Max Wall 2


“You will end up alone and with nothing,” concluded the note Max Wall discovered when he returned to his Jersey home some years ago, to find, quite unexpectedly, his wife and five children gone.

Now, at the age of 78, living alone in a London bed-sit, he has.
“I live alone because I choose to. After three divorces a little common sense enters the old bonce you know.”

He chuckles.

The star of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape which comes to the Riverside theatre this week for a month, Max Wall began his 76 years in show business at the tender age of two, making his debut alongside his father who, like his mother, came from a long theatrical background.

Through working men’s clubs, Royal Variety, panto, TV and theatre, Wall’s career has covered everything from music hall to Minder, The Caretaker to Coronation Street, as well as Emmerdale Farm, Waiting for Godot and Crossroads. He has even toured with Mott The Hopple and a knife-thrower and juggler. Sigue Sigue Sputnik, eat your brains out.

“Oh, I’ve played with them all you know,” he says in classic style, thinking back to a list that includes Sinatra, Chevalier, Orson Welles, Max Miller, Abbott & Costello, Noel Coward, Grace Kelly and young hopefuls Frankie Howerd, Benny Hill and the brilliant Charlie Drake.

“The greats ? Oh they were all greats, that’s what I always say, every one of them.”

He chuckles again. Having taken his earliest inspiration from Tati, Groucho, Chaplin and the clown Grock, it’s little wonder Wall is not much impressed with modern comedy at a time when, like its sport, its music and its politics, Britain is bursting with ordinariness.

“TV is killing off the quality. The last great we had was Eric Morecambe, so natural and spontaneous. He had those lovely bits of business, with the glasses and all that, hahaha.”

He does the Morecambe face-slap on me.

Wall himself is a gentle man, like an English George Burns, with a face worn deep with wrinkles, bright, kind eyes behind huge square glasses, a lovely warm charm but an unavoidable heavy sadness over him.

He has a tremendous humility to him, too.
“I’m not proud of anything I’ve done, no. That’s a very dangerous thing. Most of the things I’ve done please me.”

Judging by his quick parody of his Crossroads character, I’d say that wasn’t one of them.

“I do think Professor Wallofski” – he of the Freddie Starr impersonation, Maggie Hamblyn portraits and Madness video tributes – “has become a bit of a mill-stone, yes. Whatever I do, that’s how the public will remember me, with the hair, the boots, the bum sticking out. One critic said I had the oddest legs ever worn on a human frame, hahaha. At least they will remember me I suppose.”

Comedian, dancer, actor, acrobat, musician, mime, Wall is really a clown, one of the last clowns we have left to play Krapp. Using his true genius – “building up to a let-down” – he makes Krapp into a dusty, grouchy clown, carrying the play’s first 20 minutes of silence mixing glum misery with captivating comic touches, armed only with his wonderfully expressive features, his mime skills and a banana or two.

“Yes, I love those parts with the bananas, some of those are my own little bits. I love playing Beckett. A lot of it is to do with clowns. The clowns won’t come again now, I think that’s true. There’s no place for them.”

Now 78 and alone, Wall admits he feels a strong affinity towards Krapp, who spends his days in near darkness, with his drink and his bananas, brooding over tapes of his past, scowling at life.

“There is a certain parallel. I know how he feels when he says ‘What remains of all that misery ? A girl in a shabby green coat on a railway station platform.’ That’s very nostalgic for me.”

Like Krapp, Wall is both short-sighted and half deaf, though even this has its advantages.

“The audience reaction doesn’t affect me at all, even when it’s bad… All I hear is silence,” he says, with the spirit of Beckett smiling.

Playing the part of Krapp, he confesses, does make him sad, but he describes Billie Whitelaw’s comment that Beckett’s characters affect her adversely as “a load of old cobblers. You can’t carry it around with you.”

The similarities, though, are obvious.
After a tempestuous theatrical upbringing, he has had an extraordinarily fraught life.

He watched both his father and his beloved step-father die, was disowned and despised by his five children and has seen his career in ruins after bouts of alcoholism, scandal, bankruptcy, depression and divorce.

It is this instinctive, empirical understanding of the tragi-comic nature of life that has won him widespread recognition as the most powerful, sensitive proponent of Beckett’s darkly comic, brilliantly bleak art – the male counterpart to the astounding Whitelaw.

He covers all of this, with quite painful openness and highly moving poignancy, in his autobiography, The Fool On The Hill.

“That’s what I have been, a fool. I have put my profession before all else. Our house in Jersey was on a hill. Before the Inland Revenue took it away from me.”

This clearly still pains him to think about.
“Money means nothing to me though. The only security we have is beyond the grave. I did put a lot of myself into that book though. Kept a lot back, as Krapp says ‘Keep that back’, all that…”

Is he happy now ?
“Yes, I find everything in life very funny, I laugh at everything. It is possible to be happy in your sadness, Beckett knows that too, I think. I always like to be alone. When I was a boy I remember sitting on the stairs, saying to my friend: ‘I don’t know why you’re talking to me, I’ve got ear-ache’.”

He laughs. “Happiness is a state of mind anyway. You can be happy at 10 o’clock and unhappy at five past. Happiness is not a lasting condition…”

Again, you can imagine Beckett nodding, smiling in agreement and Wall, possibly our last clown, a clown prince, gives another warm chuckle.