Saturday 16 December 2017

Case solved: How Wexford won Bardot

Actor George Baker who has died aged 80, enjoyed good looks and matinee-idol roles early in his career, and even had a fling with Brigitte Bardot; he was best known, however, for playing the part of Inspector Wexford to great popular acclaim in late middle-age.

It was a career of enduring success, both on stage and screen. After establishing a solid foundation with repertory work, Baker came to wider notice in The Dam Busters (1953).

Over the following decades, his career encompassed such landmark series as The Prisoner and I, Claudius, as well as several appearances in the James Bond movies (for which Ian Fleming had at one point wanted him to appear as the lead).

Nor did he confine his talents to acting, having success both as a director and as a writer, as well as managing his own theatre company. But, despite several offers, he never succumbed to the temptation of a career in Hollywood, instead choosing to see himself as "essentially a British actor, living and working in Britain".

Baker was born on April 1, 1931, in Varna, Bulgaria. His Yorkshire-born father had been sent to Bulgaria as a diplomat during World War One and stayed on to run an import-export business, eventually marrying an Irish nurse 28 years his junior, who had come to Varna to help treat cholera victims during the 1926 epidemic.

When World War Two broke out, she was forced to flee through Nazi-occupied Europe with George and his sister and three brothers. She left her husband behind and they were never reunited -- Baker's father died in Cairo in 1942.

At 15, George added three years to his age and joined a repertory company at a time when every town and city in Britain still had its own theatre and a bill that changed weekly. He quickly progressed from walk-on to leading roles and, by 1947, was offered the job of assistant stage manager at Richmond Theatre.

At 19, after National Service had interrupted his theatrical career, Baker married the costume designer Julia Squire and returned to the stage. When he eventually made his debut in London, in 1953, in Aren't We All?, he was soon spotted as a potential film star.

He appeared on screen for the first time later the same year, in the Stanley Baker vehicle The Intruder, about soldiers returning to civilian life.

Baker was promoted as "tougher than Rock Hudson and better looking than Roger Moore" and certainly won his share of female fans.

Among them was Bardot, whom he met at Pinewood Studios. Baker could scarcely believe his luck: "Bardot, the world's number one sex bomb at the time, in a clinch with me, George Baker, jobbing actor," he wrote. "I was completely dazzled."

What Baker described as a six-week ego boost was soon over, but his allure to film producers was more enduring. He was an obvious choice for The Dam Busters (1953) in which he played Flight Lieutenant David Maltby.

Baker seemed earmarked for greatness, but suddenly, in 1957, his film career ground to a halt.

"The scene shifted," Baker recalled. "Working class lads made it and matinee-idols like myself were on the shelf. I was 'pre-kitchen sink'." During the next 10 years he made only one film, the embarrassing Curse of the Fly (1963).

Inevitably, he concentrated on theatrical roles. He appeared in the Agatha Christie whodunit Toward Zero (1956) as an urbane husband (and suspect); in Jean Anouilh's Restless Heart (1957); and in 1959 opposite Vivien Leigh on Broadway as Phillipe de Croze in the transfer of Noel Coward's adaptation from Feydeau, Look After Lulu.

By 1966, Baker felt sufficiently confident to establish his own theatrical company -- Candida Plays. The company toured Britain performing a variety of plays which were on the national curriculum.

Baker resumed his film career with the insipid musical remake of Goodbye Mr Chips (1969), but had more luck that year with a stylish adaptation of Laurence Durrell's novel, Justine. He went on to appear in numerous minor roles and even featured in several James Bond films, though not, evidently, in the leading role that Fleming had once intended for him.

His television career was proving increasingly successful. Having appeared in The Prisoner in 1967 as Number Two, he played a flamboyant crook in Bowler (1973), a humorous series in the ducking-and-diving vein later made famous by Minder. It was with the role of Emperor Tiberius, however, in the series I, Claudius (1975) that he sealed his popular comeback.

But it was a role as a West Country police inspector in the 1986 Miss Marple mystery, At Bertram's Hotel, that was to transform the remainder of his career.

Baker played Ruth Rendell's Chief Inspector Wexford as an ordinary policeman, often desk-bound, occasionally wrong and usually worried about what his wife would say at the overtime he was putting in. This sense of realism even prompted one critic to describe his performance as "prosaically true to life".

Fourteen Wexford adaptations were made in quick succession before Baker surprised his fans by announcing that he wanted to leave the series. "I've done over 30 hours of Wexford," he said, "I don't want it to get too easy." In fact he returned to the part, though less frequently, until 2000.

When not filming he concentrated on other projects, notably directing and writing. In 1980 he had written the screenplay for a BBC drama about World War One poets, The Fatal Spring. In 1990 his first cookery book was published, A Cook for All Seasons.

His autobiography, The Way to Wexford, appeared in 2002. He was appointed MBE in 2007.

Baker married three times. After his first marriage was dissolved, he wed the actress Sally Home. She died in 1992, and he went on to marry actress Louie Ramsay who, before her own death earlier this year, played his on-screen wife, Dora, in Inspector Wexford. He had five daughters.

George Baker, born April 1, 1931, died October 7, 2011

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