THE SECRET LIFE OF
At the height of his fame Stanley Baxter was a household name, one of television’s most popular entertainers with an audience of 20 million, a brilliant comic and a matchless impersonator. Yet, he was almost entirely elusive.
Stanley granted few interviews, and those he did agree to he controlled; he offered only enough information to allow feature writers to fill a page. Stanley steered clear of his personal life, always refusing to colour in the lines, always offering thin outlines of his life growing up in Glasgow, and his film and television career in London.
However, back in 2000, Brian Beacom, a journalist with Scottish national broadsheet the Herald, was offered the chance to write Stanley’s biography – with all his secrets laid bare.
The writer was regarded as the only person Stanley would trust to tell his story. Now, this incredible story can be told.
Stanley baxter's story
As well as being a theatre actor and panto star, Stanley had a film career that could have taken him to Hollywood. In truth, Stanley Baxter was excellent at being somebody else, and now, this long-awaited biography reveals the Scot was a disaster at being himself.
Why? Over the decades, writers and journalists have tried to find the truth behind the many faces of the man Billy Connolly and Robbie Coltrane describe as ‘a genius’. Now, the reality, with all its laughs, glamour and heartache, will be revealed - a life with incredible highs and lows. The story traces the beginning of Stanley’s performance career, when his Gypsy-like mother pushed her seven year-old into competing in church hall talent contests, dressed as Mae West or a saucy sailor. It reveals how he loved the thunderous applause - yet was allowed to enjoy it only for moments because the rapacious Bessie Baxter would always demand he had to do better.
The Secret Life of Stanley Baxter reveals an incredibly anxious child who sought escapism in the cinema, in particular the camp and lavish movies of Hollywood’s heyday, the style and tone of which he would replicate in so much of his later work.
The teenage Stanley, we learn, had the resolve - and talent - to become a national radio star with the BBC. Yet, anxiety and identity confusion, coupled with an immense desire to produce great comedy, were to define the entertainer. And ensure the road to fame would be rocky and rough.
Stanley Baxter’s personal story is not without angst either. It tells the tragi-comic tales of fumbles with the family maid. It reveals the excitement – and devastation – of his first love affair. And the book explores the trauma of being badly cast as a Bevan Boy during wartime.
National Service however was to produce the happiest days of the performer’s life. The book reveals how Stanley wallowed in the colour and excitement of the wild and hedonistic Concert Party corps in the Far East, where he teamed up – and dressed up - with new friends such as Kenneth Williams and John Schlesinger.
But arrival back in the UK brought with it the great depression. The actor talks expansively about struggling to re-adjust to civilian life and the uphill struggle to find acting work.After several false starts, Stanley became a straight actor with the illustrious Citizen’s Theatre in Glasgow, but no sooner was his career flying than he found himself married to a young actress – a decision he would regret for the rest of his life.
Yet The Secret Life of Stanley Baxter is also a record of triumphs and delicious moments. It reveals in compelling detail his meeting with Joe Orton, his meteoric rise to fame on national television, alongside the likes of Ronnie Barker and Amanda Barrie.
And the story continues with his film successes, in which he co-starred with Julie Christie, James Robertson Justice and Leslie Phillips.
Sadly, it was during his film successes personal disaster leapt out from the wings, a period which saw the actor contemplate ending his life. After taking refuge abroad, Stanley recovered enough to go on to become a major television star, to make the series’ and specials which, as Billy Connnolly reminds, ‘would clear the streets’.
But Stanley’s need to be in total control, where every sketch and subversive gag had to be crafted and laboured over, came with a price. Meanwhile, his marriage also came with a hidden cost. Wife Moira’s fragile emotional and mental state took her to the darkest place imaginable, and her husband with her. Yet, Stanley’s willingness to confront the tragic moments in his life should not suggest this is ultimately a sad tale.
Even when he speaks of his most troubled times, paradoxically, his voice in this book is seldom less than funny. The Secret Life of Stanley Baxter is also a collection of great stories. He talks of comforting Eartha Kitt in his Glasgow tenement living room, why he turned down Lulu, why he and Ronnie Barker didn’t become closer and why he hated John Birt, Fenella Fielding and Ron Moody. And he explains why Scotland’s own comic legend, Rikki Fulton, became his nemesis.
This virtual autobiography also reveals that Elton was awkward, Porridge star Fulton Mackay pulled a fast one and how Ronnie Corbett totally surprised him. And he offers up an array of tales highlighting the bizarre extremes of his life-long love/sometimes hate relationship with Kenneth Williams. But The Secret Life of Being Stanley Baxter also pulls back to reveal a bigger picture.
Stanley’s story is the story of the theatre in the 20th century, the demise of Variety and the arrival of television. It’s the story of how societal attitudes have shifted. And it’s the story of how talent creates longevity.
Jonathan Ross once said: “I don’t know anyone that doesn’t think Stanley Baxter is a genius.” The likes of Billy Connolly, Robbie Coltrane and Sir Roger Moore concur.
Woody Allen once produced a funny line: "My one regret in life is that I'm not someone else.” That line, sadly, is entirely apposite to Stanley, a man who was great at being other people. But never himself. And this book reveals why.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brian Beacom is a multi-award winning Arts writer with the Herald in Scotland, and is regarded as the major authority on Stanley Baxter.
“I grew up watching Stanley on television at a time when his shows would clear the streets,” he recalls. “I was a huge fan of the performer. I later interviewed him as a journalist and gained an impression. But more importantly, I gained his trust. “Then, over a period of 18 years, he revealed the detail of his life and his incredible journey. And it makes for a remarkable tale.”
Brian Beacom’s most recent biography The Real Mrs Brown – Brendan O’Carroll, was a Sunday Times triple best seller. The writer is currently working on a biographical play on Stanley’s life.
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