Stanley Baxter, child star, pantomime legend, comedian and film actor is sitting in a west-London radio studio having just recorded a very Scottish drama – a re-imagining of Robert Burns’s narrative poem, Tam o’Shanter.
Written by Scottish writer Rona Munro, Meg’s Tale stars fellow Scots Maureen Beattie and Tracy Wiles and tells the story of Tam’s derring-do from the point of view of a barmaid and Tam’s horse, Meg. Baxter, the Glasgow-born son of an insurance manager, plays the poet narrator. But being surrounded by his compatriots is an unusual occurrence for the 88-year-old legend who left his native Caledonia in 1959 and now only returns “for the odd funeral”.
A long-time resident of Highgate in north London (he lives on the same street as George Michael and actress Thelma Barlow), Baxter still vividly recalls the opprobrium that came his way in 1959 when he decided to leave Scotland (where he was a star pantomime actor among other things) and try his luck in London.
The moment his Scottish theatre manager told him there may not be work for him if he returned back north still rankles – “I mean, I was filling theatres, you know.”
In fact Baxter (who started his career as a child actor on the Scottish edition of Children’s Hour) has little truck for Scottish nationalism and fervently hopes his compatriots vote no to independence in the upcoming referendum. (He thinks they will: “They’re canny, the Scots.”)
“Scots can deny it as much as they like, but I’ve seen a lot of anti-English sentiment expressed north of the border but never anti-Scots sentiments south of the border,” he says. “They don’t know any better. It’s got to do with these dreadful films they’ve made, anti-English films and that wretched Australian [Mel Gibson]… Braveheart – it’s not even correct historically.
“I’m very happy in London. South of the border’s been very good to me. I could never have achieved that success north of the border if I’d stuck there. It wouldn’t have happened.”
Of course the now widowed Baxter did make it, finally landing BBC1’s The Stanley Baxter Show, which ran 1963 to 1971, then The Stanley Baxter Picture Show for ITV (1972–75). After nine years of specials, he reverted to a weekly series with the lavishly expensive (and Bafta-winning) The Stanley Baxter Series in 1981. His champion throughout his career was the flamboyant Michael now Lord Grade, an executive he speaks of fondly as his saviour who brought him to the BBC after he was fired from LWT in the early 1980s by its executive John Birt.
This last major TV tenure (a couple of Christmas specials in 1985 and 1986) came to another abrupt end when Birt became BBC deputy director-general in 1987 and, as Baxter puts it, “fired me again”. Birt is “certainly not” his favourite person, he says with a chuckle, doing a very good impersonation of the TV grandee telling him: “Well, it’s not that we don’t like your work, it just all costs so much.” Does he still feel bitter? “Well, bitter would be too strong a word. Use an adjective that borders it. I felt a bit bitter.”
But he’s never been out of work, and people of a certain generation will also remember his brilliant turn as the eponymous wizard teacher Mr Majeika in ITV’s adaptation of Humphrey Carpenter’s children’s books in the late 1980s.
For most people he’ll be remembered for his grown-up comedy work and dazzling impressions, many of which he performs for me, including a brilliant Noël Coward. “I can do them like that.” He clicks his fingers. I never get to hear his most famous one, of the Queen, or Duchess of Brenda as she was known in his act. He does, however, tell me that he and the monarch were born within a month of each other and he met her once – in a line-up where she was too polite to mention his mimicry.
While he admits to being “semi-retired”, he laughs when I ask if he’s still developing as performer. “I hope not!” He loves the 19 plays he’s recorded for The Stanley Baxter Playhouse on Radio 4 since 2006 because “it keeps you acting, which I miss. And I love doing radio because I began with radio and at 88 I’m finishing off in radio. So it’s been a complete circle.”
He still keeps abreast of modern comedians and rates the current crop of impressionists, especially Rory Bremner and Alistair McGowan. He also has a lot of time for Dawn French, his friend Una Stubbs and Patricia Routledge (“a great singing voice, she’s a very good actress, vocally, but she’s also a great clown”).
But he dislikes big-scale stand-up comedy, especially the “stuff they do at the Apollo. I’m not mad about comics speaking a hundred words a minute and walking up and down that vast stage alone. It doesn’t appeal to me. They lack repose. The comedians I love most really were the American ones. Well, particularly, Jack Benny who could stand there, raise one eyebrow and have the audience in hysterics. He was the only comedian I ever wanted to meet.” And meet him he did. In fact, Baxter is still able to recite word for word their conversation decades ago when he met him at a London theatre.
But where the mind is still sharp, a knee replacement operation means he isn’t as physically active; it limits him “terribly”. He still has the energy to go to his villa in Cyprus when he can, plans three more Stanley Baxter Playhouse dramas this year, and has also written an autobiography to be “published after my demise”. Why? Will there be big revelations? He laughs.
“I had a lunch when the book was all ready to go, and they said, ‘Now we’ve arranged for you to go right round the country and sign these books everywhere.’ My eyes glazed and I thought I can’t imagine anything more horrible than to have to go to all those different cities and be asked questions by the press. Not all of them may be kind. And I can’t stand it. I’m not doing it.”
He still seems very happy. “I think nature just arranges that you won’t be too upset when you leave one thing and go into another. I mean, nature arranges for you to accept things, like you accept death itself, I suppose, when it comes. I hope I’ve probably got a few years left.”
As for what will happen then he says he’s a “devout atheist”, adding: “What’s the point in worrying about the end? It has to happen. I certainly don’t believe in survival of any kind. Noël Coward certainly didn’t.” Except of course, as with Coward, what will certainly live on is his brilliant life’s work.
The Stanley Baxter Playhouse is on today at 11:30am on Radio 4