Nostalgia is a cheap way of filling the schedules. You know the type of show: archive clips from down the decades, accompanied by talking heads telling you how funny or terrible it all was, all costing approximately 1/1,000th of a costume drama. Occasionally, though, it throws up a gem.
Such was the case with Stanley Baxter’s Best Bits... and More (Sunday, Channel 5). Crucially, it starred the man himself, twinkling away at the age of 93. “I’m Stanley Baxter and, after all this time, this really is me!” he said by way of introduction.
The programme was a reminder of his myriad talents: as an actor, a comedian, a mimic and a dancer. Audiences of 22 million would tune in to his shows, featuring pastiches of the musicals he had loved from boyhood and spoofs of Hollywood classics such as Gone with the Wind (Rhett Butler: “I’m going to tear off that fancy dress and smother you with custard, sponge and sherry.” Scarlett O’Hara: “No, I won’t be trifled with.”) His impersonation of the Queen pushed the boundaries of the time: “Stanley got letters from brigadiers in Surrey threatening to have him horsewhipped,” said his biographer.
The BBC axed Baxter not once but twice, complaining that the shows were too expensive. Also, of course, variety performers were considered dreadfully old-fashioned by the Eighties. But the jokes are still funny – “I’m looking for a man, about 40, well-built, medium height, wearing a grey trilby, perhaps Merchant Navy.” “For murder?” “No, for companionship” – and the over-the-top dance routines were glorious.
“He is one of the greatest showmen I’ve ever seen,” said the actress Penelope Wilton, one of several talking heads (along with Miriam Margolyes, Geoffrey Palmer and Barry Cryer) who had worked with him and thought him a genius. The nicest thing about the programme was Baxter’s joy at making it. “Doesn’t time pass quickly when people are saying nice things about you?” he chuckled.