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PART OF THE The Gift of Reading ISSUE

‘In May 1945, just before his birthday, Betty Low (a keen actor as well as an artist) suggested Stanley audition for the radical Unity Theatre Group, based at Glasgow’s Athenaeum Theatre. To his utter relief he was successful. Here was a chance to prove to his dad he could make a career as a performer.’

Stanley Baxter is an entertainment legend and his newly released autobiography gives a surprising insight into the man who has made us all laugh for decades. In this extract we follow Stanley trying to make his first steps in the world of entertainment as working down the mines and national service get in his way.

 

Extract taken from The Real Stanley Baxter
By Brian Beacom and Stanley Baxter
Published by Luath Press

 

The pit work involved a conveyor belt delivering a constant line of coal mixed up with stones and Stanley and Co. had to remove the stones, break them up with an 18-pound hammer into smaller pieces and then push them through a grille on the ground. However, as the bars on the grille were fixed close together, it made for far more stone breaking. Naturally, Stanley found this situation to be intolerable.

‘By the time I got the bloody stones broken up other stones had gone into the truck with the coal’

Infuriated, Stanley left his post and went back to the canteen to find the foreman.

‘[With Kelvinside silver spoon in mouth.] I simply must speak with you!’

‘[With pipe in mouth.] Oh, aye. Whit dae ye want, son?’

‘Do you realise what’s going on down there?’

‘No, what?’

‘No? Well, I’ll tell you…’ He does, and concludes: ‘And if there’s any more of this nonsense well, we’re going to WALK OUT.’

Stanley’s interpretation of Marx and Engels was unleashed. However, he could have been quoting Groucho Marx for all the foreman cared.

‘Walk out? Walk out? You’re working for His Majesty’s Service here, son. Do you realise you could be shot for what you’re saying to me?’

‘Shot? Shot? Well, em. Shot, you say? Em, well, regardless, something ought to be done. [Softened, conciliatory tone appears.] It’s really not good enough.’

‘Aye, well. We’ll see what can be done about taking away a couple of the bars.’

Threat of dawn execution passed and the young revolutionary at the vanguard of coal mining improvement schemes had his way. (In a few years’ time Stanley’s union work with Equity would see him described in a Glasgow Evening Times headline as ‘RED BAXTER’.)

But before Red could really make his name as a political activist, fate kicked in. When a very bad cold and his old earache flared up, so did Bessie. Her little Bevin Boy, she felt, had to come out of the mines. Bessie insisted Sonny Boy be given a new National Service medical, but it was only after protracted discussion the board reluctantly agreed to free Master Baxter from the chains of coal mining oppression.

‘They looked at me rather aggressively and said, “We’re dropping you down to b1 status. But don’t think you won’t be called up for one of the services!” And I said, “Look, I’m not asking not to be called up at all.”

‘All they said in dismissing me was, “Well, be on your way.” But I didn’t know where my “way” was at all.’

 

*

 

Released in the spring of 1945 from the pit of misery, Stanley had some unexpected time on his scratched and torn hands. And for a while he managed to delude himself that Her Majesty’s Forces may well have forgotten he ever existed. After all, what use could he be to the war effort now that it looked to be over? Dresden had been bombed flat, the Red Army was about to enter Berlin and the British and Canadians were set to liberate Belsen.

But just in case he were called up, Stanley determined to make at least a little hay while Freedom’s sun shone. Time was again spent at the movies, catching a tram out to the Boulevard in Knightswood to see the likes of Judy Garland’s Meet Me in St. Louis.

Stanley smiles as he agrees this particular days’ delights offered a clue to his sexuality. Yet, his sexual predilection wasn’t entirely clear. Lena Horne made him feel light on his feet, but the mere thought of Bill Henry caused the teenager to defy gravity.

Stanley, now almost 19, certainly didn’t think to explore the Glasgow world of teen heterosexuality. He didn’t like bars and the city’s vast array of glittering dancehalls/pick-up palaces such as the Locarno and the Dennistoun Palais – Glasgow now had more than 150 – held no real appeal.

‘I did go dancing with cousin Alma a few times to Green’s Playhouse in the city centre because she didn’t have a boyfriend, and I was there to be dragged around.’

But if Stanley was gay and in love with Bill what could he do about it? Bill wasn’t gay. He much preferred tea but would have the occasional coffee – when it was presented on a tray.

When Stanley wasn’t thinking of Bill Henry he was dreaming of a life in acting. In May 1945, just before his birthday, Betty Low (a keen actor as well as an artist) suggested Stanley audition for the radical Unity Theatre Group, based at Glasgow’s Athenaeum Theatre. To his utter relief he was successful. Here was a chance to prove to his dad he could make a career as a performer.

‘The only problem was this was I found myself in a workers’ theatre milieu, so I thought I’d better play up the mines and play down Hillhead – both school and district. But I didn’t fool anyone with my baggy brown corduroys and turtle-necked navy blue jersey and wise nods to Marx and Engels.

‘I was uncomfortably aware that the real thing, a young actor called Roddy McMillan, (who would become an iconic tv and film star) was controlling his mirth with difficulty.’

Stanley appeared in one play at Unity (he can’t recall the title – ‘I think it was a George Munro play.’) playing an old man and he loved it, but regrets he had to learn to smoke for the role and was hooked for life.

‘But the next part coming up, I figured, would be truly immense for me. The play was called Remembered For Ever and it was the story of a young soldier who was blinded. A real womb trembler. I thought, “There won’t be a dry eye in the house.”’

The female lead went to Josephine Crombie, his school siren.

However, Stanley didn’t get to play alongside his Paper Doll. Days before the opening, a manila envelope plopped onto the landing with the letters ohms on the back. It was the worst of news. Stanley had been called up.

He could of course have followed in the footsteps of Alfie Hill, later to change his name to Benny, who had decided to become a moving target and worked (hid) in the theatres of England for six months (Benny was caught and punished before being sent to a unit).

Then again, he could have become a conscientious objector and refused to enlist, as playwright Harold Pinter did – and was fined £30. But Stanley had never skipped school, far less a civil ruling you could be jailed for. And that would certainly have created scandal amongst Bessie’s mahjong ladies.

In June 1945, a month after VE day, Stanley set off for Pinefields camp in Elgin to join the Seaforth and Camerons. He was sad to leave behind his dad, Alice and erstwhile lover Bill, whom he’d said a brief goodbye to over the phone. Leaving his mother behind however was far less of an ordeal.

‘It was too close,’ he says of the relationship. ‘I badly wanted to get out of the house. I didn’t want to join the army, but one consolation was Bessie wasn’t coming with me.’

Stanley was sad however to leave the BBC behind and a developing career in acting on radio in series such as Kidnapped. But his saddened heart sank even lower than his battered seat covering when he looked out of the train window.

‘As the train made to move off, I saw this shambolic figure of Mrs Connolly rushing along holding the hand of Norman. And I nearly died at this realisation he was coming to Pinefields with me.’

Norman was all too much of a reminder of the outsider Stanley had been before he found his own set. And Stanley had more than enough adjustments to make on his own, what with moving into a wooden hut in the camp with ‘11 other hairy-arsed soldiers’.

‘When I walked in I thought a rat had died. The place stank of sweaty feet.’

There was another personal issue to contend with.

‘I was terrified to find that you had terrible trouble having a wank, down to the bromide they put in the tea. The army said they didn’t ever do such a thing but believe you me I am living proof that they carried out pharmaceutical de-bollocking. The number of nights I sat in that loo working up to a sweat that would pour down my face – with nothing to show for it but a wee feeling – convinced me we had all been tampered with.

‘I hoped that this wouldn’t go on for my entire army career, and fortunately it didn’t.’

But despite the stinking socks and sexual emasculation, being cut from Bessie’s umbilical cord was just what he needed. Stanley began to breathe on his own.

‘I got on awfully well with the corporal in charge of our hut because I started doing impressions of the Regimental Sergeant Major. In fact, he said to a personnel officer, “Take a look at Private Baxter, sir. He has his Higher Leaving Certificate. Could he be officer material?”

‘And this chinless wonder of an officer looked me up and down and with a derisory sneer, produced an Oxford accent and declared, “I don’t think so.”

‘I laughed at the time, thinking, “You are so fucking right!” I never did make officer.’ (Technically, he did – much, much later Stanley would be awarded the awesomely grand title of Brigadier.)

Meantime, he settled in nicely. Learning to march at Pinefields came easy, thanks to Alma’s dancing lessons. Yet poor Norman may have been brilliant academically but couldn’t march, or even fold a blanket.

‘He went AWOL. He ran back to mummy and the House of Usher. And after a few days she brought him back to the camp, by the hand. The commanding officer looked at Norman’s baffies, still held together by string, and his mum holding his hand and clearly felt sorry for the pair of them. He was sent to the Pioneer Corps to do some manual labour and I never heard of him again.’

 

The Real Stanley Baxter by Brian Beacom and Stanley Baxter is published by Luath Press, priced £20.00.

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