Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Stanley Baxter has been doing funny voices all his life, or at least since his mother Bessie persuaded him to mimic Harry Lauder. Young Stanley had never seen the bandy-legged music hall legend, but stepped forward while his mother – he occasionally forgets himself and calls her maw – knocked out Roamin’ in the Gloamin’ on the piano. From there, it was but a short hop to Mae West, who Stanley understood to be a movie star. Soon enough, this wee boy was entertaining church hall audiences with his impersonation of the Hollywood siren.
Telling the story now, 75 years later, Baxter slips into the voice, but it is a precise impression. When he purrs “come up and see me sometime”, he isn’t taking off Mae West – he is remembering himself, aged seven, copying his mother, dreaming of Hollywood. “I reproduced that noise, and the audience thought, ‘oh, a boy of seven able to do that, how clever.’ Of course it was my mother’s tutoring that got me to do it.”
This sense of dislocation occurs quite frequently. As Baxter’s conversation warms up, his speech slips into various accents and voices. They’re not impressions, but little landslides in a personality that is never more than a few seconds away from caricature. He can’t resist pulling the rug from under himself. Even in our opening exchange, as he explains the benefits of his fitness regimen – three times to the gym every week, with a bit of treadmill, some rowing, and ten lengths of the pool – his features freeze, and his voice becomes possessed with the grim fatalism of a London cabbie: “It’s quite enough, mate,” he says, in antique cockney. Still, he is, he concedes, “remarkably well for an old one”.
For the generations that are old enough to remember television before alternative comedy, Baxter will need no introduction. His shows were great Broadway spectaculars full of singing, dancing, and funny voices, all of it informed by Stanley’s Glaswegian wit. His is a sense of humour that embraces grandiosity, while simultaneously bringing it back to earth; full of mockery, but devoid of cruelty. Search YouTube, and you’ll find him kissing off treble entendres in a send-up of Upstairs, Downstairs, or – less dated, and still brilliant – mocking the dialect of his hometown in Parliamo Glasgow.
With the shrinking of television budgets, and the fracturing of audiences, Baxter’s style fell from favour, but as the cruelties of alternative comedy drain into the mud, his genius is being appreciated anew. On Christmas Day, ITV is showing Stanley Baxter: Now and Then, a compendium of clips and tributes. The show includes a newly-recorded Christmas message from Baxter, as the Queen. The sketch is based on last year’s Christmas message. “She didn’t just sit on her sofie. She got out and about a wee bit more so I had to as well.”
Baxter is said to have been the first person to impersonate the Queen on television, and his name for the character, The Duchess of Brendagh, has since been adopted by Private Eye. He has met Her Majesty twice. “‘Met’ is an exaggeration. She didn’t invite me to tea at Buck House. The first time was in her line-up at the Scottish Royal Variety performance, at the Glasgow Alhambra. The second time was a little more, because I’d been having threats of being horsewhipped by colonels when I did her as the Duchess of Brendagh, although they knew f***in’ well who it was meant to be. And then the Queen agreed to meet in a line-up at the Odeon Leicester Square for a Barbra Streisand film called Funny Lady. After that, the complaints stopped. HM got me off the hook. Gawd bless you, ma’am!”
It’s instructive to remember that Baxter’s comedy was once deemed controversial.
“Oh, I was considered a wee bit risqué,” he recalls. “At one time Mary Whitehouse had a go at me about something: I cannae mind what it was. But my God, when you think what she complained of – what’d she be doing now with Jonathan Ross and these people? She’d be doing back flips.” Of Ross, Baxter diplomatically notes that he is “an enormously talented man” who “just went far too far. He pushed the boundaries of what you can get away with.
“Comedy does have to be anarchic, I think. It has to break boundaries. It’s what comedy’s about. But it mustn’t shatter everything.”
The roots of Baxter’s career as a performer are obvious enough. His mother, he says, “would have loved to have been theatrical. But my mother’s generation, it was the same as prostitution if you went into the theatre. Oh God, yes. You were a lost woman.
“My father was dragged to see me in church halls. He got pissed off with it. Of course it wasn’t just seeing his son, which he might have been proud of – he might not – but he’d to sit through a lot of fat ladies singing with tartan stuff on, and he got fed up of that: people that couldnae sing at all. One time he left a church hall and said ‘If I ever go back and see that boy perform, you can certify me insane.’
“I didn’t like school. I hated it. But when I went on at a church hall and people were on their feet applauding, I thought, ‘Well, now I’m getting approval. Maybe this is what I should be doing.’”
Young Stanley’s creativity was fuelled by the cinemas of his Glasgow childhood. “It was fourpence if you got in before 4.30 at Hillhead, fivepence at the Grosvenor. Or ‘Gruvner’ as we called it.
“I had to get back eventually for my tea, but my mother used to give me sandwiches in my satchel. Usually banana with marmalade on bread, and I would sit and munch that through Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
“It was in that very cinema, the Grosvenor, that my maw and I were trapped, all night during the first Clydeside Blitz. I said ‘Come on mother, we’re leaving,’ and the air raid warden shouted ‘Get back in there! Bombs falling!’ so we just went back and sat. After we came out, I thought snow had fallen. The street was all white. But it was the plate glass windows all up the Byres Road that had been blown out.
“When we got back to Wilton Street, the tenement at the very foot of Wilton Street on Queen Margaret Drive had been blown away by a landmine. And my father was just up the hill, at 150 Wilton Street. I said, ‘my father, my father.’ ‘Och,’ said my mother, ‘he’ll be all right’.” Baxter laughs at the memory. “She was much more interested in my career than my father’s problem…”
By the age of 14, Baxter was a regular on the radio, but it was his stint in the Combined Services Entertainment troupe, entertaining the troops throughout the Far East alongside Kenneth Williams, the playwright Peter Nichols, and the film director John Schlesinger, that sealed his professional fate. “I got a real taste for it then. So instead of going to Glasgow University to teach Senior English, as my father had hoped, I came back and said ‘I want to give it a go’. And the colour drained from father’s face. He was a fellow of the Faculty of Actuaries, and he looked up his actuarial tables, to see what hope I had of earning a living, and he went ‘Oh Christ’… Of course, my mother was delighted – it was what she had planned.”
Prior to his time with the CSE, Baxter endured a stint picking dirt from the coal on the conveyor belt at Shotts. “I remember still being asked to do stuff at the BBC, and I was trying to hide my cut fingers beneath the scripts.”
An ear problem meant Baxter’s fitness was downgraded to B1, making him unfit for the mines. While waiting for his posting, he joined the Unity Theatre. “I was very left wing at that time. I thought of myself as a young communist. I was rehearsing the part of a lifetime playing a boy that had been blinded in the war and come back to his girlfriend. I thought, ‘Oh God – this’ll really be a womb trembler!’” He slips into the role. “I was rehearsing: ‘Oh, is that you Jeannie? It’s me.’ I thought, ‘the tears’ll flow here.’ I was moving into drama! Except I was called up for the army in the middle of rehearsals. Russell Hunter got the part! I’ve never forgiven him!”
Oddly, more than 60 years later, Baxter’s frustration at his inability to move into straight acting seems like a fresh hurt. He recalls his attempts to join the Old Vic theatre school on finishing National Service – “I wanted to get rid of all that frivolity” – and his annoyance at being rejected because he was too experienced. His break came when an old actor friend got him an audition in the 1948 Edinburgh Festival production of The Three Estates, and from there he auditioned for the Citizens’ in Glasgow, and became a stalwart in the 1949 production, The Tintock Cup, which revolutionised Scottish pantomime.
Eventually, he decided to stretch himself by moving to London. He decided not to rely on being a Scots comic. “To begin with, I wanted all my sketches to be written in American, Irish, foreign, anything but Scots. That gave me a wider canvas.”
Audiences, he says, would have been unable to detect that he was Scottish. “Because eh can do posh, of course eh can! I’ve got a good ear. It was why I was able to speak French with a lovely accent, except when people replied, I didnae know what the f*** they were talking about!”
Still, the roots of Baxter’s act were planted in those church halls (the impressions), the army revues (the broad-brush humour), and the pantos (where he perfected the Kelvinside woman). “Apart from the fact that you had to wear padding and high heels, it didn’t matter whether I was playing a woman or a man. It was a character.
“I always started with the voice, and once I’d got the voice, everything else I could do. I even found I was quite happy in high heels, to my own surprise. Until this time – I found it a wee bit more awkward, getting back in the Queen’s shoes!”
He’s reluctant to agree that his humour is Glaswegian, saying he was more influenced by American movies. “It’s obvious in my work – all the musicals. It was an escape from the dreich winters in Glasgow before the clean air act: all that fog and ice in Belmont Street going to school, and then suddenly you’re going to this magical world of the Grosvenor and the Hillhead.”
He looks suddenly wistful. “I was just about to tell you my favourite actor – so favourite I cannae mind the name. Eh…. Spencer Tracy, the greatest movie actor that ever lived! Inherit The Wind – wonderful!”
When I ask him what he thinks of his TV specials, he seems oddly unmoved.
“Thank God I got away with it all! And very successfully. It was nice. And I’m glad I don’t have to do it all over again!”
I tell him I am surprised it doesn’t mean more to him. “I never watch my own stuff,” he says. “The only thing I might sit and watch is Very Important Person, my first film. I loved doing that, because I had been brought up with movies, and here I was actually making a movie. That was a big thrill.”
Baxter played two parts in the film, a POW camp comedy with James Robertson Justice. He was a German, and a Scots boy doing a bad impersonation of the same man. “They made me do the first three days as the German, and then they were going to look at the rushes and if it didn’t work, I’d only be playing the Scot. Well it worked. I was so proud of that, and I’m still proud of that.”
Posted by Kirk Elder at 11:20 AM