Stanley Baxter is one of the most successful entertainers of his generation and for many years had his own Bafta-winning TV series.
He was married for 46 years, but beneath his cheerful exterior lies a man tortured by the fact he is gay.
In this remarkable new authorised biography, which Stanley originally refused to have published before his death — for fear of being judged — journalist Brian Beacom reveals the secrecy and sadness that have haunted the entertainer all his life.
Stanley Baxter (pictured) was married for 46 years, but he reveals in his new autobiography beneath his cheerful exterior lies a man tortured by the fact he is gay
The most outrageously funny man on British television 50 years ago was Stanley Baxter. His sketch shows were months in the making and the talk of the nation — spectacular, controversial, unlike anything ever seen.
Baxter staged full-scale MGM musicals and played every role. He could sing, dance, deliver broad panto comedy and perform pinsharp impressions of any star, male or female.
His act was so daring that he was probably the first TV comedian to impersonate the Queen. With silk gloves up to his armpits and a tiara, he announced himself as the Duchess of Brendagh and delivered a Christmas message that talked of the Queen Mum as a priceless antique.
Millions were scandalised — and breathless with laughter. In a television era rich with comic talent, from Morecambe and Wise to Tommy Cooper, Dick Emery to Mike Yarwood, everyone agreed Stanley Baxter was king.
What none but his closest friends realised was that Baxter was desperately unhappy, his personal life a battlefield. He lived in dread of being exposed in the press as a gay man.
His wife Moira, from whom he was separated, was tormented by mental illness and had attempted suicide by cutting her wrists in the bath. Baxter himself often spoke of wanting to die.
Today aged 94, he lives as he has for 25 years — a virtual recluse at his flat in Highgate Village, North London. For decades he has hated to venture out: ‘I didn’t want to be seen as someone who was once Stanley Baxter,’ he says.
The showbiz world is rife with tales of heartbreak, loneliness, wasted talent and regrets. Of all those stories, it is hard to imagine anything more sad than this one.
He first asked me to write his biography more than 20 years ago, but was emphatic that he did not want it to appear while he was alive. Baxter would tell the whole truth, on condition that it remained a secret. Even though Moira was dead from an overdose by this time, he was sickened at the thought that his sexuality might become common knowledge.
When his friend Kenneth Williams’s diaries were published posthumously in the early Nineties, he fought a legal battle to ensure nothing about his sex life was printed. By 1999, he was fearful that an unauthorised biography might be commissioned against his wishes. To pre-empt that, he agreed to let me tell his story . . . but not to publish it. ‘I’m too afraid of what people will think of me,’ he said. ‘I got into this business to be loved. I don’t wish that to stop.’
Stanley and Moira (left and right) on their honeymoon in London in 1952. They were married for 46 years
This year, he changed his mind. He’s willing to let the world decide for itself. But it would be wrong to imagine he has found peace. ‘There are many gay people these days who are fairly comfortable with their sexuality,’ he says. ‘I’m not. I never wanted to be gay. I still don’t. Anyone would be insane to choose to live such a very difficult life.’ He adds, his voice dark: ‘The truth is, I don’t really want to be me.’
Stanley Baxter was a star on the Glasgow talent circuit aged six, in 1932. Dressed in a sailor suit, his hair tonged in waves, he did impersonations of Laurel and Hardy, and Mae West.
As his mother Bessie, a blacksmith’s daughter, accompanied him on the piano, the boy belted out saucy music hall numbers with titles such as I’m One Of The Lads Of Valencia: ‘You can’t beat a Spaniard for kissing, Oh ladies, just think what you’re missing!’ He loved the applause — ‘a hundred people shouting ‘Bravo’ and I’m beating the adults to the prizes’. But more than that, he feared his fiercely ambitious mother. ‘She probably felt if she praised me I’d try less hard. I began to be scared someone else would do better than me on stage, and my mother would clatter me.’
Since he was a toddler, Bessie had taken him to vaudeville shows. She called him her Sonny Boy and, as his precocious talent emerged, had him perform at every family gathering.
As he grew up, she was intensely jealous and would shoo away any girls who admired him: ‘She started telling me about these two boys who once took a wee girl into a haunted house up the road and did terrible things to her. And they were birched! Beaten with sticks.’
His family remained in Glasgow during the Blitz at first, a teenage Stanley and his mother sheltering under a dining table during the bombing. Later, they decamped to an island outside the city.
In 1944, his call-up papers arrived. Too short-sighted for active Army service, he was afraid of being assigned to the merchant navy and the Atlantic convoys, but instead he was ordered to report to the coal pits, as a ‘Bevin Boy’ — one of the conscripted mine workers.
By then, he had fallen in love for the first time. He says now that he’d known for years that he found men more attractive than women, because at the Saturday morning cinema club he could not take his eyes off the half-naked Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan, rather than Maureen O’Sullivan’s Jane.
But he did not understand what he was feeling till he met Bill Henry, a schoolmate with blond hair and a taste for intellectual books. Bill had girlfriends, but he spent almost all his spare time at the Baxter house, sitting in Stanley’s bedroom and talking till the small hours about art and philosophy, ‘until we fell asleep, exhausted’.
Stanley Baxter as the Pantomime Dame in “Jack and the Beanstalk” at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow. January 1977: Talented Stanley could sing, dance, deliver broad panto comedy and perform pinsharp impressions of any star, male or female
‘I was in love with Bill,’ Stanley says, ‘but he certainly wasn’t in love with me. He probably knew the way I felt about him. Although we’d spend lots of time in each other’s beds, nothing happened.’
Until, inevitably, it did. ‘It was like a 3,000 volt electric current going through me. In that moment, I thought the world had changed. Afterwards, I gasped, ‘Have you done this before?’ And he said dismissively, ‘Oh yes, I’ve had all my friends’.’
For Bill this was just sexual experimentation, and he would later reject a sexual relationship with Stanley, preferring women. He died aged just 26 and Stanley was heartbroken.
After the war in Europe was over, in June 1945, a 19-year-old Baxter was told to report to the Seaforth Highlanders regiment. He was sent to India, and then further East to Burma, where he was promoted to corporal and assigned duties as a typist (Class 3). There, he saw a notice appealing for performers to join the Combined Services Entertainment unit [CSE]. ‘If you can sing, dance, play a musical instrument or whatever,’ the announcement read, ‘please apply’.
Auditions were in Singapore and, after arriving there in December 1946 by flying boat, he was taken under the wing of a stooped, grey-haired man with a dusty moustache and a strident, nasal voice.
It was the future Carry On star Kenneth Williams, also barely out of his teens but playing an old man in a CSE production. He took an immediate shine to Baxter.
‘He just liked the look of me, I guess,’ Baxter says, ‘which wasn’t always the way with Kenny and people. We became close, without it ever being more than friendship.’
It was in CSE that Baxter met openly gay men for the first time. Instead of gaining the confidence to join them, he shied away, repelled by the high camp — ‘all chiffon hankies and make-up and flouncing about. I thought, I really hate this. I don’t want to be involved in this kind of world’.
Baxter resolved to repress his sexuality when he returned to Glasgow two years later — to live, as he put it, ‘as a straight actor’.
He joined the Citizen’s Theatre Company in the Gorbals, an idealistic group performing Ibsen and Shaw to working-class audiences. And he met Moira Robertson, a 22-year-old who had worked her way up from the wardrobe department to the stage.
Chic, with hooded eyes, Moira could have been Bette Davis’s younger sister. ‘I liked her,’ Baxter says. ‘I admired how fashionable she looked. She was far more bohemian than me.’ They became lovers. ‘It was partly a feeling of, ‘I’ll show them,’ he admits. ‘I could be as heterosexual as the rest of them.’
She was in love with him — and Baxter believed he was falling in love with her. He told Kenneth Williams as much. ‘Silly boy,’ the actor noted pithily in his diary.
On December 23, 1950, Williams made another note in his diary: ‘Stanley wrote to say he is going to marry Moira.’
Beset with doubts, he confessed to Moira that all his previous affairs had been with men. Her reaction was dramatic. Rushing to the window of their second storey flat, she climbed out onto the ledge and shouted, ‘If I can’t have you then I won’t settle for anyone else.’
To pacify her, Baxter promised they would marry, if she would consent to wait a year. ‘It was real weakness on my part,’ he says now. ‘She guessed wrongly what being with a gay man entailed.’
What it did entail was years of loneliness, beginning on their honeymoon night. Overwhelmed by the knowledge that he was making a mistake that would ruin both their lives, Baxter sat on the wedding bed and sobbed.
He soon gave up any pretence of being faithful, or heterosexual. ‘I couldn’t put up with very long periods of not being with men,’ he says frankly. ‘Thankfully Moira was very understanding. If there were someone I were interested in, I could bring them home. And she was very good about letting them go to bed with me. She would go off to our bedroom and let me take the one opposite.’
They moved to London and Moira gave up the theatre, to be a housewife. Her husband’s career blossomed, with a series of cinema roles that led to star billing in films such as The Fast Lady.
But fame made his clandestine life even more risky. In January 1962, he visited the public toilets in Madras Place, Holloway, hoping to pick up a man for casual sex. Instead, he was arrested.
The decriminalisation of gay sex between consenting adults was still five years away. Baxter was charged with soliciting for sex. ‘I was going to top myself,’ he says. ‘I thought, ‘My career will never survive this. And if I don’t have a career, what do I have?’ ‘ Friends suddenly shunned him, fearful of guilt by association.
His agent advised him to engage the celebrity barrister David Jacobs, who had recently won a libel case for Liberace when a newspaper implied the flamboyant entertainer was gay. Jacobs convinced the court that Baxter could not have been ‘soliciting’ when he was arrested because, apart from two policemen, there was no one else in the lavatories.
The charges were dropped, on condition that Baxter promised not to sue the police for wrongful arrest.
But even today he finds it difficult to discuss the case, referring to it as ‘le scandale’. He was left with a terror of being held up to public shame.
At the same time, Moira’s mental health deteriorated. She was desperate for a baby, something Baxter refused to contemplate. ‘I didn’t want to bring any child into the world who suffered what I suffered. A wee’un would surely have grown up with problems and taken drugs.’
He left for a theatre tour of Australia in a Brian Rix farce, leaving his wife behind. ‘Anybody else would have gotten rid of me but she was devoted. Fixated,’ he says.
Stanley Baxter as panto dame May 1985: Baxter was desperately unhappy, his personal life a battlefield as he constantly lived in dread of being exposed in the press as a gay man
When he returned, he decided to seek medical treatment for his sexual urges. Therapy proved useless: his psychiatrist, learning that he was married, advised him simply to return to his wife.
Instead, Baxter told Moira he could no longer live with her. In 1970, with The Stanley Baxter Show a huge BBC hit, he moved out of their house and took the apartment in Highgate Village that would be his refuge for the rest of his life. He relished the opportunity to live in pristine order, with a housekeeper to keep the place spotless.
He met Moira daily for lunch. She talked of killing herself, but he was shocked when a friend called round to find the front door wide open — and Moira in the bath, the water crimson with blood. She recovered in hospital and wrote to her husband, insisting, ‘I’ll never do something so foolish again.’ But there was no chance of a reconciliation.
After switching to ITV with the promise of a colossal budget for The Stanley Baxter Picture Show, he met a 28-year-old German accountant named Marcus. Baxter was 46, and thought their two-day fling would be no more than a brief encounter.
‘Marcus took me completely by surprise. Something was happening between us but I didn’t wish to acknowledge the fact. He kept phoning all the time, telling me there was something special between us. I didn’t want to know, but gradually I was falling in love.’
Moira’s behaviour became more alarming. She visited the LWT studios while her husband’s show was recording, and danced in the lobby when she was not allowed onto the stage. She danced too in the gardens in Highgate Village, naked.
‘She told me she was hearing voices,’ Baxter says. ‘She would think the television was talking to her.’ A psychiatrist diagnosed schizophrenia, but she refused to take medication.
There were few people he could tell of his worries. Certainly not Kenneth Williams: ‘I remember sitting with him in an Italian restaurant, and telling him that I was very low. I explained a great part of the problem was Moira. I told him of how she was slipping into little overdoses, and I would be going round to see her and reviving her. ‘And suddenly Kenny cut in, ‘Yes! Yes! You’re not much fun any more. A bit boring! Very boring!’ ‘
Marcus was a constant support. But Baxter’s anxieties were channelled into his work, and his perfectionist instincts became overwhelming. Stanley Baxter specials became vanishingly rare: one at Christmas 1976, the next at Easter 1979. Exasperated, his ITV television bosses told him they could no longer afford his extravaganzas.
He returned to the BBC but, after a one-off in 1986 in which he played 37 roles (including Mae West, whom he first impersonated aged six), that contract also ended. He went on to star in a children’s series called Mr Majeika, about a schoolteacher who is actually a wizard.
But rejection and the stress of his double life had chewed away his confidence. Baxter began to turn work down — not playing Captain Hook in a production of Peter Pan opposite Lulu, not appearing with Cannon and Ball at the Palladium. ‘I turned down too many parts . . . almost as often as a chambermaid turns down bed sheets.’
A dreadful fantasy played in his head, that he would suffer a heart attack backstage during panto season and be found dead on the floor of the dressing room.
Instead, he withdrew from the showbiz world. His relationship with Marcus deepened and continued until the younger man died of lung cancer four years ago, though the two never lived together.
He saw Moira frequently, but the fractured marriage was always difficult. In 1997, he decided to spend a month at the villa they owned in Cyprus. She wanted to come, too. Feeling she was too ill to travel, Baxter told her she must stay in London. He took her passport, to prevent her from trying to follow him.
‘It was then she physically attacked me. She punched me and my glasses flew off. It was the one and only time she had ever reacted in this way. But immediately afterwards she was so sorry.’
Later that week, Marcus visited her — they got on well — and found her nursing a dying pigeon by the fire. It had been run over in the street. ‘One wounded bird helping to look after another,’ Stanley said.
When he called her from the airport, on his return to the UK several weeks later, she didn’t answer. Anxious, he took a taxi to the house. The front door was open. Moira was dead on her bed from an overdose. She was 69 years old.
He had always felt guilty for marrying her. He felt guilty for the many affairs and the new partners. He felt guilty when he moved out, unable to share a home with her any longer.
And now he felt incredibly guilty because at the very end, he wasn’t there — to do what? Say sorry? Say goodbye? Or just give her the only thing she had ever asked for — to be with him.
- The Real Stanley Baxter by Brian Beacom is published by Luath Press Ltd, £20. © Brian Beacom 2020. To order a copy for £17.60 go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £15. Offer price valid until 06/11/2020.