When I started this 3-part miniseries, my intention was to discuss how technology has evolved during my lifetime, and to consider what we might expect to see coming our way in the future. Sad to relate, I’m easily distrac… SQUIRREL!!! First, I wandered off into the weeds to talk about my dear old mom, who was born in 1930. At the end of Part 1, we left her in Sheffield, England, in the middle of WWII with her siblings and my grandmother, huddled in front of a coal fire, listening to the radio, and waiting to see if more bombs would fall that night. This led me to introduce my grandfather, who could have been a contender for the “Man who was on the most ships sunk in WWII” award. As we closed Part 2, the war had just ended, my granddad had – against all the odds – returned home, and my mom was 15 years old. As a major industrial city, much of the town where my family lived had been bombed into the ground. Food was tightly rationed and in short supply. I can’t even begin to wrap my brain around how tempting it must have been to fall into despondency. Fortunately for my mom, the future held my dad and — eventually – a little ray of sunshine in the form of yours truly. But where was my future father? Well, I’m glad you asked… {cue travelling back through time music and visual effects}  

Dancing Knees

My dad, Reginald (also known as Reg, Max, or Maxie) Maxfield was born in 1915 as the middle member of three boys. His older brother, Cyril (also known as Sid), was born in 1914, and his younger brother, Percy (also known as Pug) was born in 1916. The boys were followed by four girls: Dorothy (who died of diphtheria at nine years of age), Joan, Mary, and Barbara. They lived in Nottingham where they attended the local school and Sunday school.
Pug (left), Reg (middle), and Sid (right).
People often ask me as to the origin of my incredible athleticism and my dancer’s knees. I inherited them from my father. Noreen Bush, the woman who trained all the top dancers in London in later years, was just starting her Dance School in Nottingham and the three boys and Dorothy joined. They progressed through all the classical exams with flying colors. Later, when Noreen married Victor Leopold, a well-known comedian and tap dancer, they learned how to tap dance following their usual lessons. My dad and his brothers very much enjoyed dancing and they won several competitions before appearing in the Pantomime Dick Whittington at the Leicester Opera House. It was here that they were spotted by an agent who signed them up to dance in a variety show that was set to tour a series of music halls around Great Britain (these variety shows were similar to vaudeville in the USA). Do you remember the 1954 movie White Christmas starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen? At some stage someone says, “We’re going to put on a show!” Whenever I see that scene, I think of my dad and his brothers. There wasn’t any television in the 1930s, so every town and city had one or more music halls and theaters that were constantly putting on variety shows. Each show was made up of a series of separate, unrelated acts grouped together on a common bill. In addition to a big band, these acts might include musicians, singers, dancers, jugglers, acrobats, comedians, trained animals, magicians, ventriloquists, and — of course — a dance act.
The Maxfield brothers on stage.
Once a group of performers had been signed up for a show, that show would then tour the country. Countless shows would be on the road at any particular time. Each show would play in the current town twice nightly Monday through Saturday, with an extra matinee on Saturday afternoon. The entire show would then pack up and take the train to the next town on Sunday, ready to start up again on Monday. At different times, my dad’s act was called “The Maxfield Brothers and Rita,” “The Dennis Boys and Rita,” and “The Three Dancing Dudes and Rita.” I think they had three different girls playing the part of Rita over the course of their time on the stage, but I have no idea if any of these girls was actually called Rita. Can you imagine what life would be like for three teenage boys travelling the country hanging out with other variety hall performers. My dad told me some stories, like when their train pulled into a new town on Sunday, there would be pretty girls standing on the platform holding up signs advertising boarding houses. The impression given by these girls was that they were the daughters of the boarding house owners, but this was just good marketing.  

By Royal Command

In England, a Royal Command Performance is one that occurs at the direction or request of the reigning monarch. It goes without saying that these shows feature the best-of-the-best. In 1937, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth were treated to Max Miller (the ‘Cheeky Chappie’) at the height of his comedic powers, Gracie Fields, the Crazy Gang, George Formby… the list goes on. Suffice it to say that my dad and his brothers were the dance act, which basically means they were counted as being among the best dancers in England at that time.
A variety hall poster (observe the “Dennis Boys and Rita” entry in the lower middle).
Are you familiar with the concept of variety hall posters? These were relatively flimsy advertising bills with limited color palettes that were plastered up all over town to advertise current and forthcoming shows. They were only really intended to last a week or two — no one at that time envisaged them as one day becoming collectors’ items. I don’t know about you, but when I was a teenager, I really didn’t have a lot of common sense, and I certainly didn’t do much to plan for the future. By comparison, as the middle member of the troupe, my dad kept track of the brothers’ finances (we have a book recording every penny they spent while on the road), and he also kept a poster from every town they played. All these artifacts — including two copies of the 1937 Royal Command Performance playbill signed by all the performers — are now owned by me and my little brother. I just used my phone to snap a picture of one of these little beauties that’s hanging in our family room. Every time I look at it, I think of my dad.  

The War Years

My dad and his brothers were called up to their various Regiments in July 1940 — Sid was in the Desert Rats, who fought under Montgomery; Dad was in the Reconnaissance Unit of the 15th Scottish Highlanders Regiment; and Pug ended up in charge of a prisoner of war (POW) camp because he spoke lots of languages fluently. The boys just missed Dunkirk (French: Dunkerque), which turned out to be good news for them, but Sid was eventually taken prisoner in Africa. He was transported to a POW camp in Italy where he subsequently died from mistreatment. He is buried in an English cemetery there. Since he was in reconnaissance, my dad and his companions were typically to be found in the thick of things. Their official motto was, ONLY THE ENEMY IN FRONT, EVERYBODY ELSE BEHIND (their unofficial motto was, ONLY THE ENEMY IN FRONT, EVERY OTHER BUGGER BEHIND). My mom said I couldn’t tell you that. It appears that she was wrong.
My dad enjoying a little relaxation during WWII
Do you remember me mentioning the Crazy Gang with regard to the Royal Command Performance earlier? Well, one funny thing happened while my dad’s regiment was preparing for D-Day (although they didn’t know this is what they were doing at the time). Dad went to a local pub with a bunch of his friends, only to find a picture of one of the Crazy Gang on the counter (he later discovered that this hostelry was one of the Crazy Gang’s regular watering holes). On seeing the picture, dad said, “I was on the stage with him for several months before the War.” Apparently, the landlord took this with a grain of salt, until said Crazy Gang member came in for a drink and recognized my dad. My mom says the Crazy Gang guy took dad and his friends back to his home and threw them a wonderful party, which made their day. Following D-Day, dad and his regiment started off in France and fought their way through to Belgium, with my dad zipping back and forth spying out the land and relaying information on a 650cc motorcycle. At one stage, dad was blown off his motorcycle breaking his ankle. A little later, still with a broken ankle (which must have made riding his motorcycle tricky), he reached Mol. It was here that dad was shot in the leg. Perhaps foolishly, he leapt (hopped?) up to discover who was shooting at him, at which point he took a bunch of bullets to the chest and wrist, falling to the ground unconscious. (I remember as a little lad during our summer vacations at the beach wondering why dad had so many white circles and jagged scars all over his body.) While unconscious, dad was rescued by local freedom fighters and taken into the cellar of a house where he was looked after by a beautiful teenage girl and her grandmother. These folks were incredibly brave because — had they been caught by the Germans — they would probably have been executed. They nursed dad until the rest of his regiment arrived and he found himself back on our side of the fighting line, at which point he was evacuated to a hospital in England in a Dakota, re-joining his unit several months later when he was well enough to stand and fight again. Sometime ago, while sorting through my dad’s possessions, my mom says that she found a letter written by that young girl where she says, “Dear Tommy. You was the first English Tommy that I seed and when I seed you all covered in mud and blood, I kissed you.” My mom also says that if my dad had been conscious at the time, I might have been born a Belgium boy.  

A Fanfare of Trumpets and Trombones

Following the war, as a Sergeant Major, dad ended up in charge of the Neuengamme concentration camp in Hamburg, which — by that time — was being used to hold any members of the SS that had been captured. As part of this, dad attended the Nurnberg Trials with some of his captives. Dad stayed in the army until 1949, after which he ended up in Sheffield. Meanwhile, my mom left school in 1945 at the age of 15 to go to college, where she learned shorthand, typing, and other secretarial skills, including classes on how to use the telephone because people in her social class rarely came into contact with these technological marvels. In 1948, she started her first job in a typing pool (see also Life in the Typing Pool Part 1 and Part 2).
Mom and dad and me makes three!
In the early 1950s, dad decided to take German lessons to brush up on his language skills because there was a certain young lady in Hamburg that he had his eye on. Meanwhile, my mom decided to take German lessons to polish her language capabilities because she saw a good future in being a tri-lingual secretary able to read, write, and speak English, French, and German. My mom and dad both hired the services of a little old German lady who lived in Sheffield. Since they were paying for private lessons, they were somewhat disconcerted one day to discover that they were sharing a lesson with each other. Their cunning teacher told them she thought it would do them good to practice with each other. Although they were a tad miffed, one might even say peeved, at first, their teacher turned out to be worth every penny they paid her, because they quickly fell in love and got married. The black and white picture (above right) shows my mom and dad on a day-trip to the seaside. Although you can only see two of them, there are actually three key people present in this picture. The reason my dad is smiling is that my mom just told him that she was pregnant with yours truly. All of which is as good a cliffhanger as I can imagine in order to leave you breathlessly waiting for Part 4 of this epic trilogy. In the meantime, as always, I welcome your comments and questions.