Raymond Baxter: Gentleman and Broadcaster

Thursday, October 12, 2006 by

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. I mean, for a start, there wasn’t a sign of Stuart Maconie on this compelling half-hour of TV that did exactly what the medium was meant to do when its subject Raymond Baxter and his mellifluous port-and-stilton baritone were royalty – ie. it informed, it amused and it entertained.

In truth, it would be hard to make a bad programme about Baxter; Spitfire pilot, technological innovator (he was among the prime movers in converting the Beeb’s cameras from acetate to tape), proto-petrolhead, radio commentator extraordinaire, TV all-rounder, good sport.

But Raymond Baxter: Gentleman and Broadcaster was actually a very very good programme indeed; a tribute apparently made on a budget of about one-and-six. Appropriately, perhaps, given the string-and-sealing-wax broadcasting years Baxter dominated, but such modesty was among one of its most endearing aspects. There were clich├ęs: Walton’s Spitfire Prelude and Fugue playing as Baxter sat – almost in raptures – in the cockpit of one of those lovely Supermarine aeroplanes, and maybe a little too much of Elgar’s Nimrod. But one word – his Tomorrow’s World colleague Judith Hann’s – said it all about Baxter, about the programme. Gravitas.

Hmm. Gravitas. Hardly a word for an era of Jackass, a world in which Elgar’s Nimrod would probably draw a battery of sniggers. But it’s tempting to wonder what Baxter, a self-confessed technofreak, would have made of the exponential leaps in TV technology today as YouTube gets swallowed by Google. He may not have liked the content, but he’d have been transfixed by the hardware and software.

Baxter’s life was examined chronologically and, consciously or not, the show provided an acutely precise lens into the postwar development not just of TV but also of society and technology’s place within it. Here, we are informed, was a man obsessed with speed and power and newness, but also in their ultimately humane use, despite his RAF past.

He was born, in 1922, into an era of streamlining and the worship of dynamism, in which the Futurist Manifesto’s prescriptions of bigger-faster-louder seemed to coming true and to be serving humankind. Of course, they also helped spark World War II, but Baxter’s irrepressible faith in beneficent and essentially democratic scientific progress – he was so fanatical an admirer of Concorde that he quit the show when a Tomorrow’s World producer suggested a piece lambasting the plane for its massive cost – was almost touching to see.

Baxter became, in effect, the kindly, reassuring cheerleader for Harold Wilson’s “white-hot heat” of ’60s technology (ironic, given the presenter’s patrician image). No coincidence then that Tomorrow’s World was launched but a year or so after that Wilsonian oratory. The fiascos of Thalidomide, the Ronan Point disaster, the non-event of the Tracked Hovercraft and the Oil Shock of 1973 were yet to burst the utopian bubble, revealing the boffins to all too often be not visionaries but men of straw; but still Baxter believed.

His approach to motoring on TV was inspired; he loved a Testarossa as much as a Model T – the point was, they went. A demonstration of Baxter doing a handbrake turn in the snow in a Mini is described gently and with affection by the man himself – a neat juxtaposition of adrenalin action pictures and detached, urbane commentary. You can imagine him loving every nanosecond of a four-miles-a-minute spin down the Mulsanne straight in a Porsche 917T, but it wasn’t for the love of speed for its own sake – no, it was for the utility of technical prowess such speed implied. You just can’t see Baxter cutting someone up at 140 mph on the M1, can you?

What most people – I, and probably most readers of this site number among them – fail to realise is how distinguished a BBC figure Baxter was before our time, ie. the coming of TW in 1965. He was the Beeb’s pre-Fleming fixture for the reverent lip-mike role at state occasions, and his voice breaks audibly at Churchill’s funeral. Here, in a tiny BBC2 bonus on a Thursday night, was belated proof that this “gentleman and broadcaster” was more than the nice old guy who introduced the programme before TOTP in the mid-’70s.

His exquisite vowels covered more Grand Prix, rallies, hill climbs, than anyone could count. This was an excuse for some “evocative” moments of cool and curvy ’50s race cars (BRMs, Ferraris) dustily bombing along barely-made roads (Stirling Moss’s anecdote that his car had a radio on which he could hear Baxter announcing as an aside to his commentary the result of a flat race from Goodwood was particularly priceless and richly summoned a light-years-distant era of Mille Miglia driving gloves and teak dashboards).

Atavism aside, the point was also made that Baxter was the first “action” presenter, Noakes avant Noakes, always willing to try something new to hold or attract viewers; cameras in cockpits, that whole crack. “Novelty, old chap, novelty”, you can hear him saying over a double Glenlivet. Amazingly, on this evidence, for the most part he brought it off with the enthusiasm of a schoolboy trainspotter that could, nonetheless be conveyed without megadecibel mugging and cheapo sensationalism. He also, as he told Russell Harty in 1987, didn’t take himself too seriously. Sometimes, it was never mind the gravitas. We saw him in string vest on The Goodies and as a brilliant straight man on Q8 – even then without missing a beat. His depth of tone and presence was, not unnaturally, the perfect foil for featherweight silliness.

It matters not whether one deplores the essentially masculine world of axle ratios, ailerons and afterburners Baxter instinctively cleaved to, what this programme did was show what a quite splendidly talented TV professional he was, how he humanised so much of his subject matter, and how much he could teach so many of his descendants in today’s industry. One colleague told the camera, “He knew when to let the pictures speak for themselves,” which, as an ex-radio presenter, was quite a feat.

Kierkegaard’s old one-liner that life must be lived forwards but can only be understood backwards is a lesson for all popular TV professionals, and it is rarely as well embodied as by Raymond Baxter, in which people will do well to learn from a giant of the airwaves so affectionately and intelligently remembered. Watch, study, inwardly digest. And that includes you, Stuart Maconie.


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