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Carolyn Hitt: Max Boyce’s work is Welsh history on vinyl exploring laughter and sadness – Carolyn Hitt

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It is one of the great joys of my life that I have the kind of job that allows me to work with my heroes. When I was a kid, if someone had told me I would one day count as a friend the man with the giant leek on the front of the album we played on Welsh match days, I would never have believed it.

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Max Boyce’s status in our house was as mythical as the factory he created beneath the coal and clay where they make the outside-halves that’ll play for Wales on day. So it was a delight to open a parcel from the man himself this week and find an inscribed copy of his new book: Max Boyce Hymns & Arias – The Selected Poems, Songs and Stories.

It’s a wonderful, illustrated volume capturing five decades of creativity and made all the more special by the personal note from Max penned on the title page which refers to the “fond memories” we share.

Fond memories indeed. It’s a privilege to be able to say: “I Was There” on the production team of almost every television and radio programme Max has starred in since 1998.

Read more about Max Boyce here.

That was the year he made a triumphant return to BBC Wales with An Evening with Max Boyce, an entertainment special which brought the network record-breaking viewing figures.

A young Dot Davies and I were researchers on the show and though lowly in the production hierarchy he ensured we were made to feel an essential part of his team. “You’re more than a Dot to me – you’re an Exclamation Mark!” he would joke.

In 2003 I journeyed with Max to Australia for the Rugby World Cup as we filmed a video diary, recorded a radio series and staged a huge concert in Sydney Opera House to be beamed back home.

I’ll always remember him peering up at those famous architectural shells and murmuring: “I never thought I could be intimidated by a building.” But the following day he made the world’s most iconic stage his own as performed to a rapturous sell-out crowd. Back then, an unknown singer called Katherine Jenkins provided his support act.

Spending six weeks on tour with Max Down Under, I was astounded by his comedic stamina 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 7.00am and ending in a Chinese restaurant at 5.00am the following morning, sharing lashings of unoaked chardonnay with S4C’s rugby world cup crew.

The next day we were due to climb Sydney Harbour Bridge at 8.00am to record a television trail. There was just one problem: Max, myself and our cameraman Terry all failed the pre-climb breathalyser. We were told to return at 4.00pm.

At lunchtime, while Terry and I laid our heads on the table, groaning through our humungous hangovers, Max was on stage entertaining 600 hard-nosed Aussie businessmen. It was a tough corporate audience, but by the end of the lunch, he had they entire room on its feet performing his alternative Haka to the rhythm of Humpty Dumpty.

An hour later the three of us were scaling Sydney Harbour Bridge – Terry and I still sick as parrots, Max bounding ahead like a puppy.

Television specials celebrating rugby’s global tournament followed every four years. With Max heading the bill, fixing high profile guests was never a problem – from Rob Brydon, who revealed he’d been a starstruck student theatre usher when Max was on stage, to Jonah Lomu who recalled the warm welcome he’d got at Glynneath RFC.

In studio, I’ve witnessed the intense preparation Max puts into performance. Behind every seemingly spontaneous punchline lies weeks, months, even years of comedy crafting.

On the road, travels with Max from Murrayfield to Melbourne have given an insight into how he connects with his audience and how much he is appreciated by fans across the age spectrum. It’s not just those who were there in his leek and rosette era – I’ve seen 20-year-old lads jump on tables to declaim The Incredible Plan in his honour.

And as you’d expect from the man who gave us The Scottish Trip, Max is a great tourist. (He christened me “Magellan” when our own Scottish Trip to record the Caledonian episode of Max Boyce’s Six Nations series nearly ended in disaster when I booked our Cardiff-Edinburgh flights back to front. And he’s just about forgiven me for the ham-fisted scheduling of a journey to Treviso for the Italy programme that seemed to take in most of western Europe.)

Travels with Max have been a social education too. A wine buff and culinary adventurer – he swears blind he once ate an entire frog in aspic – Max always encourages us to try the most left-field menu choice. The occasional impromptu party has followed memorable meals on the road. Interviews with Cliff Morgan and Philip Madoc were interspersed with a surprise trip to Ronnie Scott’s.

Morgan and Madoc were guests on The Final Curtain, a radio format of Max’s own devising which invited famous figures to choose how they’d spend their fantasy final 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 eschewing human guests on his fantasy farewell for a swim with a dolphin. “I thought you’d pick Nye Bevan, not Flipper!” quipped Max as the pair laughed together.

In 2013 it was Max’s turn to be reflective as I produced a celebratory studio show studded with star guests for his 70th birthday, not to mention TV and radio documentaries chronicling 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 album charts, keeping the likes of Elton John, Rod Stewart and 10cc from the number one spot.

And just last year Max proved his appeal continues in the digital age as his warm, witty and moving pandemic poem – When Just the Tide Went Out – attracted millions of hits across the world.

This most recent success didn’t surprise me. A deep appreciation of Max’s unique talent comes with my long association. Reading his collected works underlined these gifts and brought back brilliant memories of all those programmes and performances.

But there is one story in the book that gives a new perspective on the hinterland that informs Max’s talent – a depth that is sometimes overlooked by the snobs who perceive him as a mere comedian rather than a cultural icon.

Two cuttings are reproduced, headlined “Onllwyn Pit Explosion” and “Explosion Sequel”. Max explains: “When compiling this anthology, a local builder who is a keen archivist of local history sent me a clipping out of a newspaper from 1943. It was the report of a mining explosion at a colliery in the Dulais Valley, Onllwyn No.3.

“It detailed the admitted neglect of Messrs Evans and Bevan of Neath, the mine owners. That neglect led to the death of my father a month before I was born. My mother, only 30 at the time, was awarded a meagre £300 to care for her child. What made painful reading was the statement by the mine owners: ‘There was an explosion in the Grey seam of Onllwyn No.3…the damage was not extensive and work resumed shortly after…”

No wonder this child would grow up to write about a Welsh industrial world that was “harder than they will ever know”, creating an iconic album with a significance that far transcends the recording of a raucous night in Rhondda rugby club.

In poetry and song, Live At Treorchy reflected a changing Wales, where delight on the rugby field was a welcome distraction from the decline of heavy industry.

It’s Welsh history on vinyl, exploring the laughter and sadness of close-knit communities adapting to change. King Coal is dying – Long Live The King. Barry that is, who Max eulogises in almost bardic fashion in The Outside Half Factory… “They broke the mould of solid gold that once held Barry John”.

There are songs of pathos, poignancy and powerful social comment, like Did You Understand, written during the Miners’ Strike of 1972, and Duw It’s Hard which presents a subversive take on the collapse of the coal industry.

Max – the son of a collier who died a month before he was born – wonders if the end of coal is a good thing, given the pain it has inflicted on those who hacked it out of the ground.

The lyric: “The pithead baths are supermarkets now,” summarises Welsh industrial decline more neatly than any text book.

And as actor Steffan Rhodri comments, these mining ballads have an authenticity that can only come from someone with first-hand experience of pit life.

“This isn’t some random folk singer writing, it’s someone who knows it was bloody hard because he’s done 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 an understanding of 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’s a privilege to say he’s a friend as well as a hero.

Max Boyce Hymns & Arias: The Selected Poems, Songs and Stories is published by Parthian.

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