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Comedy legend relishing return to airwaves

THERE are only two serious faces in Stanley Livingstone Baxter's living room today - and they both belong to the Bafta masks sitting on top of the sideboard.

comeback: Stanley Baxter is making a return to his first love - radio - at the grand old age of 88. He will appear on Radio 4 with a new series of The Stanley Baxter Playhouse.
comeback: Stanley Baxter is making a return to his first love - radio - at the grand old age of 88. He will appear on Radio 4 with a new series of The Stanley Baxter Playhouse.

My own face is smiling because just two minutes into conversation, the comedy legend, while pouring coffee and serving up carrot cake, is also dolling up large slices of Noel Coward and Kenneth Williams .

While interviews over the years have confirmed Baxter to be a great home entertainer, today, looking relaxed in casual white, he's clearly in great ­countenance. Is this in spite (or because?) of the fact he's now reached the age of the classic bingo number, 88?

"Yes, I'm glad not to have made the obits," he says, grinning. But Stanley, you remind him, on your 75th birthday, you stated you wouldn't like to live past 80. "But then I never expected to live this long," he says, deadpan. "But I suppose my longevity is helped by my hypochondria. I only have to get a tickly throat and I'm off to see a specialist. 'Help, Doctor! I've got cancer!'"

Baxter had a couple of heart stents fitted in recent years. And after he slipped and cracked his skull at his villa in Cyprus, doctors diagnosed a very small stroke. More recently, he's had two artificial knee replacements. When he speaks of his patellar problems, his face becomes more Bafta mask."I can't walk around the Heath anymore," he says of his Hampstead haunt, near where friend Lulu lives. "It's a b******."

Meccannoed joints apart, Baxter has a real reason to be cheerful; his professional light is no longer on a dimmer switch. Next month, he's back on Radio Four with a new series of The Stanley Baxter Playhouse. He won't get to hear the applause; he hasn't heard that since his panto exit at the King's Theatre in Glasgow in 1991. So is it about still being loved?

"Yes, partly it is," he admits. "The work creates attention. But I've loved radio since I made my first appearance aged 14 at the BBC in Glasgow."

That was with Children's Hour, in which he played "excited idiots and young women". "But there are also aesthetic and practical reasons for doing radio. You can't see me, and there are no lines to learn. It was all very fine for Gilegud (takes on fuddled voice) 'What's the line, dear boy?' but I couldn't put a cast through that."

Baxter's leitmotif has always been his anxiety but these days it doesn't chime so loudly. Young Stanley was such a natural mimic the vicarious Bessie Baxter had her six year-old dressed in a matalot suit, his hair tonged and taken round the church halls to appear in go-as-you-please talent shows. Yes, he loved the applause - but then came the sting. "She'd say; 'You must do better, Stanley'. As a wee boy, that corrodes your very being."

Since then, he always tried to do better, to the extent he became a control freak who had to come up with all the ideas for his TV shows. (He insisted on panto scripts being submitted to him in July, in order to hone them.)

"I was always feart of failure," he says. But the self-criticism produced huge stress, nerves so bad he had to retire from the stage at 65. Thankfully, a run of well-paid pantos and a few TV series of Mr Majeika provided his pension. Today. he lives very comfortably (alone, his wife Moira died in 1997) in his large, £3million-plus art deco-style house in North London, in the same street as George Michael. But does he feel he's had the applause he deserves? Surely, given his legend, a knighthood would have been in order?

"It won't happen because I've already turned down an OBE!" he blurts, with a mischievous grin. "I returned the letter saying (takes on Kelvinside ladies' voice) 'No thank you'. You see, when Alan Bennett was asked why he turned down his knighthood he said 'I don't think it would suit me'. I feel exactly the same way."

Baxter has always been a strong Labour supporter. (In spite of being "lower middle class", his dad an insurance manager). His Labour politics today inform his thoughts on independence. "I think the idea is madness!" he says in animated voice. "It's daft, because we will be abandoned to cope on our own." He sighs: "We Scots can be overly sentimental and patriotic at times. And I hate all this Braveheart nonsense...and that Mel Gibson, with his terrible Scottish accent."

He adds, on a roll; "I'm a Scot, of course. The culture is in my DNA. But you can take Scottishness too far. That's why when I left for London in 1959 to work on TV revue show On The Bright Side I wanted to prove I could do more than Parliamo Glasgow. But because I didn't use Scottish voices the Daily Record gave me a kicking, saying I was selling out. Nonsense! What the papers didn't know was my closest friends and producers were Scots, the likes of David Bell, Jimmy Gilbert, Bruce McClure and, in theatre, Murray McDonald."

Ironically, Baxter admits when he did try to play a Scot in movies, a world in which he was desperate to succeed, he often failed.

"I didn't get the parts because I wasn't Scottish enough. I didn't have the red hair and pale face look. They'd go to Roddie McMillan. Again and again . . . and again."

But then he did use his own accent in films such as The Fast Lady and Father Came Too? "Yes but my characters were the spastic Scot," he says, shaking his head at their sheer sillyness.

We're on to more serious discussion territory now.

His face drops its fizz as he admits to be seriously disappointed he didn't make more than five movies; critics reckoned he would go on to become the next Peter Sellers.

"It didn't happen," he says, in soft voice. "You're as good as your last picture, and unfortunately the last one, Joey Boy (1965, co-starring Harry H Corbett) wasn't very good."

However, filming itself, he says, was always "great fun". "I've always got on well with actors," he says, back in buoyant tone which then drops as he reflects. "Except for one, of course. Which you know about. A man I loathed."

He's talking about Rikki Fulton; back in 1958, Baxter was the original Francie of Francie and Josie variety theatre days.

"He was horrid to writers," says Baxter, echoing the thoughts of many in Scottish showbiz.

"The likes of Stan Mars would bring him scripts and he'd humiliate him, throw the pages on the floor and say 'Rubbish!' It was no way to treat decent men." But Baxter adds: "Jack Milroy however was a lovely man."

The actor doesn't remain long in toughened voice.

His birthday, he says, is a time to reflect positively. And he certainly won't go into too much detail of the dark of his personal life - that's being saved for his biography.

For now, he prefers to talk about the delights in his life.

He is still in love with television, he declares. Baxter's a big fan of Paul O'Grady's chat show and he "adores" the controversial Mrs Brown's Boys. Praise indeed, from the nation's best-ever drag actor.

"When I first watched I didn't know Mrs Brown was in fact a male. It's amazing! I'm not sure Brendan O'Carroll could do other females, but this one is so believable."

There isn't a part of Stanley Baxter that would return to television, except for the odd documentary rewind on his (almost) 75-year career.

Yet, you still look good, Stanley. You're still sharp. "But I'm now one of the Two Fat Ladies," says the 88-year-old, while pretending to look Bafta-mask serious.

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