STANLEY Baxter is 10 seconds into the phone conversation when he makes an announcement. “I’ve decided I won’t come out to lunch for our chat,” he says from his home in London’s Highgate. Drat. Hopes of a chat with the comedy legend in the build up to his 90th birthday are scuppered.

But it’s not a total surprise. Baxter isn’t going all Norma Desmond on me, not at all. In recent times the former television, film and variety theatre star hasn’t been leaving his house at all. He has been confined to his large art deco style home thanks to two knee replacements and a spine that’s more worn than his all-time favourite biography (Moss Hart’s poignant and very funny Act One). And he did say when the interview was requested he’d struggle to make it round the corner to his favourite Italian.

Yet, just as the news is being digested, with impeccable timing he adds, “I’ve decided we should go out to dinner this evening instead. I don’t celebrate birthdays, as such. You know that. But I guess, like the Queen, I have made it to this age so a couple of G&Ts and a dinner are in order.”

Great news. And six hours later at his house, as the doorbell is being rung, the ice is frosting the glasses ready for the tea-time G&Ts to be poured.


Stanley Baxter says: 'I don’t celebrate birthdays but, like the Queen, I have made it to this age so a couple of G&Ts are in order.'

Upstairs in his £2m house he looks rejuvenated and smart in pale blue shirt and cream linen trousers. He’s warm and welcoming, something of a contrast to his outlook in recent times when he’s been rather more contained, the result of having to cope with hospital visits and meetings with consultants.

He sits down, clicks glasses and cracks a joke that must be older than he is. “I wake up, grab the newspaper and check the obituaries,” he chuckles. “If I’m not listed, I get up.”

What’s Baxter’s life been like in recent times? He’s always been a fierce creature of habit, a man whose routine would not alter unless disaster struck. He’d rise at ten, take coffee at eleven and lunch at one on the dot. All that remains, but he doesn’t swim three times a week at a pool a couple of miles away anymore. He doesn’t drive either. He still goes to the cinema however.

“I tell you what I did see recently, and I loved it. It was Florence Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep. She’s great in it, and there’s an unexpected twist.”

Stanley Baxter built part of his career on pastiching Hollywood cinema. Ever since he was a small boy growing up in Glasgow’s Wilton Street in the West End, he spent every possible hour in the Grosvenor Cinema, wallowing in the likes of Meet Me In St Louis and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.

That love for film revealed itself in his television take-offs, in which he would appear as Cagney’s Yankee Doodle Dandy or Mae West or Katharine Hepburn. And he still loves an afternoon at the movies. I wonder if he'll be going to see the sequel to Trainspotting when it's released?

“Oh, I hated the original,” he says. “It was all very gloomy and depressing, all that drugs and stuff. It’s not the world of cinema I loved.”

Indeed. We’re in the restaurant now. Stanley has decided on two first courses. “My appetite isn’t what it was. I guess it’s because I don’t burn up the calories the way I once did.”


Baxter with Ronnie Corbett in panto in 1957. “I have so few friends left. When you think about losing pals such as Ronnie it’s all very sad.”

Nor does he worry the way he once did, trying to come up ideas for his TV sketches, new jokes and set pieces for panto. As we rewind on his life he says he’s so glad to have cast off the very heavy coat of expectation, the pressure to delight audiences continually, coming up with panto ideas such as appearing on stage as Dame in a flying saucer, all lights flashing, which when it lands we discover to be a giant tea-cup.

Yet, he makes a surprise announcement, when asked how he plans to spend Tuesday, the Big Day.

“Well, I’m working,” he says, grinning as wide as he must have when he landed his first major acting job at the Citizens’ Theatre back in 1948. “I’m back on radio, recording a new Stanley Baxter special. What will happen is I’ll be picked up in a car, early on which I don’t like of course, but regardless, I’ll be whisked off to the BBC’s White City studios in Acton to record with one of my favourite actresses, Penelope Wilson.”

Still working at 90, still being in demand is an incredible feat. “I went into radio as a schoolboy at 14 with Children’s Hour and I would never have imagined I’d still be doing it 76 years later. But I love it.” He adds, grinning; “I don’t even have to learn the lines. We have a read through, to get the gist of the storyline, and then we record in sections. It’s all very delightful.”

The conversation rolls back the years. There’s real sadness in his voice when he reflects on the loss of his closest friends, producer David Bell and choreographer Bruce McClure. “I have so few friends left,” he admits. “There’s only really John Reid [the Scots pop manager and theatre producer who once managed Elton] and a couple of others. Then when you think about losing pals such as Ronnie Corbett [whom he brought into panto in 1967[ and Ronnie Barker [whom he first worked with on television in 1959] it’s all very sad.”

Life has changed for Baxter in other ways. He can’t quite make it to his idyllic villa in Cyrpus, which is in the process of being sold, and he wasn’t up to the planned journey to Perth in Australia to see his younger sister Alice, a former comedy actress who acted as a feed to Johnny Beattie. But he still enjoys reading, and watching TV and the occasional lunch.

What does he enjoy on television? “I love Mrs Brown,” says the man whose female impressions were considered to be the template for drag by the likes of Stephen Fry and Billy Connolly. “In fact, you can’t believe that Brendan O’Carroll’s character is a man. It’s that good.”

What does he think of reality television stars such as the Kardashians? “Who are they? Are they a pop group?” Not a bit of it. “So what do they actually do?” That’s a very good question, Stanley.

As the first course arrives, with wine, Baxter reveals he hasn’t a lot of time for those who suddenly arrive in the business via the likes of The X Factor, although he does have sympathy for the ephemeral careers.

"You really need to learn your craft if you hope to survive in the business. I was very lucky in that my mother was dragging me out to perform on the church socials circuit from the age of six. That teaches you how to work an audience, how to make the most of your material, who to impersonate and when.”

But it also meant a little boy travelling home at midnight on dark, damp, smoke-filled buses on school nights. If that happened these days, Stanley, social services would be involved.

“That’s true,” he says, grinning. “But I guess my mother thought she was doing what was best for me.” And her? “At times,” he admits. “She did enjoy living the showbiz life vicariously, and of course she did play the piano for me on stage. However, she knew that having a showbiz career was all about learning and working hard.”


Baxter recording the Five Past Eight Show at the Alhambra Theatre in Glasgow in 1958

We work through the chicken and through his career. Does he have regrets about the work he turned down? He had offers, for example, to work in America. “I went out to talk to a TV producer,” he reveals, “but he wanted to make a 13-part series. I said ‘Thirteen? I don’t even want to do six. I couldn’t put myself through that level of torture.’ And there’s no guarantee I would have made it in the States. Bruce Forsyth tried and failed, so what chance would I have had?”

The comparison with Forsyth is invidious. Baxter was never a showman, certainly never a song and dance man. He was a writer, a creator of clever, sometimes risqué comedy with an international references which could well have hit the mark across the pond.

“We’ll never know,” he says with a shrug, confining the subject to the dustbin. “But I do have one regret, I guess. I was offered a play on Broadway, but Kenneth Williams had done it, and I didn’t think I could have done it better. I do regret not trying it. I guess I was looking too closely at Kenneth.”

He and Williams met in the late 1940s when both joined Combined Services Entertainment, the Ain’t Half Hot Mum brigade of entertainers, pulled together to stop the troops in the Far East from dying of boredom. Baxter remained friends with Williams, although Williams’ fickle temperament strained the relationship at times. Baxter misses his chum, though, who looked out for him in the army days.

What about personal regrets? He does feel incredibly sad about the loss of his wife Moira, who suffered from depression for years, a fragile creature who dedicated her life to him from the moment they met as young actors at the Citizens’ Theatre. “I wish she’d had a happier life,” he says.

More wine flows. Baxter doesn’t remain moribund for too long. He’s even generous when discussion flows about BBC salaries being revealed. He’s not fussed at all if Radio 4 newsreader Eddie Mair makes, as is claimed, close to half a million a year or football pundits can pick up double that. Even if he once created TV spectaculars that attracted audiences of 20m for which he was paid, he says, “A few thousand.”

“But it’s different times now,” he offers. “Yes, I should have formed my own production company, but at the time I was so focused on coming up with the ideas for the shows. It was panto, and then the children’s show Mr Majeika, which really gave me the money to be able to retire.” He adds, grinning; “But as for the football pundits, I’m fairly sure they won’t be doing it at 90.”

Baxter is delighted to be working on radio but he won’t appear on television. He’s delighted to hear that Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphill will be bringing Still Game back to TV, having worked with the pair once on a radio show, but he wouldn’t appear with them.

“They asked me to appear in the show the last time around,” he says. “But I didn’t want to play an old fart.” He adds, grinning; “That’s the beauty of radio. No one can see what you look like.”

There isn’t much Baxter is bitter about, except perhaps being dropped by John Birt when at LWT. That seems to stick in his craw and won’t move. When he moved to the BBC in the 1980s, Birt followed, and Baxter was given his P45 for the final time. “The beancounter seemed to have it in for me,” he says.


Baxter as a boy. He says: I’m delighted and proud to be a Scot but I’m not a nationalist. I’ve lived in England for most of my life.

What’s interesting about Baxter is that he doesn’t consider himself a Scottish comedy star. “Yes, I was born in Scotland, and I’m delighted and proud to be a Scot but I’m not a nationalist. I’ve lived in England for most of my life. In fact, I realised without realising it, very early on I had to change my accent. When I was in Singapore with CSE and the likes of Williams and playwright Peter Nichols I didn’t realise I had developed something of a Cockney accent. This stayed with me all the way back to Glasgow, until my mother and sister laughed when they heard me speak.

“But I knew when I went to London in 1959, with the writing on the wall for Scottish variety theatre, I was determined not to use a Scots voice when I landed the satirical show On The Bright Side.”

The Scottish accent did appear in the likes of films such as Very Important Person and the Fast Lady. “In my TV series, however, I used every voice in my range except my own.” He adds, “I was very happy not to be me. I didn’t want to be a ‘Scotch’ comedian. There were big Scotch names in vaudeville such as Lauder and Will Fyfe, but not in television. I wanted not to be labelled, not to be identified.”

That’s also been the case in his personal life, having a select group of friends, although they are almost all gone. But Baxter is still with us. And that’s surprising on one level because he’s a natural worrier and stress is corrosive. Yet, he seemed to have got out of live performance, when he was 65, and television before too much damage was done.

What’s also helped longevity is being a confirmed hypochondriac. “Every headache a brain tumour, every cough is cancer,” he said in recent times, grinning. But this self-concern saved him. Feeling a little tired a few years ago he sought specialist advice, a blocked artery was discovered and a stent fitted. There’s not a lot to be done for the worn joints however. “No, not yet.”

Once, he said, in a quiet moment, that he never wanted to live beyond 80. Well, he regrets that now. “Did I really say that? Oh, God, what was I thinking?”

Perhaps it was on a day when he wasn’t being appreciated? “I do love being asked to work,” he admits. “I want a reason to get out of bed. I still get the buzz when the scripts come through.”

He is enjoying his second starters, and another glass of wine. Does he feel disappointed he was never offered a knighthood? “Not for me,” he says. “Remember, I once turned down an OBE. They’re not going to give me the big gong.”

Have the years given him a clarity, a wisdom perhaps which youth sometimes denied?

“No,” he says emphatically, grinning. “If it had I’d be able to understand the European referendum debate. I’m as clueless as they come.”

He adds, grinning; “What I do know, however, is that when I’m 95 I’m going to ask for a pay rise. Radio comedy doesn’t pay that well.”

Half an hour later, he’s in the car ready to go home, still smiling, and feeling buoyant.

“I’m so glad I came out to play,” he says. “We must do it again next year.”