Raymond BAXTER (1922-2006)

Raymond Baxter This Is Your Life

programme details...

  • Edition No: 999
  • Subject No: 974
  • Broadcast date: Mon 23 Feb 1998
  • Broadcast time: 7.00-7.30pm
  • Recorded: Mon 16 Feb 1998
  • Venue: Teddington Studios
  • Series: 38
  • Edition: 26
  • Code name: Soup

on the guest list...

  • Doreen - sister
  • Geoffrey - brother-in-law
  • Jennifer - daughter
  • Paul - son-in-law
  • Graham - son
  • Bridget - daughter-in-law
  • Stirling Moss
  • Robert Farran
  • Len Holdstock
  • Michael Francis
  • Cliff Michelmore
  • Robin Richards
  • Ernest McMillen
  • John Blake
  • James Burke
  • Maggie Philbin
  • Howard Stableford
  • Judith Hann
  • William Woollard
  • Mick McManus
  • Vince Hill
  • Tom - grandson
  • Anna - granddaughter
  • Holly - granddaughter
  • Rebecca - granddaughter
  • Saskia - granddaughter
  • Bob Swanson
  • Filmed tributes:
  • Murray Walker
  • Carl Andre - nephew
  • Ray Kipling

production team...

  • Researchers: Jo Grant, Ruth Malone, Jean Davison
  • Writer: Ian Brown
  • Directors: Paul Kirrage, Peter Wisdom
  • Associate Producer: Liz Rawlings
  • Executive Producer: John Longley
  • Series Producer: Jack Crawshaw
  • Producer: Sue Green
  • names above in bold indicate subjects of This Is Your Life
related pages...
Raymond Baxter This Is Your Life Raymond Baxter This Is Your Life Raymond Baxter This Is Your Life Raymond Baxter This Is Your Life Raymond Baxter This Is Your Life Raymond Baxter This Is Your Life Raymond Baxter This Is Your Life Raymond Baxter This Is Your Life Raymond Baxter This Is Your Life Raymond Baxter This Is Your Life Raymond Baxter This Is Your Life Raymond Baxter This Is Your Life

Screenshots of Raymond Baxter This Is Your Life

Raymond Baxter's autobiography

Raymond Baxter recalls his experience of This Is Your Life in his autobiography, Tales of My Time...

At 11am on 14th February 1998, I was in the recording booth of a film/TV production company in Soho where I had worked many times before. But as I approached the completion of my task I became aware that something curious was going on. Recording 'post-production commentary', often written by myself, had been part of my job for many years, both for the BBC and elsewhere.

The arrangement is simple. The commentator sits in a soundproof booth, separate from the production team. The film, or tape, cut and edited, is projected so that both the production team and the commentator view the images separately but simultaneously. That may sound complicated but in reality it is not. Given high standards of professionalism on both sides, the commentary 'to picture' can and should be a routine procedure. Imagine therefore my puzzlement on this day when I began to perceive that odd things were happening on the other side of the screen.

First the producer apologised for a break because the sound-recordist had to go for a pee. This took quite a while. Then I was asked to re-record a sequence of several minutes because "it was not quite right". By this time I could feel my back-hair rising.

Throughout my career in broadcasting I have taken great pride it getting it right first time. I can indeed claim that, in my day, amongst BBC film crews I was known as 'One-take Baxter'. So when, after a further pause, I was asked to re-record a few paragraphs for no apparent reason, I was on the edge of hitting the roof. Still, checking my impatience, I got on with the job.

As it approached completion and my eyes were on my monitor screen, a voice in my headphones said:

"You're approaching the finishing line, Raymond, but there's a big red one coming up behind you."

Instantly, I recognised the voice of my old friend, Stirling Moss, but how on earth did he manage to do that? I wondered. Nice one! I was considerably puzzled but then the producer, on the far side of the screen, said:

"Look over your left shoulder, Raymond."

There, squeezed into the tiny recording booth behind me, sure enough, was Stirling, together with Michael Aspel, a friend and colleague of many years, and a film cameraman who had crept in without me noticing because I was so engrossed in what I was doing and, anyway, with the headphones on I was deaf to any small noises behind me.

Thus were uttered the celebrated words, "Raymond Baxter, This is Your Life."

Never have I been so surprised. Immediately it was clear that the reason for my having been messed about was that the This Is Your Life team had laid their well-proven plot to catch their subject unawares, in this case timed to a zero hour of noon. They most certainly succeeded, despite the fact that I had completed my job more than 15 minutes quicker than they had calculated.

Therefore, while I was totally concentrated on my work, in the street outside Michael had arrived at the wheel of a Jaguar XK120 to be met, literally on the doorstep, by Stirling. After a brief exchange of greetings, all covered on film, they entered the building together as planned. Then they had crept, undetected, into that small recording booth behind me and the trap was sprung. There was applause, I remember, from the production team who had clearly enjoyed every minute of their role in the conspiracy.

For my part, events thereafter assumed a dreamlike quality. I was absolutely delighted by the realisation that this was all happening, and to find my friend Stirling at the centre of the plot increased my enjoyment. But after the initial shock my mind turned to practicalities.

"Excuse me," I said to a charming girl who was clearly in charge. "When is this going out?"

"Tonight," she said.

"Tonight? Oh my God, but what about my clothes?" I was casually dressed for 'out-of-picture' work.

"All taken care of," she said. "Your daughter has given us the suit from your wardrobe she thinks right for the occasion, together with a shirt, a choice of ties and shoes."

"Has she, indeed?" I said, and the penny dropped in a major way.

The fact that I appeared on This Is Your Life, I owe entirely to my daughter, now Jennifer Douglas and a successful professional fencing coach. She and her husband, Paul, and two daughters had moved into the large house which my wife and I bought in Henley in 1985. A primary motivation for our choice was that the house included the potential for a downstairs flat. This, we hoped, might be acceptable for Jenny, then unmarried.

In fact, what happened was that when a film crew came to my house to shoot a contribution to the This Is Your Life programme of Murray Walker, of all people, unknown to me Jenny had said to the producer: "Why don't you do my father?"

"We had the impression that he wouldn't play," she replied.

"That was a long time ago," said Jenny. "The programme was different then and I knew that my mother would not have liked that at all. But I think it would be all right now."

That was the start of a quite extraordinary sub-plot. Several months later, when the programme makers approved the project, their first task was to inform Jenny without my knowledge – not at all easy when you remember that we all lived in the same house. Thereafter the speed of the operation was quite breathtaking. Only ten days elapsed between the second approach to Jenny and the programme's appearance live on screen. There was no particular necessity for Jenny to let my son Graham know that it was afoot and she gave the production team a contact list of those she thought were potential contributors.

Then, all unwittingly, my sister presented a major problem. I had arranged to go down and stay with her at Frome for a few days, returning two days before I was booked to record the commentary in that Soho film studio. Jenny dared not tell my sister under those circumstances. On the day I was to leave Frome there was widespread fog. I rang Jenny and told her I had decided to stay in Frome for an extra day. Her voice in no way disclosed what must have been her total consternation at this torpedoing of her meticulous planning.

The film company had agreed to send a car to Henley for me on the morning of their recording so getting me, in all innocence, to the right place and the right time appeared to be a gift. But the manner and speed with which the This is Your Life team got it all together despite all setbacks amazes me to this day.

However, there I was in an environment with which I was totally at ease – a film recording studio in Soho – until this explosive intrusion by Michael and Stirling Moss. From there I was whisked away to an excellent lunch in a quiet restaurant off Kew Green. Clearly the staff were familiar with the circumstances; they'd done it all before. Thereafter to the Teddington studios of Independent Television, and I sensed at the time that I was being smuggled in. The security guards knew precisely the routine, which they had no doubt executed time and time again. Shown to my dressing room for the first time in private for four or more hectic hours, I put my feet up and began to think about what lay ahead.

I began by speculating on who might be in the programme – my family obviously – and I hoped the grandchildren; someone from Tomorrow's World – could it be James Burke? Sadly the choice would be limited in that context. Could they get someone from my family in America? Someone from motor racing was already involved. In any event I resolved to make the most of it! Play it as far as possible my way and milk it for laughs. A male dresser came into the dressing room as promised – and boosted my morale no end by admiring my suit.

"You can tell bespoke tailoring at a glance," he said, and indeed from the earlier days of Tomorrow's World, on the advice of Mike Latham – the second editor of the series – I had bought my suits made-to-measure from Messrs James & James of Albany Street – not quite Savile Row, but close enough – and indeed over the years the brothers became personal friends of mine. Next I was taken to the studio, shown the set and told that Jenny would be sitting on my right as I entered and that I was to take the vacant seat on her right. That was the sum total of my briefing before I was smuggled back to my dressing room and told that the make-up girl would be with me in about 45 minutes; and would I like a cup of tea? Not 'arf!

I have tapes of the programme, both the unedited version and the 'P as B' – Programme as Broadcast – as we used to say in the BBC. Again, the sheer professionalism of the production team is in my view, as a fellow pro, just outstanding. The onstage performance overran by more than 20 minutes, due almost entirely to my own self-indulgence, yet the necessary cuts were quite unnoticeable.

On reflection, I have decided not to attempt a transcript of the show here, the printed word in this case being but a hollow shadow of the magic of the originals. I choose the word 'magic' for that it most certainly was, for me – if for no-one else. Having participated in three or four other people's This Is Your Life programmes, I was fully aware of 'the rules of engagement'. Even so, standing alone backstage and listening to the introduction, filmed only those few hours before, I felt a mounting excitement, quite different from the rising heart rate I have experienced in the few minutes before the start of any television or radio programme in which I played a role.

Came the words. "Raymond Baxter – This Is Your Life." Loud applause from the audience – on cue – and from the semi-darkness behind the set I stepped into the brilliantly lit arena. There, on the right with the empty place beside her, sat Jenny, looking absolutely radiant, elegantly dressed and beautifully made up. Behind her, Paul my son-in-law; my son, Graham and his wife, Bridget; my sister, Doreen and her husband – all as I had expected. But in addition on both sides a host of friends whom I could not wait to greet – so I didn't. Instead of sitting down by my daughter as instructed I set off on a little tour, shaking hands, leaning forward to give a kiss to my sister and to Bette Hill (Graham Hill's widow) and finally crossing the set to shake the hand of my old friend and colleague, Robin Richards who, I was slightly shocked to see, was in a wheelchair.

Book in hand, Michael Aspel stood aside, smiling patiently and waiting – as I was sure he would – until I settled down beside my daughter. She 'opened the batting' by saying:

"My father is incapable of growing old gracefully." Fair enough, I thought.

My sister spoke of our very happy childhood; my son spoke of his mother, describing my romance with Sylvia as "the stuff that dreams are made of." I had prepared myself for what I knew and indeed hoped was almost inevitable – a picture or pictures of Sylvia. But there, on the big screen, was the only photograph we have of our wedding. I felt myself beginning to 'choke up' but a reassuring squeeze of my hand from Jenny helped me immeasurably and thereafter I knew I could cope emotionally. So, from now on it was fun time.

And so it proved. To this day, when I watch again a particular moment, I say to myself, "Gosh, how beautiful they are." That moment came when my grandchildren made their entrance. To the left, Tom, my grandson – tall and handsome – with a sleeping Saskia, my youngest grand-daughter, over his shoulder; Anna and Holly, Graham's other two children, strikingly attractive teenagers; and Rebecca, Jenny's first-born, who immediately 'broke rank' and scampered forward, ignoring me totally, to jump onto her mother's lap. Next day, asked by Jenny what she would like to do that morning, Rebecca said:

"I think, Mummy, I should quite like to go and make some more television."

Sir Stirling, already involved from the outset, told a nice little tale. After some complimentary observations about our time together in motor sport, he recalled a particular long distance race – he thought, the Goodwood 9Hrs – in which he realised the car he was driving had a radio. This was, of course, long before car radio transmitters became a commonplace in motor racing. Stirling said: "My pit people were telling me where I was in the race, but I wanted to find out how other people were doing. So I switched on the radio and listened to Raymond's commentary!"

James Burke, my original partner on Tomorrow's World – and in writing two of our Tomorrow's World books – recalled the first time he had to do the programme without me. I had been called away during the morning's rehearsal to rush to my father's bedside in Monmouthshire. James was, he said, terrified.

The accepted routine in This Is Your Life is that each guest speaks his or her introductory lines out of vision backstage, makes their entrance, is interviewed by Michael Aspel, shakes hands with the host and goes to an allotted seat. I deliberately broke the rules. When each of my guests had said their piece I joined them centre stage, facing the audience, and did my best to reciprocate the compliments which I had just been paid. So, after our handshake, as I retained my hold on him, James Burke muttered:

"What are you doing, Raymond? Let me go!"

"Oh, no," I said, and told the audience that this was the first man to treat a television audience as a group of intelligent individuals rather than two or more groups of known and differing views whose reaction would be totally predictable. This he did in the series of Burke Specials, which he left Tomorrow's World to make. These were very successful and he then embarked on a series called Connections, based on major advances in scientific knowledge and the way in which they interconnected. Brilliant in my view, the BBC declined to renew his contract so he set about working in America in public service channels, made an immediate impression and earned far more money than he would have done had he stayed with Auntie who, as I have written elsewhere, was – I believe still is – a bit of a bitch.

My friend Len Holdstock, of our flying training days together on the far side of the Atlantic, told how when we were in a 'Holding Camp' in Moncton, New Brunswick, we were told that we were going to Miami. Whoopee! But the Miami at which we arrived after a two-day train journey via Chicago turned out to be in the Panhandle country of the Mid-West. I told the audience that Len had enjoyed a brilliant career in civil aviation, including the Lockheed Tri-Star to British Airways and had been elected Master of the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators, of which I am proud to be a liveryman.

My 602 Squadron days were recalled by Mike Francis who introduced himself with the words:

"Tarbrush Leader, Tarbrush Leader, this is Tarbrush Blue Two." That had Aspel puzzled, so Mike explained about R/T call-signs and code.

"Bax," he said, "was my flight commander. He was a very good flight commander, both in the air and on the ground. He taught us all the songs which our mother had not taught us." Indeed, I had. The Shaibah Blues, the Ball of Kirriemuir, There was an Old Monk … and others which had no place in family reading. I told the audience that Michael had become a successful professional artist, having been commissioned amongst other works to paint a portrait of The Princess Royal for the University of London Air Squadron.

My dear old friend Bobby Farran spoke of the school plays which I had produced and I told the audience that he was the finest jazz pianist I knew and if anyone wanted to book him, to contact me – with a backhander gesture behind my back, which got a nice laugh.

My Irish rally partner, Ernest McMillen told the tale of when driving for the famous BMC Mini Cooper team we started the Monte from Minsk in the Soviet Union. Good businessman that he is, as well as being an excellent driver and brimming with the Irish craic, he decided we should buy a large tin of caviar with a view to selling it at a huge profit in Monte Carlo. In the event, though it travelled well – half-frozen in the back of our Cooper – no-one wanted to buy it for more than our purchase price. Sylvia and I and the children were eating caviar morning, noon and night for weeks.

My river neighbour on the Thames, Vince Hill, the singer (remember Edelweiss?) spoke of boating and the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships, although he does not own one. He was so anxious to get the title right that he wrote a prompt on the palm of his thumb. He still managed to get it wrong.

A huge compliment came in the shape of a filmed greeting from The Royal National Lifeboat Institution. The spokesman was Ray Kipling, then the deputy director and former PRO. We had become very good friends during my service on the PR committee of the Institution, and later on the executive. Afloat in the Poole Lifeboat, he led the crew in a chorus, "Thank you, Raymond." Coming from a group of men whom I admire perhaps beyond all others, that too very nearly choked me up.

My longstanding friend and colleague of the British Forces Network and the BBC, Cliff Michelmore, reminded us of a somewhat historic experience we shared in Hamburg in 1948. He had done the commentary and I the inter-round summaries on a heavyweight contest between what Cliff described as two elderly gentlemen called Max Schmelling and Walter Neusel. Their world title aspirations had been interrupted by the war.

Another filmed insert had the New York skyline in the background and the distinctive features of my nephew, Carl Andre, in the foreground. Carl was, and still is, a groundbreaking sculptor of world repute. He created the Tate Gallery 'Bricks' which caused such a furore. I admire enormously his towering intellectual independence. Sylvia 'babysat' him and his two sisters when she was a teenager. Their loving relationship, in which I came to share with my son and daughter, have survived time and distance and have if anything become closer during the ensuing years.

But perhaps the most magic of magic moments came with the appearance of the tall and well-built figure of the man who taught me to fly all those years ago in America. I was able to say to the audience, "To me, this man was God. One day he said to me, after we had landed, 'Gee! I can't figure you out Raymond. Sometimes you fly like an angel and sometimes you fly like a son of a bitch!'" And I knew Bob Swanson was right.

So the programme drew to its close and I was presented with the Red Book which, it transpired, is not a transcript of the words, but a beautiful collection of coloured pictures of everyone invited to attend, whether or not they spoke during the programme. It is an album of my most happy memories and I had photocopies made of all the pictures to send with my thanks to each of the participants. Some, who had sent their greeting from afar, said, "Have a great party!" Boy, did we ever.

Series 38 subjects

Jeremy Guscott | Magnus Magnusson | Maureen Rees | Russ Abbot | Sally Gunnell | Graham Cole | James Hatfield
Carol Vorderman | Trevor Baylis | Bryan Mosley | Murray Walker | Cheryl Baker | Errol Brown | Peter Snow
Nadim Sawalha | Clive Hornby | Trevor Bannister | Mary Ward | Brian Murphy | Robert Winston
Duncan Goodhew | Julia Watson | Anne Robinson | Bill Giles | Tim Healy | Raymond Baxter