on the backcountry that informs Max’s talent – a depth that is sometimes overlooked by snobs who perceive him as a mere comedian rather than a cultural icon.
Two clippings are reproduced, titled “Onllwyn Pit Explosion” and “Explosion Sequel”. Max explains, “While compiling this anthology, a local builder who is an avid archivist of local history sent me a clipping from a 1943 newspaper. It was a report of a mining explosion in a Dulais valley mine, Onllwyn No. 3.
“It details the recognized negligence of MM. Evans and Bevan of Neath, the owners of the mine. This neglect led to the death of my father a month before I was born. My mother, only 30 at the time, received a measly £ 300 to care for her child. What made the reading painful was the declaration of the mine owners: “There was an explosion in the Gray vein of Onllwyn No.3… the damage was not significant and the work resumed little. soon after … “
No wonder this kid grew up writing about a Welsh industrial world that was “harder than they’ll ever know”, creating an iconic album with a meaning that far transcends the recording of a loud night at the rugby club. by Rhondda.
In poetry and song, Live At Treorchy reflected a changing Wales, where the fun on the rugby pitch was a welcome distraction from the decline of heavy industry.
It’s the Welsh story on vinyl, exploring the laughter and sorrow of tight-knit communities adapting to change. King Coal is dying – Long live the King. That is Barry, whom Max praises in an almost bardic way in The Outside Half Factory … “They broke the solid gold mold that once held Barry John.”
There are pathetic, poignant songs and powerful social commentary, like Did You Understanding, written during the 1972 miners’ strike, and Duw It’s Hard which presents a subversive take on the collapse of the coal industry.
Max – the son of a charcoal maker who died a month before he was born – wonders if the end of charcoal is a good thing, given the pain he inflicted on those who pulled him out of the ground.
The lyrics: “Public baths are now supermarkets,” sums up the Welsh industrial decline more clearly than any textbook.
And as actor Steffan Rhodri comments, these mining ballads have an authenticity that can only come from someone with direct experience of life in the pits.
“He’s not some random folk singer who writes, he’s someone who knows it was damn hard because he did it himself,” says Steffan, who reckons the album is up there in the Welsh pantheon with Ryan At The Rank and Under Milk Wood.
In the words of historian Dr Martin Johnes, Live At Treorchy is as important to understanding Welsh culture as “anything written by Saunders Lewis and Dylan Thomas”.
As his collected works show, Max Boyce is a chronicler as much as a comedian, a poet as much as a performer … and for me it is a privilege to say that he is both a friend and a hero.
Max Boyce Hymns & Arias: The Selected Poems, Songs and Stories is published by Parthian.
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