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Stanley Baxter: publish and be damed

A biography of the legendary entertainer Stanley Baxter contains more tears than laughter, says Stephen Griffin

10 December, 2020 — By Stephen Griffin

Stanley Baxter as the dame in panto

FINALLY – albeit reluctantly – coming out of the closet, trust Stanley Baxter to do so with jazz hands. At the age of 94, after decades of understandably cautious discretion, the legendary entertainer has finally spilled the beans to journalist Brian Beacom – and the provocative chapter headings alone will give any self-respecting Daily Mail reader the vapours.

Initially Baxter wanted his story to be shared posthumously for fear of losing the love of his public. Thankfully, however, at the last minute he changed his mind, the result being The Real Stanley Baxter.

Born in Glasgow to an archetypal, showbiz-obsessed, pushy mother, Baxter was a BBC radio performer from the age of 13. In the Army he honed his talent in an It Ain’t Half Hot Mum-style camp concert party in Singapore. It was at Nee Soon military camp that Baxter first encountered would-be actor Kenneth Williams, would-be playwright Peter (A Day in the Death of Joe Egg) Nichols and would-be film director John (Midnight Cowboy) Schlesinger.

Williams, in particular, remained a lifelong pal, although Baxter admits his relationship with his mercurial friend grew increasingly fractious. Williams’ self-obsession made it difficult for Baxter to maintain a friendship at times, and it has to be said the Carry On star does not come out of the book well. Frankly, an egotistical depressive like Williams wasn’t the best choice of friend for someone whose own life wasn’t short on personal tragedy.

Baxter really wanted to be a straight (in every sense) actor but during a stint at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre his facility for comedy came to the fore and he soon found himself in sketches and pantos.

Baxter with his old chum Kenneth Williams

Blessed – or perhaps cursed – with an impressive pair of shapely pins, he also found a not-too-welcome niche in female impersonation – not the ideal career trajectory for a gay man posing as a straight one.

For most homosexuals of Baxter’s generation it was difficult – indeed illegal – to live an honest existence. It’s heartbreaking to read how he felt he could never be seen with the true loves of his life. Instead he married fellow Citizens Theatre actor Moira Robertson. He says he was forced into tying the knot after she threatened to take her own life if he didn’t. Despite Baxter being totally forthcoming about his sexual proclivities, Moira was undeterred; she was simply devoted to him, later even retiring to another room while her husband “entertained” male acquaintances.

Sectioned and diagnosed as schizophrenic, Moira took her own life in 1997, something Baxter himself once contemplated.

The thought was triggered in January 1962 after he was arrested in public toilets in Madras Place, Holloway, not far from his home in Highgate. Charged with soliciting, he feared his career lay in tatters.

Beacom writes: “‘I was going to top myself,’ he says, his voice solemn. ‘I thought, ‘My career will never survive this. And if I don’t have a career, what do I have?.”

Given generations of homophobia and the horrendous manner in which the tabloids have outed the famous it’s understandable that it’s a huge deal to Baxter but there’s an inordinate emphasis on his sexuality in the book. It would have been nice to have a little more about his professional life – in particular how his groundbreaking TV spectaculars were put together.

Let’s not forget his shows were real “event” telly. Regularly attracting up to 20 million viewers, he wisely rationed his appearances, always holding out for enough time and money to do exactly what was required.

And money was often a problem. The budgets for his London Weekend and later BBC shows often matched those of feature films: it took days to construct the sets and because he played all the parts sometimes a mere three minutes of screen time was recorded in a day. As a result his lavish extravaganzas saw him axed not once but twice by a cost-conscious John Birt.

However, Baxter would rather walk away than compromise. He regularly eschewed Parkinson and Russell Harty, he declined an invitation to go to America and even turned down a Harry Potter “pension” – mind you, the children’s TV series Mr Majeika had already fulfilled that role.

The Real Stanley Baxter is the fruit of Beacom’s 17 years of one-to-one interviews with his subject. And that’s often how it reads – not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. The book clearly provided Baxter with some sort of catharsis; apparently he wept when he was presented with the book.

We live, thank God, in more enlightened times. And if Twitter is anything to go by Stanley needn’t have worried about losing his public’s affection. Indeed, to his legions of admirers his late-blooming candidness has only added to his legendary status, and recently Bafta Scotland presented him with a lifetime achievement award.

Both Baxter and Williams were very much products of their time: it’s tragic that neither were happy in their own skins.

“There are many gay people these days who are fairly comfortable with their sexuality, fairly happy with who they are,” says Baxter. “I’m not. I never wanted to be gay. I still don’t.

“The truth is, I don’t really want to be me.”

The Real Stanley Baxter. By Brian Beacom, Luath Press, £20

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