Meeting Stanley Baxter (The Oldie, September 2006)

Meeting Stanley Baxter (The Oldie, September 2006)

The name Stanley Baxter means different things to different generations. To younger viewers, he’s Mr Majeika. If you’re a Scot over 40, he’s the ‘Parliamo Glasgow’ man or the best panto dame who ever donned an outsize pair of bloomers. To everyone else, he was ITV’s not-so-secret weapon against Eric and Ernie in the Christmas ratings war. However, you could be forgiven for wondering if he’s still alive, because unlike many performers (Ronnie Barker being the other notable exception), he decided to bow out gracefully on his own terms. Happily, the Glaswegian entertainer has just turned 80 in rude health, with a recent series of The Stanley Baxter Playhouse on Radio 4 to add to his body of work.

His disappearance was totally in character. Exuberant in his work, the off-stage Baxter was always perceived as diffident and private to the point where it became customary for journalists to describe him as a recluse. While far from the truth – Baxter is superb company, a fund of expertly-told anecdotage, and a bona fide twinkler – it seemed to suit his purposes.

“I was reclusive in as far as I didn’t go to opening nights or parties,” he explains. “I’ve always hated parties. I don’t like balancing a paper plate in one hand and a warm white wine in the other hand, while trying to relate to people. I’ve always had my own circle of friends, like Julia McKenzie. We meet constantly, but not so that we get into magazines. Although, to get into the magazines now, you have to be seen eating maggots in the jungle. It’s pretty frightening.”

The two sides of his character – the performer and the quiet, private man – echo his parents’ divergent personalities. His father was an actuary, able to produce salary charts to discourage his son from becoming a theatrical. His mother was a bohemian, from a long line of frustrated hoofers, who had a penchant for lunchtime sessions of Mah Jong with similarly-inclined Kelvinside ladies. “There was quite a bit of tension between my parents,” Baxter recalls. “My father was a lovely man, just not dynamic or glamorous enough for my mother, whom I think had lost a lover in the First World War, and had to make do with what she thought was second best. When I got older myself, I realised how much he had suffered.”

From an early age, Mrs Baxter took young Stanley to the local cinemas and variety halls, almost as vocational training. “We went to all the number 2 vaudeville houses, and to the cinema a great deal, especially the musicals and things. I loved them all. MGM, of course, but 20th Century Fox, with the Fox blondes, and RKO with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire as well. To escape from the ‘dreichness’ – there’s a good Scots word for you – of Glasgow in midwinter, into this wonderful world of Top Hat was just magical. It so influenced me that I spent half my life after that trying to recreate some of it, but always with a comedy peg.”

The next step in his professional education came “with my mother dragging me round church halls doing impersonations when I was 7 years of age”. It was at one of these shows that ‘Auntie’ Kathleen Garscadden, the matriarch of BBC Scotland’s Children’s Hour saw Baxter and thought he might make a boy actor in her serials. “So at 14, I started gainfully earning a guinea a throw”, says Baxter of his first broadcasting break. “I still had about 2 years of school to go. I’d been performing for years by the time I sat my higher leaving certificate.”

At the outbreak of war, Baxter was evacuated, but once his education was completed, he went down the mines as a Bevin boy. This was a short-lived diversion, because the damp conditions aggravated a serious ear condition. In reality, the mine bosses were probably glad to be shot of him. “When I was in the mines, I became redder and redder. Redder than Red Ken,” he says. “I was complaining about conditions, and this wee foreman would say ‘You know you were called up here. You could be shot for these kind of mutinous sentiments’.”

Before his second call-up, at the Unity Theatre, he was given “the part of my lifetime – a real womb trembler”. He was to play “a boy who had been blinded in the war and comes back to his girlfriend. Not a dry seat. ‘Hello, is that you Maisie? I’ve never forgotten you’”. Unfortunately, just before the run was about to start, the Royal Army Service Corp decided it needed Baxter to be a clerk in Surrey, and Russell Hunter, later to find fame in Callan, took the part.

The paper shuffling didn’t last long. He was despatched to Burma just as Combined Services Entertainment was being established. A successful audition put him alongside Kenneth Williams, John Schlesinger and Peter Nichols – later to immortalise the experience in Privates on Parade. After some initial suspicion (“At first, Peter wasn’t sure whether he liked me. At that age, you’re so full of yourself and he thought it was a bit much.”), the quartet became firm friends, connected by a common sense of humour.

The friendship with Williams lasted until his death in 1988. Baxter, Maggie Smith and Gordon Jackson (whose mother was a friend of Baxter’s back in Glasgow, although the sons did not meet until later), were among the few Williams treated as equals. “He preferred to be the purveyor, not the receiver of gags, but I was sometimes allowed to get away with it.”

One such occasion was at lunch, when the pair made the mistake of enquiring politely after a Portuguese waiter’s family. “He started into a litany of where they all were,” Baxter recalls with a shudder. “Where the sister and the auntie had gone, what his mother used to do, what his mother’s still doing… I just whispered ‘And his father hawks…’. That was all I said. It comes from an old Army song that ends ‘And his father hawks his arsehole round the Elephant and Castle, it’s the most famous fucking family in the land’. I knew Ken would know this, and he went ‘His father hawks his arsehole! Oh, you’re unbelievable!’.”

Necessity being the mother of invention, the CSE boys had to play female parts too, an early training in drag, later a recurring theme in Baxter’s work. “I always preferred doing males to females for obvious reasons,” he admits. “There’s greater verisimilitude. A man of 5 feet 10 and a half can only be a joke in drag. With Arthur Negus, for example, I could look very like him and the voice was one of my closest ones. I preferred those, but the audiences loved me doing those boo-boo-ba-doop ladies. I liked it when I saw it back, but I hated walking onto the set in front of the crew.”

He also had to drag up to make his unassailable reputation as a pantomime performer. His first professional stage job after demob was at Glasgow’s Citizens’, then an unofficial Scottish national theatre (It was also where he met his late wife, Moira – “I was ASM and small parts, she was wardrobe and small parts”). In 1949, a pantomime was required, for which Baxter became largely responsible. The Tintock Cup took the city by storm: “The first night audience expected to see a twee and prissy rep romp, but they were getting gutter Glasgow, in broad dialect”. The dame back then was Duncan Macrae, but when he went to the Alhambra, Baxter was the natural heir, later joining Howard and Wyndham’s, the main Scottish variety circuit himself.

Baxter also re-established his broadcasting career, with radio shows like Stanley Baxter Takes the Mike and eventually television, producing comedy with a robust Glaswegian flavour, aided by Citizens’ colleague Alec Mitchell. “Parliamo Glasgow began with an idea of mine about an elderly English don, who had come up to look at Glasgow habits and language as if it were the Congo. That went terribly well, but it was a talking head and on television, they wanted more movement. Alec suggested that we could open it all out if we did a take off of Parliamo Italiano, and I thought it was a great idea. In the shop became ‘Inrashope’. Towards the end, I’d use Autocue, but to begin with, we thought that was shameful, and we had to learn this tremendously long and complex script.”

Another great Baxter and Mitchell creation was the genteel, but bitchy woman who enjoyed reminding former associates of their origins, inspired by his mother’s mah jong partners. “We had her visiting a friend who had become an actress and saying ‘Well you may be Anita St Clair on those bills, but you’ll always be wee Nettie Sinclair to me’. Hannah Gordon, who comes from Edinburgh, said it was exactly like her school friends. In Glasgow, we had Kelvinside, in Edinburgh, they had Morningside, but it amounted to the same thing.”

Conscious that live variety was on the way out, taking Howard and Wyndham with it, the Baxters decamped to London in 1959. “I came south with no prospect of work at all. Stewart Cruickshank, who was the boss, said ‘Are you sure you’re going? I can’t promise you there’ll be any work if you have to come crawling back’. Full of old world charm. The following year, I won a BAFTA and they all shut up”.

Through the 1960s, Baxter continued in television, on stage and in films with James Robertson Justice and Leslie Philips, but it was a move to London Weekend in 1972, engineered by producer and fellow Scot David Bell, that truly established him. Alongside the Hollywood pastiches were television parodies still stand up as pertinent satire. One was a mock-documentary about the making of a religious programme with a trendy director who declares it permissible to talk about anything but religion, in an accent pitched somewhere between LA and the Gorbals. “There were a lot of people around then, trying to sound mid-Atlantic, but you could hear the Scots coming through all the time,” he observes.

In this, as in most of his sketches, he played every part: the director, the timid vicar with the toupee (“Sorry, love, we’ve got a fakey we didn’t know about”) and the floor manager. These were mammoth, expensive productions, but he had the backing of those who mattered. “Cyril Bennett and [his successor as director of programmes] Michael Grade received all sorts of complaints from the accountants, but they said the show was their flagship. Cut something else.” Sadly, Grade’s successor was John Birt, who fired Baxter, once at LWT, then again at the BBC. “He’s got a lot to answer for. I had a go at him on radio some time back and when I came out of the studio having done the recording, I said ‘You’ll have to cut that bit about John Birt, I think I went too far’. They said ‘No no, we hate him too’.” Able to take a hint, he began his withdrawal.

He now divides his time between Highgate and Cyprus, and regards himself as ‘semi-retired’. “I love doing voiceovers, but I was offered more of those when I was too busy to do them. I’m back where I started, in radio again in my old age. I understand the medium and I really love it. You can play a lot younger than yourself on radio, which, after a certain age, you can’t in vision. Some do and you think ‘you’re pushing your luck’.” There’s another advantage to not being seen. “The anonymity has crept back. I now find that I’m not recognised in the street, except by very old people who say ‘My mother used to love you’. It’s lovely to have this freedom to stand and look in shop windows and pick your nose.”

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