Biography: Stanley Baxter
For 25 years Stanley Baxter produced the type of television spectacular that Morecambe and Wise could only afford to put on as part of their Christmas specials. Those legendary song and dance routines that Eric and Ernie performed in their shows may well be the stuff of television legend, but for Stanley Baxter, spectacular musical-comedy specials, reminiscent of Hollywood's best extravaganzas, were part of every series. And they were so flamboyant, and proved to be so costly, that Baxter was sacked not from just one, but two TV channels, who simply couldn't afford to keep him.
Stanley Baxter was born in Glasgow on 24th May 1926. His father was an Actuary (one of only three in the whole of Scotland at that time), but Stanley didn't inherit dad's head for figures. He claimed to be good at composition "but as for maths..." he once said, "I still can't add up my change. If I couldn't act, I wouldn't have been able to earn a living." School life wasn't altogether happy for Stanley, who said that he learned to make people laugh so he wouldn't get beaten up. Before that, his earliest memory was walking with his father in their street, Glasgow's Fergus Drive, and singing 'There was a wee man who lived in the moon...' But Frederick Baxter did everything he could to discourage his son from a career in show business. Not so his mother, Bessie, who "desperately wanted to be an actress." She lived her unfulfilled ambition vicariously through her son as she dragged him from one church hall to another to entertain audiences. "Aged seven, I was impersonating Harry Lauder and Mae West without knowing who they were," he said. "I copied my mother's impressions and she also gave me stage directions."
When war broke out, he was evacuated to Lennoxtown, but when nothing happened, his mother got fed up with the digs they were living in and they went back home. Then Clydebank was blitzed and he and Bessie went to Millport on the Isle of Cumbrae, where she had a little holiday flat. It was Stanley's happiest period during those war years and he was educated on the only school on the island. "I had a very happy year and a half. I rode my bike all the time: they didn't ask you to do any homework." Then it was back to Hillhigh, where he took his Scottish Higher Leaving Certificate in English (the equivalent of a GCSE).
There were no theatrical activities at school, but in sixth form he put together a review, writing the whole show. "I needed a leading lady and plucked a 14-year-old out of the classroom because I'd heard that she'd done some work on the radio, or performed in a church hall, or something. Her name was Josephine Crombie, and she went on to marry Donald Pleasence. I wrote a burlesque of Hamlet, in American, and I had her rather seductively smoking a cigarette. I was Hamlet: I wasn't going to let anyone else have that part! The sketch was banned after just two performances."
His mother began to drag him round the church halls again doing impersonations. It was here that a producer for the BBC's Scottish Children's Hour saw him. Stanley was signed up and did 100 broadcasts. Standing on a box to reach the BBC Scottish Home Service microphone, Stanley's first wage was a guinea per show. "I would perform in little adventure stories. We'd get in an old boat and it would drift out to sea just as the episode was coming to an end." Unfortunately, Kathleen Carscadden, the programme announcer, was so concerned that the young listeners have nightmares that she'd ruin the tension by saying at the end of the programme, "Don't worry I'm sure they'll be all right." Following this, Stanley studied music at the Scottish Royal Academy of Music, winning himself several diplomas and the "odd volume of Shakespeare" as prizes.
During a spell in the Army for his National Service in the Far East it was realised by his C.O. that Stanley's most useful contribution to military life was in the Entertainment Section. He was posted to the official Entertainment Unit, where he compered and produced shows, in huts, tents and anywhere else that could be used as a theatre. When he was demobilized he returned to Glasgow, and was accepted as a member of the Citizens' Theatre. Stanley enjoyed pantomime, which in those days ran until Easter in Scotland. His favourite roles during this period were 'Buttons' in Cinderella and 'Wishee Washee' in Aladdin.
With others of the Citizens' Theatre he also appeared in the most successful and colourful theatrical presentation at the Edinburgh Festival, 'The Thrie Estaites'. "That was a wonderful experience," he said. "Tyrone Guthrie was the producer and was one of the few people who ever brought light, movement, and good entertainment to Edinburgh's dour Assembly Hall, where their other annual function concerned the very serious Convention of the Moderators of the Church of Scotland."
He made his television debut on the BBC's Shop Window in 1952, followed by guest appearances on variety shows. Stanley then returned to Glasgow taking to the stage for three more years at Glasgow's Citizens Theatre before moving to London. Following an appearance in a comedy sketch on ITV's Chelsea at Nine, he ran into an old friend from Scotland, James Gilbert, who was now working for the BBC. Between them, they concocted the TV show On The Bright Side, which more than any show before, would demonstrate Stanley Baxter's comedic talent, especially his gift for mimicry. The series was a fast-moving satirical sketch and music show fronted by Stanley with the popular comedienne Betty Marsden. Stanley selected television as his satirical target, assuming his audience were 'in the club'. In the 1960s the BBC made its first venture into language programmes with Parliamo Italiano - Let's Speak Italian. The show was ripe for the Stanley Baxter treatment and he didn't disappoint. Parliamo Glasgow had a fictitious scholar visiting Scotland where he tackled the broad Glasgow accent. The scene which most people remember is when he goes to the local market and says to the trader "Izat a marra on yer barra, Clara?", which he then translates into plain English as "Is that a marrow on your barrow, Clara?". The series' resident team of young dancers included Una Stubbs and Amanda Barrie. On The Bright Side won Stanley a BAFTA for Best Light Entertainment Performance.
The series was also popular enough for it to be transferred to the London stage where it opened on 12th April, 1961. The original cast appeared and were bolstered by the future Rowan and Martin sock-it-to-me-girl, Judy Carne and another rising star; Ronnie Barker. A 40-minute extract from this show was screened by the BBC in June of that same year. In December he appeared in an episode of Comedy Playhouse, entitled Lunch In The Park.
By 1963 Stanley was sufficiently well known to be given his first series with his name in the title. The Stanley Baxter Show was shown fortnightly on BBC1 on a Saturday night although Stanley never really did a series in the traditional sense of the word -that is he hardly ever did a run of consecutive shows apart from his 1968 and 1981 series of six twenty-five minute comedies. That same year he also appeared alongside James Robertson Justice, Leslie Phillips, Sally Smith and Ronnie Barker in the British comedy feature film Father Came Too! The film was notable for a host of cameo appearances from the likes of Hugh Lloyd, Terry Scott, Arthur Mullard, Peter Jones, Fred Emney, Cardew Robinson, Patrick Newell and Kenneth Cope...among others!
Between his first and second TV series he teamed with June Whitfield for the six-part Baxter On... (1964), tackling a different subject each week, including law, class and television. In 1969 he played in the original production of Joe Orton's controversial farce What The Butler Saw in the West End at the Queen's Theatre with Sir Ralph Richardson, Coral Browne, and Hayward Morse.
His occasional and sporadic comedy series continued through the 1960s until 1972 when Stanley left the BBC for London Weekend Television on the rival ITV network. The ITV shows became even more lavish, taking Stanley five months at a time to write, the were sometimes controversial, too. He was the first person on television to impersonate the Pope and the Queen. But the shows played to huge audiences of around 20 million viewers and elevated Stanley to TV superstar status. Stanley's one man tour-de-force performances became must-see television, winning him a BAFTA for Best Light Entertainment Performance. The series was also awarded the BAFTA for Best Light Entertainment Programme two years running in 1973 and 1974.
After nine years of specials, he reverted to a weekly series with The Stanley Baxter Series, 6 half-hour shows which won him another BAFTA. Then a year later, on 24th December 1982, LWT broadcast The Stanley Baxter Hour. Planning and filming the special had grown to epic proportions with lavish sets and costumes and with budgets to match. A spoof of Brideshead Revisited where Stanley "only wanted a room" for his set resulted in him getting an enormous long corridor with busts of emperors down the sides and a conservatory beyond that. "I never asked how much the productions cost because I thought knowing that would make me too scared to go in front of the cameras" he said. LWT knew how much they cost and decided that it was far too much. They didn't renew Stanley's contract.
Stanley returned to the BBC where he produced just two 50-minute Christmas Specials, in 1985 and 1986. The Corporation matched the expensive production values of the ITV series as Stanley spoofed The Wizard of Oz and The Jewel In The Crown in the 1985 special; Stanley Baxter's Christmas Hamper. For the 1986 show, Stanley Baxter's Picture Annual he played 37 different characters including Noel Coward appearing in a Western and Mae West turning up in the Baxter version of Gone With The Wind. However, the expense and time spent producing each programme once again proved his downfall, and his contract was cancelled.
In the absence of other work, he accepted a role in the children's series Mr Majeika (ITV, 1988-90) a show about a magic teacher, expelled from Walpurgis (the wizard land) for failing his wizarding exams. The move into children's television, he said later, was purely financial. "I had been fired twice from my one man comedy shows as we were frequently running behind schedule and over spending. I had reached the point in my career where I wanted to retire, but I needed more money in order to do that." He also lent his voice to the animated film Arabian Knight (1995) and the television series Meeow (ITV, 2000-01).
Stanley remained a great favourite on the Scottish pantomime circuit starring with popular Scottish stars, Jimmy Logan and Una MacLean. Then in 1996, he returned to the small screen in a more familiar guise with two Channel 4 specials combining old highlights and new material under the titles Stanley Baxter is Back and Stanley Baxter in Reel Terms. The new sketches showed that Stanley's style had changed a little: there was still plenty of dressing-up and make-up but less physical comedy.
In 1997 Stanley's wife Moira, whom he'd been married to for 46 years died. The marriage didn't produce any children. "It was a surprise to me when she said she didn't want kids." He once said. "Like any husband, I just assumed they would be coming along."
In 2004 Stanley returned to radio where he starred in Stanley Baxter And Friends a series of four comedy plays co-starring Maureen Lipman, Claire Bloom, Phyllis Logan, Lynn Ferguson and the double-act of Greg Hemphill and Ford Kiernan. Baxter supplied 11 voices in one of the plays including a yapping dog!
Now in retirement, Stanley has seen his television legacy honoured with a Lifetime Achievement award at the British Comedy Awards and two television tribute programmes. He has no plans to return to the small screen and not even the offer of a plum part in the Harry Potter movies has lured him back in front of the cameras. Despite this, fan letters still arrive every week by those who remember Stanley Baxter; Scotland's mimic supreme who combined superbly observed, written and performed comedy in spectacular eye catching style. He is one of the true creative geniuses in British television light entertainment, and as far as comedy goes...Stanley Baxter is the true King of Scotland.
Laurence Marcus, February 21st 2007
for Television Heaven