Although the BBC had the jewels in the light entertainment Christmas crown during the majority of the 1970’s – The Two Ronnies, Mike Yarwood and Morecambe & Wise – ITV weren’t totally bereft, as they had the considerable talents of Stanley Baxter.
Baxter had established himself on the BBC with a number of series between 1963 and 1971, but then jumped ship to LWT in 1972 where he remained for the next decade. His programmes were quite expensive – big production numbers and his penchant for playing multiple characters were two of the reasons why. And it was partially cost that saw him fade away from television (as executives decided they could no longer afford him). But the change of the comedy landscape in the 1980’s, which had seen casualties like Benny Hill, could also have had something to do with it.
When pondering whether Baxter could have continued into the mid to late 1980’s, you have to say that Stanley Baxter’s Picture Box, broadcast on the 26th of December 1976, was of its time. Stereotypes are certainly in evidence, such as the Jewish BBC newsreader. “Here is the news at nine, but for you – eight forty five.” He also blacks up towards the end in a sequence you could never imagine receiving an airing today.
An early highlight is the Philip Marlowe sketch which sees him approached by Cinderella. Baxter plays all the characters – Marlowe, Cinderella, Prince Charming and the Ugly Sisters. It’s notable that split-screen photography wasn’t used – instead we either focus on one person or if another’s in shot then they’re only seen from behind (played by a double). One of the drawbacks with Baxter playing everybody is that he never had anyone else to react against, so he’s reliant on the editing. But it’s pretty good here and although there’s some painfully obvious lines, there’s some good ones too. “People from my past flashed before my eyes. Until they got booked for indecent exposure.”
There’s a fair amount of focus on the BBC. Apart from the newsreader we also see The Bruce Fosdyke Show (“tonight at 11:45 if you’ve absolutely nothing else to do”). The Fosdyke sequence doesn’t outstay its welcome and contains several decent brief gags (such as Baxter dressed as Nana Mouskouri and Sharri Lewis and Lambchop as they’ve never been seen before).
An appeal on behalf of the inhibited from Faith Douche provides a good opportunity to exhume some old favourites. “I was strongly against sex on television, because whenever I tried it I kept sliding off the top of the set”. Elsewhere, Baxter’s amusing as Noel Coward and also impresses as Jacques Cousteau who’s decided to explore the murky depths of Margate.
Girl on the Cover tells the story of the obese Lois Latnick who’s turned into a cover beauty for the magazine Harpie’s Bizarre. Lois’s fatsuit is rather crude compared to what could be achieved decades later, but the heart of the sequence is when she’s transformed into a beauty (or at least as beautiful as Baxter as could ever hope to be!) and we launch into a series of musical numbers which close the show.
Written by Ken Hoare with additional material from Baxter, Barry Cryer, Iain McIntyre and Neil Shand, Stanley Baxter’s Christmas Box is good, bawdy fun.