The return of Stanley Baxter
...an interview

Some thoughts on the BBC
Treasure Hunt


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 pantomime.

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 that?".

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

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.

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.

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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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 be abolished.

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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