George Baker: Actor whose career climaxed in his portrayal of the Shakespeare-quoting DCI Wexford
Tuesday 11 October 2011
In 1987, two detectives from contemporary literature were transferred to television and their screen lives ran in parallel for 14 years.
While John Thaw stepped into the opera-loving shoes of Colin Dexter's Oxford sleuth Inspector Morse, George Baker had his first outing as Ruth Rendell's Shakespeare-quoting Detective Chief Inspector Wexford in "Wolf to the Slaughter".
The 6ft 4in Baker traded his crisp vowels for a regional burr in the roleof the affable, fatherly figure investigating crimes in the fictional south of England market town Kingsmarkham. With his dour sidekick, Detective Inspector Mike Burden (Christopher Ravenscroft), he plodded thoughtfully through an alarmingly high number of murder cases.
Reg Wexford was also a dependable husband and doting father, and Rendell revealed that the character traits were taken from her own father. She was so enamoured with Baker's portrayal that she admitted to writing The Veiled One, the first new Wexford novel published after the television adaptations began, with him in mind.
Following the stand-alone first mini-series, the programmes – featuring 23 stories in all and running until 2000 – were screened as The Ruth Rendell Mysteries and, occasionally, The Ruth Rendell Mystery Movie. Location filming was done in and around the Hampshire town of Romsey, not far from Baker's own home in Wiltshire.
In 1992, his second wife, the actress Sally Home, died after a three-year fight against cancer. The following year, he married Louie Ramsay – who played his screen wife, Dora, in the Wexford dramas and was a long-time friend of the couple – calling her his "soulmate" and adding: "Sally was the love of my life. With Louie, the love is quite different, but it's almost as strong." Ramsay died last March.
Baker was born at the British Embassy in Varna, Bulgaria, where his father, Frank – originally from Wetherby, West Yorkshire – was the honorary British vice-consul. A literate, cultured individual who was a writer and expert wine-taster, Baker was at pains to point out that, according to diplomatic etiquette, he was born on British soil.
When the Second World War broke out, he, his Irish mother Eva and four brothers and sisters moved to Yorkshire. Baker attended Lancing College, West Sussex, before joining Deal repertory company, in Kent, when he was just 15. During national service in Hong Kong he served with the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment. As a horse rider he was made regimental equitation officer but returned to Britain after contracting the intestinal disease sprue, and finished his Army service on a training range in Pembrokeshire.
Baker then acted in repertory theatre across Britain before making his London début as Arthur Wells in a revival of the Frederick Lonsdale drawing-room comedy Aren't We All? (Haymarket Theatre, 1953). Many roles followed in the West End, and with the Old Vic company (1959-60) and the RSC (1975). He also directed some plays himself, including The Sleeping Prince (St Martin's Theatre, 1968) and The Lady's Not for Burning (Old Vic Theatre, 1978). As artistic director, Baker launched his own provincial touring company, Candida Plays (named after his eldest daughter), in 1966.
Film casting directors spotted his matinee-idol looks early on. His first screen appearance, alongside Jack Hawkins, was in The Intruder (1953) and he followed it with a role in theSecond World War drama The Dam Busters (1955). Then came star billing in another war film, A Hill in Korea (1956), and the Civil War adventure The Moonraker (1958).
Baker's six-week affair with Brigitte Bardot while he was at Pinewood Studios filming The Woman for Joe (1955) and she was making Doctor at Sea put a strain on his marriage to the costume designer Julia Squire, which also suffered from the constant pressure of being in debt. He lived with Sally Home for 10 years before she became his second wife. His confidence was knocked by the film director Tony Richardson's description of him as the worst actor in England and another disappointment was the James Bond author Ian Fleming's assertion that Baker would make the perfect 007, before the part went to Sean Connery.
However, Baker appeared in three Bond films: as a Nasa engineer in You Only Live Twice (1967), Captain Benson in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Sir Hilary Bray in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), in which he also dubbed the voice of George Lazenby – in that actor's one screen appearance as the secret agent – for a scene in which 007 impersonates his character.
Television began to play a bigger part in Baker's career, with dramatic roles such as the second Number Two in The Prisoner (1967), Tiberius in I, Claudius (1976) and Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn in four feature-length adaptations of Ngaio Marsh's novels, made in New Zealand in 1977.
He also had some success in sitcoms. After playing Peter Craven's boss in The Fenn Street Gang (1972), Baker was spun off into his own series, Bowler (1973), in which he was seen as a spiv and petty villain trying to exude class but failing abysmally. Later, alongside Penelope Keith in the first two series of No Job for a Lady (1990-91), he played the Conservative MP Godfrey Eagan, sparring with the newly elected Labour MP Jean Price.
As a writer, Baker adapted four of the Ruth Rendell stories himself and scripted many radio dramas and the television play The Fatal Spring (1980), about the First World War poets Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, which won the United Nations Media Prize Award of Merit.
In 1999, Baker underwent surgery to remove his prostate gland after being diagnosed with cancer. His autobiography, The Way to Wexford, was published three years later. He also collected together recipes from his own culinary exploits in A Cook for All Seasons (1989). In 2007, Baker was made an MBE for youth club fund-raising activities in his then home village of West Lavington, Wiltshire.
George Morris Baker, actor, writer and director: born Varna, Bulgaria 1 April 1931; MBE 2007; married 1950 Julia Squire (divorced 1974, died 1989; four daughters), 1974 Sally Home (died 1992; one daughter), 1993 Louie Ramsay (died 2011); died 7 October 2011.
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