The return of Stanley Baxter
STANLEY BAXTER interviewed by Mark Lawson
The text below is part of an interview which took
place in the programme "Front
Row, Radio 4, 22 Dec 03. Stanley Baxter stars in
four specially-written radio plays, "Stanley Baxter and Friends", beginning New Year's
Eve, 2003, R4, 1130am. Part of the interview
referred to his television work, but is
interesting enough to include.
ML- Stanley Baxter explained, when we met at his home in
London, that it was radio where his acting career began more than
sixty years ago, with "Auntie Kathleen" in "Scottish Children's Hour".
SB- Well, my mother used to drag me around church halls
doing impersonations....and the famous "Auntie Kathleen" had come and
seen one, and she was using a middle-aged woman to do a little boy
voice and she was getting a bit fed up with it. She said "I think we
need a real little boy".
ML- I'm watching you now - your face is fantastically
mobile...that's something that has always been ... the case...?
SB- Yes, I think so. And a very big upper lip...most
comics have that.....a lot of use it is making faces like that for radio!
But it gives you greater mobility for pulling faces.
ML- So after you'd done radio - it was then the war -
SB- Yes, the war and for a time I was a supply clerk in
Burma. Then a notice went up in Part 1 Orders saying if you thought you
could sing, dance or play an accordion or anything else...they were
disbanding ENSA and were forming something called Combined Services
Entertainment. That's where I met up with Kenneth Williams. John
Schlesinger was also there, and Peter Nicholls.
ML- People will know that world from "Privates on Parade"
...a play, later a film....and that slightly different version, It Ain't
Half Hot, Mum...the acts are often not very good, but clearly, there
was real talent there: you, Kenneth Williams........
SB- Yes, poor stuff too, but there was quite a bit of talent.
I was taken on as a straight actor to begin with, and then they decided
that the Forces had no interest in straight plays, and all the people who'd
been taken on as straight actors were going to be Returned to Unit. ...
R.T.U'd.....these were the dreaded letters. So I immediately said
"I can do Light Entertainment too...and immediately wrote a cod
ML-With Kenneth Williams and Privates on Parade, it seems a
very "camp" world...was it?
SB- I think it was. The fact that men were drag-ing up
...I suppose it was "camp" in the widest meaning of that word.
ML- Were you thinking of doing it professionally?
SB- Yes, but I didn't want to do Light Entertainment.
I still wanted to be a straight actor. I succeeded eventually, after
ups and downs which I won't bore you with, getting into Citizens' Theatre.
I thought 'I'm successful as an actor...do I really want to do Light
Entertainment?' Where will I
get all this material you need? That's been a continual
problem over the years, of course. As a straight actor, you read the
play, you say you like it or don't like it; you do it or you don't do it...
but as a comedian it's a much greater responsibility. Ken Horne wrote
almost all the major things that I did on LWT, but he didn't ever come
up with an idea. I always had to get the basic premise: what it would
be about, who the characters would be, and very often a payoff line too.
Then I'd hand it over, and he wrote it up in a way that I never could
have done. But the onus was on me to dream up those ideas. As the years
went on it got more and more difficult. The bigger a success you have, the
tougher it is. If people are delighted, you think "how do I follow
ML-You were working a large part of the year on your
Xmas show each year...
SB- Yes, five months, then finally getting down to the
basic one-hour scripts. Then the fittings........that was the most
exhausting thing, trying to look so different, especially if you were
talking to yourself.
ML- With digital technology, it's now relatively
easy to make one person play four roles. In the 70s, presumably you
had endless use of stand-ins?
SB- Yes, we used doubles quite a lot, but even then
they had ways of making it easier. When I first started doing it, at the Beeb,
it was a question of filming it - then we wouldn't know until the next
morning whether there'd be a line down the centre of the screen. Then
you'd see that it had worked - you're there, as Doctor Finlay, Doctor
Cameron and Janet....that was a three-way split. It was such a relief
when you realised that the whole day's work had not gone for nothing.
As for the new radio plays.....it will be interesting
to see how they turn out. Stanley Baxter and Friends
begins with "A Brush with
Change". Baxter plays an artist, who, having painted elephants all his
life, becomes an abstract expressionist. The radio dramas also star
Maureen Lipman, Ronnie Ancona and Claire Bloom. In the new series, Baxter
voices 18 characters. It was this versatility, dressing up as the Queen,
or Malcolm Muggeridge, or Joan Bakewell, that glued so many Britons
to the TV to watch him years ago. In 1973, 20 million watched the
Stanley Baxter Picture Show. With decent writing, Baxter's amazing
facility for impersonation, and a cast as good as this, the plays
are unlikely to disappoint.
N.D., 22 Dec 03
A BRUSH WITH CHANGE....2003
31 Dec 03, 11.30am: by Laurence Howarth. Sir Leslie McKinsey RA
celebrates four decades of painting elephants, but decides to do
something different for the Academy Exhibition. Will his buyer
still be interested? And what about his fans? With Stanley Baxter as
Sir Leslie, Walter and Kevin, Claire Bloom as Lady Nicola and Maureen
Lipman as the Fan Club President. Director Graham Frost.
7 Jan 04, 1130am: by David Holt. Wee Davy Dowds is a medium in
Glasgow, fifty years ago. He provides conversational comfort for the
bereaved with those who have gone before. One of his clients is
a lady trying to find out about an inheritance...Stars Stanley Baxter
as Dowds and Bruce; other cast members are Lynn Ferguson, Ford Kieman, Nadim
Sawalha; director Graham Frost.
THE MAKING OF "CAVALIER"....2004
14 Jan 04; 1130 am: by Simon Brett. A satirical spoof documentary
about how stories change when Hollywood gets hold of them. Stanley Baxter
plays all 8 main characters, and apart from the presenter Paul Vaughan, there
are no other cast members. Produced by Graham Frost.
ALL LOCALS GREAT AND SMALL...2004
21 Jan 04; by Georgia Pritchett. Rural eccentricity: impenetrable
dialects and excessive hardiness in a spoof of a "vet" story. With Stanley
Baxter as the new vet and Mr. MacBean; also stars Phillis Logan, Janet
Brown and Elaine C. Smith. Producer Graham Frost.
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SOME THOUGHTS ON THE BBC "TREASURE HUNT": Nigel Deacon
Most of you will have heard of the BBC's hunt for old television and radio programmes thrown away in the days when recording was very expensive. In the Radio Times, 1-7 Nov 2003, there was a long article about the treasure hunt, and the part which VRPCC members have had in locating lost material. VRPCC is the Vintage Radio Programme Collectors' Circle, run by Roger Bickerton, and there are details about it on this website.
Media interest is focused almost exclusively on comedy; it's almost impossible to find articles about the Treasure Hunt which don't mention Goon Shows, Hancock, Doctor Who, and so on. No disrespect to those shows- they're excellent. However, the BBC is good at other things too, and VRPCC has many members who have been recording more serious radio material for years, including documentaries, features, sports commentaries and radio plays. The majority of these recordings are not in the BBC Sound Archive since no-one thought there was any point in keeping them. In the words of Roger Bickerton: "I had a reel-to-reel tape recorder in the 1950s that cost me eight weeks' wages...imagine the situation the BBC was in , needing expensive tapes and storage for programmes that weren't considered historically important. It didn't know the public would find it amusing to listen to the first edition of "I'm Sorry, I Haven't a Clue".
Sean Street, another VRPCC member, says in the same RT article "Radio is the history of the 20th century. It brought Shakespeare and Beethoven into everybody's house. Before radio, you had to guess what Napoleon sounded like, but we know what Churchill sounded like. Radio is the finest document of the times".
Bickerton's wish-list includes a Paul Temple series from the 1960s. Street is looking for a missing series of Journey into Space. "I'm sure there is lots of stuff out there", says Ray Galton (of "Hancock" fame). "Perhaps people are frightened of owning up. I think they should be complimented. "
The BBC7 message board reveals a huge amount of
interest in vintage comedy and drama. The station has broadcast
numerous Classic Serials, one-off plays and comedy since it started
up a little over a year ago. The drama has included Waugh's Sword of
Honour, Powell's Dance to the Music of Time, Journey into Space, plays
by Alick Rowe, T.D.Webster, James Follett, Wally K Daly, Andrew Sachs,
Catherine Czerkawska, Judy Upton, and many others. There is also good
response to the message board; suggestions made by listeners are often
acted upon if the item in question is in the BBC archive,
and occasionally items from private collections are broadcast or are
used to reconstruct a broadcast-quality programme.
Nevertheless the search for lost recordings continues.
If you have old tapes containing drama, comedy, or anything else of
possible interest to other listeners, please ensure that they don't
end up in landfill or the skip. You need to contact someone who knows
what to do. Two things are needed if an item is to survive: firstly,
a copy in the BBC archive; secondly, multiple good-quality copies in
private collections. The latter are important because they are exist
independently of BBC funding. Most collectors are not hermits who keep
collections purely for private listening; they are pleased to circulate
their recordings so that they're preserved for others to enjoy.
I read recently in a newspaper that Greg Dyke wants the
BBC archive to be made available, eventually, to the public, but one
wonders what would happen to the archive should the licence fee ever
There's another reason, too, why archives should not be concentrated
in one place. What about fire damage, terrorist attacks, bombs,
and unforeseen accidents? For example - a person I know spent years
collecting the printed works of
a little known composer, and then donated them to the local
University library. Several years later he saw the lot disappear
when a plumbing leak
went undetected during the Easter holidays; water
trickled through all of the music
between "A" and "G" for a fortnight and made it totally unuseable. Perhaps this is
why there are
five copyright libraries.
All readers should note that the sale of privately-recorded BBC material is illegal and that there are severe penalties for making commercial gain from recordings where one does not own the copyright.
Nigel Deacon, VRPCC
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