Stanley Baxter interview - The Last Laugh
He has been watching from the window of his upstairs sitting-room, and I doubt much goes by him up there. It's very homely, like going to your dad's or granddad's. There's a prescription bottle beside his chair and a couple of packets of fags in a bowl on the coffee table. Why, Mr Baxter, don't tell me you still smoke? Oh, trust you to notice that, he says crossly. He only has two a day, after his dinner, and doesn't think about them the rest of the time. But the best thing is that on top of the telly, sitting with beautiful understatement amongst the usual debris of everyday living, is the distinctive outline of a Bafta mask.
It sits like a family wedding snap or a child's football cup that is significant but no longer even noticed, acquiring a metaphorical layer of dust. On display but in its place. Some performers profess not to care at all about their Oscars and Baftas, claiming to stick them in drawers or cupboards – in which case, why accept them? Leave them for someone who does. Some people think life's too short to care about what you do, and some think it's too short not to. Baxter's in the latter camp, though maybe he cared too much for his own good.
In 1991, he retreated from a career that had made him the shining bauble of the Christmas and New Year television schedules. "If you care, it puts great stress on you, and that's why I retired in the end. It was becoming more stressful than fun, and when that happens it's time you jacked it in. There are people who have got no nerves at all, and they're no' very good. I remember Dickie Henderson once being asked, 'Are all comedians psychopaths?' And he said. 'No, no, not true.
Only the good ones.'"
Baxter has done radio work in recent years. But this year he's really back, part again of the festive schedules – in a one-off Christmas Day special for ITV and a series of radio programmes for BBC Scotland involving Alex Mitchell stories from the Glasgow courts. "I didn't think I would ever be doing this kind of thing again," he admits of his television show. Baxter had suggested a retrospective, but the commissioning editor told him he also wanted a reprise of his most famous role: the Queen. "I said, 'Oh no, not into drag again!' And he said, 'Well, they'd love it.' So I took a deep breath and said okay."
Baxter watched the Queen's last Christmas broadcast, in which she got out and about. "I thought, 'What is the downmarket equivalent of that?' So I get out and about as the Queen too, round her 'kingdom', from Glasgow to Cardiff."
It feels a bit surreal sitting here beside Baxter in his living-room. In the mid 1990s the Independent newspaper ran a 4,000-word story in which a journalist tried to trace the reclusive comedian. The trail ended here, at his house in north London, where Baxter refused to speak. But clearly, he has emerged from that period. "I had become a bit of a recluse," he admits. "I certainly didn't want journalists talking to me much. And I'm still not mad about it," he adds frankly. "In the end, they go into areas that are too private to talk about."
Little wonder he feels unnerved. There have been so many oblique, sometimes snide, insinuations about Baxter over the years, raised-eyebrow questions about men in drag, his difficult marriage to Moira, who died in 1997, his friendship with the late Kenneth Williams. Baxter is 82 now and of a generation where people did not talk about their private lives. He is such good fun to banter with, but the comic glint hardens with suspicion at any question that really delves into who he is. He is the most enjoyable man to visit, and yet an irreconcilable tension bubbles beneath the surface of our time together. An interviewer wants to understand their subject. Baxter does not want to be understood.
Good interviews can be a kind of gift of information and trust. But when Baxter reveals things – and of course he does – it feels uncomfortably like stealing from him. When I ask if he would prefer people not to know who he is, he interprets the question literally. "I'm delighted now if they recognise me because so few people do. But any artist will tell you it becomes a bit of a strain if you cannae stand in a shop window and pick your nose without somebody saying, 'Oh look who it is, picking his nose.'" Though he remembers the Scottish comedian Johnny Beattie telling a funny story about recognition. A woman at a bus stop said, "It is you, isn't it?" "Well, yes," said Beattie modestly. And she said, "Well, why didn't you come round and wash my windows last Friday?"
But what I was really asking was if he would prefer people not to know who he is inside. "That's right," he says immediately. "That's absolutely right." And then he adds, "All this rubbish about the man behind the mask. I've had it again and again and again. The mask is what's important. Everything else is not so important. The mask is the talent. That's the work. Otherwise you're just a bit…" He smiles. "Boring," he finishes. The Bafta mask
stares out impassively at us from the top of the telly.
AS A CHILD, Baxter was famously dragged round church halls to perform by his extrovert mother before landing radio jobs at BBC Scotland. He's almost tired of telling that story, but far more interesting anyway is the dynamic of his family. "As with most artists, mother was the dominant figure," he says. She pushed both Baxter and his sister, who now lives in Australia. But influenced as he was by his mother, Baxter was never really like her. "Emotionally, I think I was more like my father. He was quite the reverse, a very shy man, and I have too much of my father to really have enjoyed my life as an entertainer. There was quite a lot of that withdrawal thing."
Baxter says his father was a far nicer man than he is himself. "All his workmates adored him, all the people under him at Commercial Union Insurance Company. They all worshipped Fred. Fred Baxter. But you see, his family were all kirky, and my mother was very intolerant of them. 'Oh, don't be like the Baxters. They're so kirky.' She didn't want me to get too close to my father, which was a pity."
Ask how two such different people ended up together, and he replies as his mother. "'Oh, I didn't really love him but he was a good provider.' Anybody they did love had been killed in the first war. They had all been shot to bits at Ypres or the Somme, and so they had to look around… 'Either I'm going to remain on the shelf or I'm going to marry second best.'"
Baxter left school with a certificate of fitness to teach English at Glasgow University. But during national service, he joined the entertainment services and met up with figures like Kenneth Williams and John Schlesinger. That changed his mind about his career. He had been good at English and history at school but terrible at maths, and never felt comfortable with academia. "I had a gift for comedy, there's no doubt about that, and when you make people laugh, and when you've been unsuccessful at school, getting no approval of any kind, and suddenly people are on their feet cheering, well of course you think, 'This is where I belong.'"
He failed his Old Vic audition because he was "too well formed", and only a chance meeting with an old actor friend got him a start at the Citizens Theatre, where he would go on to be highly successful. His father, of course, had been worried about
his career choice. "He was a fellow of the Faculty of Actuaries, and actuarially becoming a performer is a disaster. He looked up the tables for performers and the colour drained."
He thinks his father was proud of him, but he never lived to see his son's greatest successes – in shows like The Tintock Cup or On the Bright Side, or the later televisual delights of The Stanley Baxter Show. And his mother? "Oh, delighted. She would never say of course. She was very Scots about it. She came to see me once and I said, 'What did you think of the show?' She said, 'Aye, quite good.' I said, 'Quite good… What about Francie and Josie? Did you not like that?'" (Baxter was the original Josie.] "And she said, 'Well, that was good." Then his mother said she would go round the dressing-rooms. But you don't know anyone, Baxter protested. "Och, well, I'll tell them who I am," she said.
Baxter shudders at the memory. He would never do that. When he talks about her, it's with a kind of tolerant, amused, cynicism. She kept him close, but did he love her? "I did love her, until I realised she wasn't the ideal influence on my life. She wasn't terribly good at letting me go, and I wanted to go."
Years later, Baxter realised how fully she had kept him from his father. "It was only when I married myself that I began to see it from his point of view, what kind of awful life the man had. He not only didn't share a bedroom, which was understandable, but he went to the other end of the house. If you ever had to sleep with my mother, God help you. I did a few times, and if you moved a muscle – 'Stop jumping about!' You were paralysed, and if my father went through that all his married life, God help him. God help him."
Baxter met his own wife while both were working at the Citizens. In the last 20 years of their marriage, they lived separately,
but Baxter continued to feel great responsibility for her and would visit daily. "I was very fond of her," he says. "Very fond of her." But he would not call the marriage a success. It is well known that Moira was a nervous, not very psychologically robust woman, but Baxter is still very protective of her memory and talks only off the record about her. "Good copy, but don't do it," he warns forcefully.
One wonders if in some way he was drawn to Moira's vulnerability because, in her, he recognised his own. Baxter may be very funny but he seems sensitive too. Famous for his impersonations, he slips from one character to another, adopting different voices like different skins. But that, of course, is performance, and he hints at another side to his nature. "I would get depressed at an early age, and the depression in this child would lift when he went to see Yankee Doodle Dandy or whatever. When I was depressed, the things that cheered me were all to do with show business. The Hollywood movies were so interesting to me, which was obvious from my work and the stuff I did for LWT."
He's glad that he and Moira never had children, though when he got to the grandfather stage he felt a slight pang. Between the two of them, he reckons they had enough neuroses to turn any child into a wreck. "I was too busy pushing the career, and how could I have coped with children and changing nappies and screaming and yelling through the night when I was trying to learn the lines in bed, going over and over and over them?"
Perhaps, he admits, there are aspects he would have liked. "I'd have loved them when they were weans, but once they become adolescents… If it's a son telling you everything you are doing is wrong and saying, 'Oh, you old fart,' that would have depressed me terribly. I would have wanted to strangle them." But perhaps a son would have turned out to be his best friend. "No," he says. "Sons don't tend to be best friends to fathers. And he might have loved sport and fitba' and all the things I hate." So if fathers and sons are not best friends, how does he feel looking back to his own dad? "I just feel infinite pity for him. His marriage wasn't very successful either."
But he loved his father when his mother didn't stop them getting together. His father was dead at 60, his mother sailed on to 80. Baxter has had an angioplasty heart operation, and says if only his father had lived in a different time he might have lived longer. His father's life sounds a bit emotionally stunted, and in some ways Baxter's private life seems to have mirrored that. You know when someone says they were "very fond of" rather than "loved" the person they were married to for 40 years that their relationship hasn't been everything it might. But Baxter says he won't talk publicly about that until his biography is produced.
It is not the usual, infuriating, "I'm saving it for my book" line that celebrities give. Baxter has always refused to countenance an autobiography, and is only co-operating with a biography on one strict understanding: it is published posthumously. Why guard your privacy so jealously, then reveal everything when you are no longer there to prevent distortion? "Because then it can't touch me any more." But it would now – he cares what people think? "Of course," he says immediately. "I think anyone in this business who says otherwise would be telling lies."
He doesn't want the fuss. Signing the bloody thing? No thanks. Endless interviews? No thanks. "My mother would have done it of course. But my father wouldn't." I wonder, then, if people will be surprised by any of the revelations in the book? "Yes, at some of the more intimate stuff, of course they will be."
How did Moira's death affect his life? "I was sorry to lose her," he says. But truthfully, the regret was also tinged with relief because Moira was alone and he used to get so worried about her. "I felt responsible and had to keep running over to see how she was… That was a very dark time." But he doesn't think Moira shaped his life, who he was. "No, I don't think so. The important things in my life were all to do with the business. It's only the professional life that has been of any importance. The rest has all been quite dark." It sounds so stark. Baxter smiles. "Yes," he says a little mockingly. "It's a shame isn't it?"
BAXTER WAS A comedian's comedian. Before the interview, I had gone into a small tea shop round the corner from his home and discovered Victoria Wood there. Wood has just filmed a tribute for Baxter's Christmas show. Yes, he was special. "His impressions were just so accurate," she says. We speak briefly, but I sense a protectiveness in her about Baxter, an affection. Showing the way to his house, she says that she roped him into demonstrating in the street to save the local post office. "We failed," says Baxter, with Scottish lugubriousness, when I mention it later.
But it suggests he is engaged in life. He certainly has his chums, whom he meets up with most lunchtimes. Recently he went to a Chinese restaurant with scriptwriter Barry Cryer, and their table was in uproar with laughter. "I can be quite amusing, but
I am not really comfortable with people who are not in the business. I try to be nice, but I don't really belong. I'm happy with show folks. I should have run away to
Baxter's eyes have such humour, and the voices, as Wood says, are extraordinary. Watching Baxter impersonate Kenneth Williams would make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. It's like watching someone become possessed. Interestingly, listening to the tape later, the effect is not the same. It's not just Williams' braying voice, but the flare of the nostrils, the contortion of the face, the energy with which Baxter transforms himself. He is undoubtedly still a performer, a wonderful performer. You wonder how he stands retirement, but he says it has been incredibly happy. "There was happiness and great camaraderie with the people, but to be rid of the stress… I thought, 'Ahh, at last I can relax.'"
London has been home for longer than Scotland but, he says, "I am deeply Scots inside. You never lose that." Not surprisingly, the man famous for 'Parliamo Glasgow' comedy sketches, in which the Glaswegian dialect was presented as a foreign tongue, is fascinated by language. "The Scots dialect, I love. That's why I was never so successful when I worked south of the border in pantomime. I missed the broad dialect. The Scots have a sense of humour that is peculiar to them, and a lot of it comes from language." Baxter himself has an actor's delivery but clear Scottish inflections, and every so often deliberately throws in a phrase from home like "awffa good".
The photographers are waiting in a downstairs room. "Shall we take pity on them?" Baxter keeps saying hopefully, every ten minutes from almost the start of the interview. Och, let's not bother, I say each time. It is not unknown – and not usually worth mentioning – for people to say goodbye with a hug after an interview. But it is surprising when Baxter, who without question has hated being interviewed, does so with real kindness before going downstairs. He is certainly not a cold man.
A week after the interview, I get a funny, kind little note from him. He had laid tea and biscuits out for us in the other room but forgot all about them. Other people might shrug and say, what a pity; Stanley cares enough to put pen to paper. "Lest you should think," he writes, "I'm one of those Edinburgh folk who say on your arrival, 'You'll have had your tea.'" At the end of the note, he says, "Be kind in your piece." But I can't imagine anyone wanting to be anything other than kind to him. It is ironic that going into his house feels like going into a dad's or granddad's because, of course, Baxter is neither, but I suspect he would have made a better one than he thinks.
When he first said only his professional life was significant, it seemed incredibly sad. Had he traded life for performance? But walking out of the room with the Bafta mask standing where other people might have put family photographs, I'm not so sure. Everybody is different. Nobody has everything. Perhaps show business has been as fulfilling, as faithful a soulmate for Baxter as any one person could have been. It is a question that will probably only be answered in his posthumously published biography. It is an answer that I hope we don't get for an awffa long time. r
Stanley Baxter's Christmas special will be aired
on ITV at 10.30pm; and he delivers Alex Mitchell's spoof Glasgow court stories on BBC Scotland
at 10.45am from December 31 for four
STANLEY BAXTER first appeared on stage aged seven, doing impressions of Harry Lauder and Mae West – though he didn't really know who they were.
He was the first person to impersonate the Queen on television, but producers were so concerned about offending Her Maj that they referred to the character as the Duchess of Branda instead.
He won a Bafta for light entertainment in 1959, for co-hosting the satirical sketch show On the Bright Side. He won two years running, in 1973 and 1974, for The Stanley Baxter Picture Show, and again in 1981 for The Stanley Baxter Series.
He is perhaps most famous for his
'Parliamo Glasgow' sketches, which included phrases such as "Izat a marra on yer barra, Clara?", the uniquely Glasgwegian word "Sanoffy", as in "Sanoffy cold day", and "zarraburdorahairywullie" (is that a lady
or a gentleman?).
He starred in a series of 1970s adverts for Birds Eye cakes in which he used expressions such as "Whirrarerrtreatyeat".
Starring with Jimmy Logan on the radio series It's All Yours, Logan's catchphrase was, "Sausages is the boys", and Baxter's was, "If you want me, Thingummy, ring me".
His song-and-dance routines were so extravagant, he was sacked by two television channels because they couldn't afford him.
He was a pantomime stalwart, often playing the dame alongside Angus Lennie (above) Logan or Ronnie Corbett. He would alternate his appearances between Edinburgh and Glasgow, until he retired in 1991.
In 1997, he was honoured (above) with a lifetime achievement award at the British Comedy Awards.