THE INVISIBLE MAN
Stanley Baxter is arguably the funniest man - and one of the most fetching women - in Britain. So funny, indeed, that he's disappeared. Why? How? And what does the master of disguise look like now?
Sunday 17 December 1995
Yet there is one celebrity who has bucked the trend. Perhaps uniquely, Stanley Baxter has succeeded in making himself invisible. This is no mean achievement. Just a decade ago, his annual television spectaculars were as much a part of Christmas as turkey and hangovers: in December 1985, more than 14 million people tuned in to watch the monkey-faced Scotsman mimic the Queen, in a lavish show that included a full-scale orchestra and battalions of dancers. Like his previous TV specials, it was a delirious collection of sketches and set-pieces featuring Baxter in character (his meticulously observed parodies of women like Shirley Bassey and Marlene Dietrich were a trademark), complete with spectacular sets and breathtaking changes of costume and make-up. He never appeared as himself. As one critic wrote: "The joke is not that Stanley Baxter is dressed up as a woman. It is that he has carefully, precisely - and often cruelly - embodied the particular woman herself." For a nation still mourning the loss of Eric Morecambe, Baxter - another survivor of the gentler, pre-television days of variety theatre - seemed ready to succeed to the title of Britain's Favourite Comedian.
Then he vanished from our lives, leaving so little trace that few people even remarked on his disappearance. Despite his success, he had, in fact, always had a certain invisibility. When he first came to fame in the Fifties, his identity was largely irrelevant: we were content to let stars glitter from afar. And we never really discovered who he was, other than a brilliant character actor and impersonator; as the rules of celebrity changed, he simply refused to play by them. Newspaper interviews were very rare; he never appeared on a chat show. Perhaps that is why hardly anyone noticed when, after 1985, he left the television spotlight altogether, just as the glare was getting hotter.
Yet he was, and is, missed: in England, as the funniest man on television; in Scotland - where they take panto very seriously - as the greatest dame of the century: a master of the double entendre and the quick, stunning costume-change. Having made it big south of the border, he regularly returned to direct and star in big-budget productions. "He is completely woven into the Scottish psyche," says Mary Brennan, a critic for the Herald. "There are folk who could tell you what kind of Christmas it was by recalling that year's panto."
His last was Mother Goose, at the King's Theatre, Glasgow, in 1991. And that was that. Retirement, at the relatively early age of 63, was total. Since then, he has been completely absent from stage or television, and rarely even mentioned in print.
How could it happen? Now that personal publicists are de rigueur for everyone from ministers' mistresses to rugby players' wives, we may even catch ourselves feeling faintly disapproving at the thought that he might want to do without the oxygen of publicity. But the question is also intriguing: how could someone who once inspired such affection slip from the public gaze so completely, in so short a space of time?
There was no biography, and no memoir; just a few intriguing references to be found in the published diaries of his close friend Kenneth Williams. No other intimate had ever talked about him in public. The tracks had long been covered by this time last year, when Ian Jack, then editor of the Independent on Sunday and (being a Scot) a Stanley Baxter fan, issued his decree. "It's Christmas," he said. "Find him."
WHERE do you start, with only a name to go on? The BBC couldn't help, and neither could London Weekend Television, for whom Baxter had made many of his most successful shows in the Seventies. LWT's press officer had never even heard of him, but promised to investigate. He rang back the next day, but the news was bad. "It was so long ago, the production team was disbanded straight after the last show, and there's nobody left here who worked on it. It's a dead loss, to be honest. Since our merger with Granada there's nobody higher up who would have been involved either."
Actors have agents, and Baxter's was listed in various theatrical yearbooks as David White Associates. My call was answered by Mr White himself, who seemed suspicious of my reasons for ringing. So I asked if he was aware that there had been a piece in the Sun over the summer, calling for Baxter to come back to television.
"Yes," was the terse reply.
"Is there any likelihood of that happening?"
"I'll tell you," he said, managing to communicate weariness down the line. "Look, his shows cost a fortune - partly because it takes them so long to change and do make-up and so on. Then you've got the orchestra, and dancers. Not Stanley's fee, particularly, but you have to pay the Musicians' Union, you've got to pay all the dancers, Equity and so on. It's just prohibitive, you know, because they were such big specials. So he decided that rather than cut his cloth down - because he's not a stand-up Channel 4 comedian, is he? - he'd rather not do them. There's a great move afoot for them to be repeated, to have a compilation made of them for the States and Canada, and all that, but that's still being worked on.
"Meanwhile, if you think about it, if you changed out of your pyjamas - if you wear any - into your clothes, then got to the theatre and for the rest of the afternoon you had 32 dress changes to make, then you go out for a cup of tea and change again, then you do 32 in the evening... where are we up to?"
"64," I said.
"Which is not good, when you're in your sixties, is it? Especially when you're in high heels, do you know what I mean? So he just thought: 'No, it's all too much for me.' "
"So, no pantos either then?"
"No, for the reason I just gave. It's such hard, hard work. He plays in Scotland to capacity every time, but that's not the point. It's a long season in Scotland, it runs from November through to February."
"The last panto was in 1991, wasn't it?"
"Yes. He's offered stage plays and everything all the time, but he doesn't want to lock himself into eight performances a week for six months, you know?"
"That would seem to indicate that there might be a return at some point, even just a one-off?"
"That's a difficult question."
Changing tack, I asked if Baxter had a fan club. "Me," said David White. "You. And your editor."
How much had the big television specials cost to make?
"Oh, they all varied," said the agent, suddenly sounding irritated. "Look, do you mind? I'm going to cut you short."
"Just let me ask you one thing. A lot of people are interested in this. Is it possible that we can have a chat with him?"
"Not at all?"
"Doesn't he do interviews at all?"
"Not to the Press."
"He's never done a chat show in his life. They all wanted him: Aspel, Parkinson... but he's never done one."
"So he wouldn't talk to a newspaper, even over the phone?"
"OK. Can you just tell me, finally, what city he lives in?"
"London. And he reads the Independent."
"You won't tell me which part of London, will you?"
"No. He's not there anyway. He's having a holiday with his wife, Moira."
"Can you tell me where they are?"
"In terms of countries?"
"You can tell I've talked to the press before, can't you? I'm not being naughty, but no."
"Well, it was worth a go."
"I'll be calmer tomorrow. Everything's being raked around in here ready for Christmas."
"Can I call you tomorrow, then, to see if you've changed your mind?"
"Yes. OK. Goodbye."
I rang David White again the following morning. There was no answer.
Mildly discouraged, I tried another approach: Melvyn Bragg, who had been head of arts at LWT when Baxter was at his peak. I called his office, who promised to ring back with a comment, but didn't. This was going nowhere. A search through the IoS cuttings library unearthed a few mentions of Baxter, one of them an unexpected tribute from Andy Bell, lead singer with the pop group Erasure and another man given to wearing extravagant frocks. "Stanley Baxter is one of my all-time favourites," he said. "Anyone who can dress up as Judy Garland with a nose like his and get away with it, has to be a genius." Fine, but not much help to me. There was also a tiny quote from Baxter in the Times of November 1992, about how the role of Principal Boy should only be played by a woman: "All those frills. Men just look nelly, however hard they try." And he had been sighted on a visit to Scotland in July 1994, to unveil a tribute to his late friend and fellow comic Duncan Macrae, during which he had confirmed that it had been his intention to drop out of public life completely: "Most comics work till they drop, but I'm happier now than ever. A life without stress - you cannae whack it!" Other cuttings described him as practically a recluse.
Just when it was looking hopeless, I discovered a quote from Don Black, the lyricist of Sunset Boulevard, about keeping himself fit at the RAC Club: "I take a Turkish bath at the club every Saturday. Nigel Dempster's often there, and so are Stanley Baxter and Terry Stamp." Ah-ha. A porter at the club confirmed that the comedian did swim in the pool "most days". But he hadn't been in that afternoon. He couldn't say when Baxter was expected next, but took my number to pass on.
(Later in my quest, I rang the club's charming PR woman. Lara Clark, who said she was terribly sorry, but she couldn't show me round: the RAC liked to keep a low profile. But a fellow member of the club in Pall Mall, which costs up to pounds 500 a year, confirmed that Baxter was frequently there. Club gossip suggested that he preferred the bigger and busier squash changing- rooms to those by the poolside, and was "a bit of a loner".)
So: Mr White hadn't been having me on - Baxter did live in London, then. But where? Nobody would tell me. His associates would not return my calls. His agent was still stonewalling, and his old television company had forgotten him. And, meanwhile, my deadline had passed, and there were other things to do. Perhaps it was time to forget it, let him be. But although the urgency had gone, the curiosity remained. What had happened to Stanley Baxter?
Many weeks later, I was browsing for biographical material on someone else when I came across an old copy of Who's Who In Television, with an entry on Baxter. Some of it I knew from later editions: "Hobbies: swimming, cycling, reading. Birth sign: Gemini. Favourite Place: My living room in -[he named a very nice suburb of north London]. It's simple and has the few things I need - warmth, decent light for reading, a gramophone and a TV if I wish to view." Bingo!
The book was 10 years old, but it was worth a try. Choosing to eliminate the obvious first, I checked the phone book. There was an S Baxter in that area, with an address. A visit to the local library to see the electoral register confirmed that S stood for Stanley. No mention of his wife, Moira, though.
And then my impulse to pick up the trail again received further encouragement, when, out of the blue, one of the many former associates of Baxter with whom I had placed calls finally decided to ring me back. This was Angus Lennie, once the chef in Crossroads (poor man). He had also appeared alongside Baxter in many Scottish pantomimes, including the comedian's last, and was prepared to talk, up to a point. There had been "no mystery" about the retirement, said Lennie, who talked about the physical demands of changing costumes so often. He said lots of theatrical things about how marvellous it had been to work with Baxter, with whom he still corresponded from time to time. And, yes, the address I had was the correct one. So that was the answer: a "recluse" in the phone book. I wrote to Stanley Baxter at his home, requesting an interview. He never replied.
FOR MANY of the details I subsequently learnt about Stanley Baxter's life, I was grateful to Andy Young, a Scottish freelance writer who gained the comedian's confidence "about 100 years ago" and is one of the few people to have interviewed him at any length. Young was cagey, preferring to ring Baxter before he would talk to me. "He's always quite pernickety about who he'll speak to, which is why I don't want to say too much about him at the moment. But I'll tell you the basic outline..." Baxter was born in Glasgow in 1928, and raised in the genteel suburb of Kelvinside. His father was apparently a solid, reliable type who worked in insurance; it was his mother who encouraged the young Stanley's gift for mimicry, accompanying him on the piano while he did Harry Lauder impressions for friends and relatives. She had thought about becoming an actress herself and was very supportive of her children's aspirations for the stage: Baxter put aside thoughts of teaching to go into the theatre, while his sister went off to work as an actress in Australia, under the name of Alice Dale.
Baxter had already begun broadcasting on the wireless at the age of 14, and continued doing so even after he was called up at 17 to help the war effort by going down the mines. He later recalled trying to use his scripts to hide hands encrusted with coal dust, an early indication of the self- consciousness that was to become as ingrained as the coal.
Invalided out of the mines with an ear problem, Baxter joined the left- wing Unity Theatre in Glasgow. He was the lead in one play before going off to serve with the Royal Army Service Corps in the Far East, where he was recruited for the Combined Services Entertainment unit, a drag- and-greasepaint outfit straight out of It Ain't Half Hot Mum. Other members included Kenneth Williams, with whom Baxter formed a close friendship that was troubled but life-long.
It was "quite a strong thing", said Young. "I'm not sure that Stanley would say it just now, but he had this kind of sexual - what's the expression? You know, the same sort of thing as Kenneth Williams." Shall we say affinity, I asked? "Yes," said Young. "Yes."
Back home again, Baxter joined the Citizen's Theatre in Glasgow, a fine company with aspirations to form a Scottish national theatre. That never happened: once television began to damage theatre audiences, many serious Scottish actors were forced into variety. Baxter appeared alongside Jimmy Logan and Rikki Fulton in extravagantly-produced shows with Ziegfeld-scale sets and dancing girls, but also made his first BBC television appearance in 1951. He moved to London eight years later.
It was a golden period for British film-making, and he appeared in mildly successful black-and-white movies like the Highland comedy Geordie and Very Important Person, in which he starred alongside James Robertson Justice and Leslie Phillips. It was all good, clean, pre-Carry On fun.
Baxter had done Shakespeare, and in 1969 he appeared alongside Sir Ralph Richardson in the original cast of Joe Orton's last play, What The Butler Saw. But by that time he was established as a television comic with his own show, in which he played a series of characters rather than himself. They included women, from Shirley Bassey to, later, the Princess of Wales, each precisely observed. "I'm not a personality," he once said. "I'm a character actor. I like to retreat into playing other people. I'm not entirely sure who I am."
Once stardom had been achieved, he limited his television appearances and won an unusual amount of power over how they were made. He took his time. "He is an absolute control freak," said the critic Mary Brennan. "When he stopped doing TV spectaculars, we were told that everybody had an eye on the clock - because the clock meant money. They weren't interested in doing another take just because Stanley felt there was a whisker of it that wasn't right. Television doesn't work like that: budgets and budgets. Stanley was bringing the values of a different time and place into a world that had changed."
If there was one place where he could still feel at home, it was the world of Scottish pantomime. Scots who never visit a theatre for the rest of the year still find their way to the panto, where the scenarios and jokes have the familiarity of ritual. For years, they have resisted the English trend towards pop and soap stars making fools of themselves in tights, in favour of veteran panto specialists like Baxter.
He directed shows himself, calling extra rehearsals if things were getting even a little sloppy mid-run, and coming down hard on anyone who attempted to ad lib. The spotlight was his. There was nothing like his dames, who entered in outfits sumptuous enough for Danny LaRue, but who could drop into rough Glaswegian patois at a moment's notice.
"Stanley maintains incredible control, but he can also come on like the wee woman on the stairhead talking about the price of mince," said Mary Brennan, who reviews around 20 panto performances a year. "He has a talismanic quality that makes people feel he's very much in touch with their lives, and then suddenly, out he zooshes looking really rather sexy. I've been in audiences where women in their sixties would sit there and say, with absolute envy: 'Ooh, look at them legs.' " Her favourite memory is of one entrance in full rig, with craggy face underneath what looked like a mound of candyfloss. He stood facing the audience for a moment and then said, in a vampish voice: "I call this my hand grenade dress. Pull out the pin, and it's every man for himself."
So: a legend. A loved one. A Scottish national treasure. Surely his peers would wish to pay homage? Fellow Scottish comic legend Rikki Fulton, who has presented his own hugely popular Hogmanay TV show for the last 16 years, said that Baxter retired from playing dames because the energy and athleticism required was exhausting. He was happy to talk about the Scottish approach to pantomime, with its emphasis on storyline and tradition, but declined to talk about Baxter as a person. Fine, I said. Would he like to explain why? "No, you might publish it." There were things he might like to say, but it "wouldn't be in keeping" to do so.
Another professional acquaintance was prepared to talk anonymously, but only about his retirement ("Nureyev kept going until he was censured and taken apart at the seams for coming on stage when he was obviously dying... I don't see Stanley ever leaving himself that vulnerable - he's too self- obsessed a cookie"), not about Baxter the human being.
Who was this man, who inspired so much silence? The lavish, multi-layered dresses worn by classic pantomime dames are built on a bodysuit of gripping Lycra whose fierce constriction can leave the body raw and bruised by the end of each performance. It was becoming obvious that the real Stanley Baxter was as studiously hidden as his Lycra supports.
So he must have felt a shiver when the waspish diaries of his late friend Kenneth Williams were published two years ago. From beyond the grave, Williams talked about him more frankly - and perhaps imaginatively - than any living friend would. One diary entry, for March 1954, described Baxter as "suspicious and ungenerous" and said that being with him was "like sitting on an oven". Their relationship was fraught with difficulty - Williams called it "a very shaky ship" - but it was underpinned by deep affection. In a 1963 entry, Williams described Baxter as "disarming, honest, charming and hilariously funny all at once. When he's like this, one could die for him."
They went on a trip to Amsterdam together in 1964, although Williams - who described their sitting in clubs "with a load of poofs" - returned to Britain early. In December 1965, Baxter's wife Moira suggested that Williams and her husband should go on holiday together in Beirut. "I don't deserve it, I know, but if anyone can help me at this dreadful period, it is him," Williams wrote before leaving home. "Just to be with. Just to talk to - a faithful hand that takes all the chaff and grain together, keeps what's worth keeping, and with a breath of kindness, blows the rest away."
After a meal with Baxter in October 1969, Williams wrote: "At one point when I said to S. 'I sometimes feel I am so useless I just want to die...' He said, 'Oh well, if you did I should just follow you. I don't think I could go on then... I really don't...' I was utterly overwhelmed. I could've hugged him." Other entries in the diary recall Baxter speaking of a "desperate clinging to privacy" and "the rejection of a potentially hostile world".
Baxter had married Moira Robertson, an actress at the Citizen's Theatre, in the early Fifties. At one point during my researches I was intrigued to meet a person in north London who had lived near the Baxters for a while in recent years, and who believed that they now lived apart, but that Stanley visited his wife's new home for lunch most days. But Andy Young, who considers himself a close friend of the couple, insisted that they still lived together.
"I think it was probably fashionable at the time to get married even if there were undercurrents of other things that people didn't realise about," said Mr Young. Baxter was a great talker among his close-knit circle of friends, said Mr Young, but was also wary of outsiders. "He is an intelligent guy, and he likes to know who he's talking to. He'd be a bit suspicious if a tabloid or something like that was trying to turn him over."
A tabloid, of course, would not be interested in the finer nuances of relationships, and one can understand why Baxter might have preferred to keep such matters to himself. Mary Brennan sees nothing surprising about Baxter being so jealous of his privacy. "Anybody who survived the Fifties is very adept at covering their trail," she said. "Whatever changes come into society, they have already learnt discretion. Possibly even liberation is distasteful, because it encourages people to come out and make features of themselves, whereas your social and sexual life should be, as Noel Coward had it, behind closed doors. People who knew you knew the shorthand and the jargon. Those who didn't want to be troubled with it could simply take it at face value. Anybody who has acquired that kind of carapace is not going to come on like John Inman, rushing out of a closet, shouting, 'I'm free!' They have prided themselves on conducting their life with dignity."
WHEN DOES curiosity become intrusion? For a journalist, it can be difficult to tell. We like to think we can find out any- thing about anyone, as a matter of professional pride, and the challenge of doing so can get under your skin. Sometimes that provides the extra spurt of energy or imagination needed to unearth a story. Sometimes it can blur one's sense of right and wrong. With his telephone number and address in my notebook, I could have rung Stanley Baxter or paid him a visit months ago, instead of waiting for an answer to my letter. But it worried me: was it right to "doorstep" a man who had worked so hard all his life to keep the private roped off from the public? After all, he was only a comedian, not a criminal or a crooked politician. He wanted to be left alone, so why not?
Rather than resolve the issue, I let it slip. Then, in early autumn, I heard that Channel 4 was working on a compilation of the best of Baxter's television shows, to be screened this Christmas. I contacted David White, who seemed to think that this might mean that his client would talk to me. He suggested I contact Mentorn Films, who were recording new links for the show. They procrastinated for several weeks, then passed me on to Channel 4's press office. Yes, there would be a show. Could they get me an interview? "Wait and see," was the answer.
There was some communication, through Andy Young, who had been authorised to tell me that Baxter was refusing all work except voice-overs and radio. He had recorded a radio version of Compton Mackenzie's book, Whisky Galore! (this was eventually broadcast on Radio 2 earlier this week). He was working out in a gym and swimming several lengths of the RAC pool every day.
The rest was silence. Calls went unreturned, faxes unanswered. Once again, the gates around Baxter had been locked. Yet my interest had been rekindled, my hopes raised, before being dashed against the same old stonewalling. After 11 months of waiting, I was becoming frustrated. It was time, I decided, to find him myself, face-to-face, in the hope that he might talk.
THE LEAVES on the pavement were being sucked upwards by the cold wind, or turned to mush by rain. It was a dark day. Autumn turning to winter before my eyes, and Stanley Baxter was not at home. Again.
Waiting around outside the entrance to the flats where he lived was making me feel like a burglar casing the joint. What would the neighbours think? That counts for a lot in this part of north London, where there are more antique shops than newsagents. I sloped away to look around some of them, then went for some "Fisherman's Bake" and a pint at the local pub, feeling pretty miserable.
It was a gloomy place, full of old men moving in slow motion and staring into space. One of them might be him, I thought. How would I know what he looked like? If he was only prepared to work on the radio these days, could he be a total wreck? Could he look really old, like the man in the corner with cigarette ash all down his dark suit? Face full of character... but a Yorkshire accent. Not him, then.
The changing weather had given me a cold, so the stout went straight to my head, and the meal was tasteless. Friday afternoon. Getting dark. One more try.
As I approached the flats, a figure bundled up in odd layers of clothing and a heavy overcoat came towards me, and turned towards the gate. This is it, I thought, suddenly breathless. Recluse. Eccentric. It looked right. At close range, under the cap and behind the scarf, he turned out to be an elderly woman. She was only using the gate to rest.
There was no reply from the intercom buzzer. Useless. I turned to walk away. And there he was, coming up the steps to the door. Stanley Baxter. Tanned and fit-looking, straight-backed, with his broad face exactly as it was on the television years ago, eyes that were calm but curious, and slightly sparkling. Smiling at me. Nostrils flaring. Wearing a calf-length tweed coat with a smart scarf folded across the throat. Carrying a plastic shopping bag. Looking up at me, expecting me to speak. And after nearly a year of thinking about this man, after all the work I had done to find him, I had absolutely no idea what to say.
"Er," or something like it. "Hello, Mr Baxter. I was just ringing for you..."
"Oh yes?" Still smiling.
"My name's Cole Moreton, from the Independent on Sunday. I wondered if I could have a word?"
"Well, you, really. I wrote you a letter. I don't know if you got it?"
"Yes I did, and I spoke to you through my agent. I'm not giving any interviews at the moment." An edge in his voice. Still smiling, though. A stage smile.
"Well, I spoke to your television company, and they said you might be doing some soon."
"Well, if I do, perhaps yours will be the one. We'll see what happens. I'll let you know through my agent, OK?"
"Fair enough." He had moved past me to the door, and said good-bye as he shut it. That was that. A nice, professional no. What else did I expect?
But not a complete no: perhaps, he'd said, perhaps yours will be the one. And so, a few weeks later, I did the right journalistic thing and rang Mentorn and Channel 4. There was, it seemed, no prospect of an interview. If I wanted a closer look at him it would have to be on my television on 4 January...
As a last shot I rang David White, who said I had been "very naughty". Stanley was "freaked out" at my turning up at his house. There was to be no further co-operation.
With a certain relief, I realised that I would have to let Stanley Baxter rest in peace. !
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