TV review: When Alan Cumming Met Stanley Baxter

AS stars are replaced by celebrities – not quite the same thing – there may be all manner of fawning programmes about anyone who's ever appeared on Big Brother, but the old-style luvvie love-in has fallen out of favour. Probably just as well, as few would want to return to the days when Michael Aspel or Terry Wogan invited their chums to trot out their well-worn anecdotes (which always ended "and then I realised my flies were undone and I completely dried and dear, dear Larry just co

Yet there was something quite charming in this old-fashioned chat between showbiz chums, When Alan Cumming Met Stanley Baxter, even though it was an unashamed mutual admiration society. "We're very good at prompting each other," remarked Baxter.

"Yes, I'm glad you're here," responded Cumming. "Oh, you've helped me through it."

A more ruthless editor might have taken all this out, but it was kind of the point – a gentle encounter between an old ham and a younger one framed as his heir. Is Alan Cumming really still "most famous for The High Life" these days? Surely not, yet it did help the idea that he's the modern version of Stanley Baxter, though the latter never played a Hollywood superhero. In fact Cumming is now officially an American, and has had considerably more success in conventional theatre.

Not that the older comedian seemed jealous, gracefully urging him to name-drop away: "I'm saying an awful lot about me, what about you?" And Baxter, it turns out, is a very good audience. When Cumming told an anecdote about the Citizens' Theatre, cutting to Baxter's face showed him not just listening avidly but expressing as pronounced a range of responsive emotions as you'll see in any of his sketches.

While hardly a formal account of his career, the programme did briefly sketch out Baxter's long-running success in showbusiness – as, inevitably, he referred to it. His mother put him on the stage, trotting him around church halls with his impressions of personages of the day. She even got him to do Mae West – or rather, since the seven-year-old Stanley had never seen her, doing his mother doing Mae West – which apparently went down a storm.

Later he teamed up with Kenneth Williams in the Army's entertainment unit, doing his national service and, though the programme didn't refer to their ongoing friendship, anyone who has read Williams' heartbreakingly depressive diaries will remember Baxter's dogged loyalty. But old-school showbiz stars probably wouldn't discuss such things.

Baxter moved to London for his first TV show, which won the forerunner to a Bafta. But among his many voices on the show, he decided that there wouldn't be any Scots ones, which caused some affront at home. When production moved to Scotland in 1962, that must have inspired his best-known running joke, Parliamo Glasgow, in which an academic switched between received pronunciation, as spoken by practically everyone on TV at the time, and an exaggerated version of local patter.

Now 83 and retired, Baxter is still sharp. Though he likes Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Vicar of Dibley, Cumming's suggestion of the stars of Little Britain as potential successors got short shrift. "It's just not me … at one point when he was crapping on the floor of the supermarket, I thought, 'Well, that's me out, then.'"