The forgotten man of comedy?

Stanley Baxter

Stanley Baxter is the neglected icon of British comedy, say the makers of a new tribute programme.

As he turns 75, BBC1 is to pay its dues in a 50-minute special This Is Stanley Baxter, on July 12.

And the corporation's own press release describes him as "a ghostly presence on the fringes of memory".

To a large extent it is his own fault. The man who had commanded TV audiences of millions with lavishly funded extravaganzas, retired from our screens in his early 60s. It could have been a prime time in his career.

Others continued to roll out for special appearances gaining cult credibility or camp notoriety. Stanley didn't. The man who once ranked at the pinnacle of light entertainment with the likes of Morecambe and Wise, Dick Emery and Les Dawson effectively hit the off switch on his telly career. He had wanted to retire from the gruelling schedule his shows and pantomime runs imposed particularly as he had come to rely on prescription drugs to get him through and help him sleep.

There is no regret in his voice as he says: "I felt I was quite a big star in Scotland, and a reasonably big star south of the border but this is it, this is the time to get off that particular carousel."

Why didn't he continue to appear on the chat show circuit, which was part and parcel of those times and a performing lifeline for so many of his contemporaries?

"I hate being on camera. I hate talking as myself and whenever I see it back, either on sound or vision or both, I absolutely loathe it. I don't mind myself when I am in character but I just hate the sound of my own voice and the look of me too."

Stanley chose to break his silence with his most extensive television interview ever to BBC Scotland, to mark his 7Sth birthday.

It was with BBC Scotland that Stanley forged the early part of his career and Scotland is still very much in his heart - even though he has lived in London for almost 50 years.

The programme takes him on a nostalgic tour of Glasgow, from his old family home to the cinema where he learned to dream of performing, and to the stages where he wowed what many have acknowledged as the toughest audiences in the UK.

The programme also says that Baxter's career was a pivotal part of the development of British comedy.

His early career included the first split-screen line-up of impersonations, with Baxter appearing simultaneously as four people; a televisual trick which was to become the hallmark of his amazing sketch productions taking off everything from Gone With The Wind to Upstairs, Downstairs.

His famous lavish productions in drag included the first television impersonation of the Queen, which could quite feasibly have been regarded as a treasonable offence, and his material was risque for the time, inciting the wrath of Mary Whitehouse.

Yet he did it all within the mainstream of British television, and his comedy successors have enjoyed the licence he created.

It isn't perhaps a heritage he always necessarily enjoys for his own entertainment, but Britain has become a more liberal society for his efforts - at least in terms of comedy.

"When I see what people get away with nowadays, I realise those were really very innocent days indeed!" he says

First published:July 2001

Published: 22 Mar 2009

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