Harry Baird

Actor inhibited by racial stereotyping


Harry Baird, actor: born Georgetown, British Guiana 12 May 1931; died London 13 February 2005.

Harry Baird, actor: born Georgetown, British Guiana 12 May 1931; died London 13 February 2005.

Harry Baird's portrayal of the terrified black youth who is victimised by the police in the film Sapphire helped to launch him into a decade of regular acting work, including an appearance in the comedy caper The Italian Job, starring Michael Caine. Never a leading player, Baird eventually found the going tough as a black "jobbing" actor in Britain, and the roles dried up. By the mid-1970s his acting career was over.

He was born in Georgetown, Guyana (then British Guiana), in 1931 and educated in Canada and Britain. He began his acting career in 1955 as an exotic "attendant" in the West End musical Kismet and with a small film role as the wrestler Jamaica in Carol Reed's A Kid for Two Farthings.

For just over a decade he alternated occasional West End and repertory appearances with film and television work, his television credits including a regular role as Atimbu in White Hunter (1958-60), the BBC series Hurricane (1961), several supporting roles in Danger Man (1964-65) and, as Lt Mark Bradley, the science-fiction classic "UFO" (1970). Stage work included Jean Genet's The Blacks (Royal Court, 1961), A Wreath for Udomo (Lyric, Hammersmith, 1961) and Ogodiveleftthegason (Royal Court, 1967).

In films, a brief, uncredited appearance stood out. In 1959 Baird is clearly visible in J. Lee Thompson's Tiger Bay as the bridegroom in the first black wedding depicted in a British film. It is a non-speaking role, and easily overlooked, but significant when compared to some of the other, stereotypical roles the British film industry offered him, such as the "warrior leader" in Tarzan the Magnificent (1960) and the "Nubian" in Road to Hong Kong (1961). Other film roles, sometimes uncredited, ranged from Killers of Kilimanjaro (1959) to the Hammer horror The Oblong Box (1969) and included Bryan Forbes's The Whisperers (1967), The Touchables (1968, as a gay wrestler called "Lillywhite") and The Italian Job (1969, as "Big William"), now a cult favourite. In 1960 Baird began acting in Italian films, and in the 1970s his film career ended in Italian westerns, such as Four Gunmen of the Apocalypse (1975).

In Sapphire (1959), the producer Michael Relph and director Basil Dearden explored race relations in Britain through the murder investigation of a young mixed-race girl who has successfully passed for white. At that time, race relations in Britain were making news, with outbreaks of violence against African and Caribbean citizens from Nottingham to Notting Hill. Sapphire broke new ground and brought cinema audiences face to face with racist attitudes.

However, though the film offered Baird (as Sapphire's ex-boyfriend Johnnie Fiddle) and other black actors important dramatic roles, most of the characters they portrayed in the film are stereotypes, such as criminals in the underworld. Nowhere in the film do we see black family life, or a sense of community and solidarity. Though worthy and well-intentioned, and the winner of that year's British Academy Award for Best British Film, Sapphire now looks dated and ill-informed.

Perhaps Baird's most important screen role was in the French drama The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1967). This established the African American Melvin Van Peebles as the first black director of a feature film. Van Peebles cast Baird in the leading role of an American GI stationed in France who enters into a relationship with a white French shop girl. Yet, while Van Peebles is now celebrated in America as the "father of modern black cinema", there is no mention of Baird's name in any book acknowledging Van Peebles's landmark first film.

Stephen Bourne

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
musicHunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original  manuscripts
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
lifeAiming to show breasts in a non-sexual way for cancer awareness
New Articles
i100... while following the referendum
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special
tvNick Frost, Natalie Gumede and Michael Troughton step up
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Beard, Ben Schnetzer, Douglas Booth and Jack Farthing in ‘The Riot Club’
filmReview: Sheer nastiness of Riot Club takes you aback
Arts and Entertainment
tvBut something’s not quite right
New Articles
i100
News
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

£32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week