F EATURE LISTHWM
In the pantheon ofpanto greats Stanley Baxter easily rates as one of the best dames in the business. This Christmas he brings years of experience to bear on a lavish staging of Aladdin at the King's in which he plays Widow Twanky. He promises that it will be a traditional production. ‘I have no interest in New Wave pantos.‘ he asserts. ‘So you won‘t see any spaceships or pop stars or Aladdin going to the Moon. Panto is all about magic; visual effects. staircases. glitter. clothes. The audience should leave the theatre stunned and tired but very happy: it‘s pure escapism like a 1940s Hollywood musical. God knows we
; all need something like that today.‘
Baxter made his professional stage debut in Tyrone Guthrie‘s production of the 'l‘hrie Estaites at the 1948 Edinburgh Festival and subsequently absorbed the pantomime traditions during his years at the Citizens‘ Theatre. He
suggests that its enduring appeal is based on a sense ofsurrealism. ‘lt‘s
: so preposterous I love it. Take
; Aladdin. for instance. he‘s supposed F to be a Chinese boy yet he‘s played
by a blondc girl with beautiful legs speaking in standard English. His
.; mother is played by me speaking in ; broad Glaswegian and it all takes j place in Edinburgh!‘
Scotland now holds an unassailable record ofproducing the most spectacular and best loved pantos in the country. When theatrical impresarios Howard and Wyndham made the decision to pull out of the business it was Baxter and Bruce McClure who persuaded local government in Edinburgh to dip a tentative toe into the allegedly murky waters oftheatrical financing. Now there is a tri-partite agreement between Edinburgh. Glasgow and
Sunderland that allows high Scottish standards to be maintained. ‘lt‘s one
ofthe things I‘m rather proud ofin
2 my life.‘ Baxter says modestly. ‘lfit
3 hadn‘t happened panto might not be i here anymore because it is a very.
very expensive thing to do. Ifthe
recreation side of local government spends ratepayers‘ money on parks or leisure facilities they can‘t really expect a return on it. whilst with panto there is the possibility of at least breaking even with a few pennies over. Ifthe Scots people saw some of the pantos down south
: they‘d be shocked because there are § so few good ones. It‘s usually
l shunted on for four weeks with
electric guitars plugged into the
middle of forests and people with holes in their tights. Even the Palladium show consists offamous TV stars brought on in bunches of five to do their act.‘
Panto is usually seen as a child‘s treat for the festive season and often their first experience of live theatre. In Scotland perhaps there is a broader audience beyond the family one. whose attendance is motivated by the guarantee of a good time and the personal magnetism offavourites like Baxter. Jimmy Logan and Rikki Fulton. Baxter is acutely aware of the various demands placed on the show by the age range ofthe audience. ‘Panto was never meant
Custodian ofa tradition, Stanley Baxter tells The List why, as Widow Twankey he is both chased and unchaste and how, as himself, he was wooed back to the BBC.
purely for children. there has to be a balance. You are walking a fine line because you can never lose sight of the children and you must never give offence. Topical jokes about Scargill or local issues are probably fair game and there is an essential bawdiness to panto. What‘s a panto dame without knicker jokes'.’ I enjoy a Wednesday matinee as well because you get a lovely old audience. They don‘t have the puff for the music sheet or shouting back at you but they squeak and cackle and cough. People come
from the Borders and Fife and make a day of it: do their wee bit of shopping at Jenners. catch the panto and get home before it‘s too dark. We have a great time.‘
Throughout his career Baxter has displayed a commendable sense of his responsibility to an audience and has always been determined to offer value for money. This explains why he is so sparing with his television appearances and ensures that his Christmas special for the BBC is warmly anticipated. The show marks
his return to the BBC after many
years with London Weekend Television and begins a ‘loose I arrangement‘ between the star and the corporation that should bear fruit over the next two to three years.
LWT lacked the finance and committment to quality to retain their award-winning catch in the style for which he had become justly celebrated. ‘My shows cost a hell of a lot to make and LWT were looking for cheap and cheerful things which means game shows and sit-coms and that‘s just not me.‘
It‘s Michael Grade who has been wisely spending licence fee money on Baxter although the latter approached the show with some trepidation as opposed to the
; eagerness one might have
anticipated. ‘A BBC producer asked me ifl was raring to go. I was determined to put my shoulder to the
‘ grindstone and work hard.
determined to pull some goodies out of the hat but raring to go [definitely was not. lam always terrified I can never think ofanything to do and l have cancelled shows because the ideas just haven‘t come. Fortunately they did come but they took their time. It‘s an awful process that has the bowels in uproar.‘
Baxter is wary of the all-consuming power ofthe cathode ray. its ability to consume performers and fit a person into a certain mould and perhaps regrets that his television popularity has curtailed both opportunities and the recognition of his versatile talents as a serious actor. Comedy. in particular. he feels is a very subjective and hence very difficult enterprise. ‘I remember somebody saying that they would never watch Arthur Askey on television because they hated him; it wasn‘t just dislike but active loathing. You never know what emotions you are provoking in people. Arthur Askey always seemed a jolly. inoffensive person to me yet you never know people‘s hangups. Comedy is a very personal affair and reaches such profound depths in the psyche.‘
His understanding with the BBC may result in three or four half-hour shows next year depending on his satisfaction with the material. One senses that he can be very exacting about what he chooses to appear in and quality counts above all. He has certainly rejected numerous film offers on the basis of their inadequacy. A final example of his concern for the audience is shown in a remark about his Christmas TV special. ‘The Beeb are wonderfully pleased by the result.‘ he says. ‘and I‘m quite pleased with it myself but. ofcourse. that really doesn‘t count because it‘s what the public thinks that matters.‘ Any anxiety he may harbour will no doubt be allayed overthe coming weeks with the waves of laughter and pleasure that threaten to engulf him throughout Yuletide.
Aladdin continues at the King‘s Theatre, Edinburgh until 22 February.
Stanley Baxter‘s Suburban Shocker is published by Waterfront Communications at £2.95.
The List 13 Dec—9Jan5