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Classic TV Revisited: The Stanley Baxter Show

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The Stanley Baxter Show was a lavish sketch show running from 1963 to 1985 in which Scottish comic Stanley specialised in impersonating famous women including the Queen, aka the Duchess of Brenda.

Why was it so good?
Stanley had a perfect pair of pins and made a disturbingly attractive woman. His gags were also waspish and surprisingly risque for the time. Naturally, they incurred the anger of Mary Whitehouse.

How did it begin?
Glaswegian Stanley cut his teeth at the city’s Citizen Theatre and made his TV debut in 1951. In 1959, he fronted the series On The Bright Side with dancers including Una Stubbs and Amanda Barrie. Film, TV and stage offers flooded in and he got his own show on BBC1, plus a spin-off Baxter On… subjects as diverse as travel, law and the theatre. But he became even more famous when he switched to ITV in 1972.

How good was it?
Stanley was spoken of in the same breath as Morecambe and Wise, Dick Emery and Les Dawson in the ’70s and early ’80s. The Stanley Baxter Show metamorphosed into The Stanley Baxter Picture Show at ITV. His 1976 Stanley Baxter’s Christmas Box is on five on Boxing Day. His jokes could be hilariously cruel and he wasn’t afraid of controversy – he was the first to mimic the Queen on TV and he impersonated the Pope.

What were his shows like?
Lavish. At ITV they cost half a million to make because of the flash sets and the outfits. There were comic remakes of Gone With The Wind and Busby Berkeley musicals. He had 40 costume changes in one show. Stars mocked included Liza Minnelli, who became Liza Mimammi; Malcolm Muggeridge was Malcolm Gibberidge and Joan Bakewell was transformed into Joan Bakelite. There were also uncanny spoofs of Upstairs Downstairs.

What went wrong?
In two words, John Birt. He axed Stanley first when he was at LWT on the grounds of cost, and did the same when he became director-general of the BBC in the 1980s.

What happened to Stanley?
Initially, his shows were often repeated while he made a good living as a dame in panto in his native Scotland. At his height, his TV shows were seen by up to 20m people. He is now retired and lives in North London.

Could it be revived?
It is unlikely as the shows would cost the earth, even though Stanley is still going strong at the age of 90.

Distinguishing features
Probably the best pair of men’s legs ever seen on TV.

Do say
“Stanley’s comedy came from a golden age of TV which we will never see the like of again.”

Don’t say
“Never heard of him, I’m only 25 you know.”

Not to be confused with…
Jim Baxter; Biddy Baxter; Baxter’s Soup; Stanley knives; Stanley Matthews; Stan The Man.

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Features

Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess

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Xena Warrior Princess

What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.

Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.

Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.

Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.

Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?

Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.

Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Character: Xena

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Features

Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife

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McMillan And Wife

Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.

Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.

And wifey?
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.

Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.

Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.

Tragedy?
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.

What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.

Other characters
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.

Famous guest stars?
Kim Basinger

The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.

Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.

Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.

Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.

The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.

A winner?
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.

Distinguishing features?
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.

Do say
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.

Don’t say
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.

Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.

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Features

Classic TV Revisited: The Royal

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The Royal

The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.

The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.

Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.

Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.

Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”

A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.

First broadcast: 2003

Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden

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