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

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