Robert S. Baker: Producer, writer and director who moved from horror films to many cult television series of the 1960s
Saturday 26 December 2009
After making B-movie thrillers and bloodthirsty films to rival the Hammer horror pictures, Robert S. Baker found his greatest success as one of television's top producers of action series, from The Saint and The Baron to The Persuaders!
These cult programmes of the 1960s and early 1970s etched themselves into small-screen history and found audiences worldwide for their fast-paced, James Bond-style adventures.
Baker was the architect of his own fortune, persuading Leslie Charteris – author of The Saint novels – to give him television rights and then landing a deal with ATV, the ITV company run by the entertainment industry mogul Lew Grade, who had the programmes made through the company's ITC subsidiary.
"Firstly, I took it to Associated- Rediffusion, but when I said it would cost maybe £16,000 for an episode they turned it down, so I next went to Sir Lew Grade, who jumped at it," recalled Baker. "Leslie Charteris was then living in Florida, so I went over to tidy up all the loose ends and make the actual deal, and that's how the thing started."
The wheels had been oiled for Baker when John Paddy Carstairs – who directed the 1939 feature film The Saint in London – recommended him to Charteris, who was cautious about his stories being reworked for television. The producer spent a week negotiating the final deal with the author for an initial 26-episode series and Grade, with his eye firmly on the international market, agreed to it being shot on film, which was more expensive than telecine and increased the budget to £30,000 an episode.
Roger Moore, in his pre-007 days, made the role of the debonair adventurer-cum-sleuth Simon Templar his own, and the series (1962-69) sold to more than 80 countries, earning ITC at least £350m. The star's enigmatic personality and quizzical arch of his eyebrow, combined with the gimmick of an animated halo above his head, a memorable theme tune and Templar's Volvo P-1800 to create one of the most distinctive TV series of the 1960s.
Born in London in 1916, the son of a furrier, Baker was educated at Tenterden Hall in Middlesex, and gained an early interest in photography. In 1937, he entered the film industry as an assistant director.
During the Second World War, after serving with the Royal Artillery in North Africa during the El Alamein campaign, he became a combat cameraman in Italy, Belgium and Germany with the Eighth Army Film Unit, where he met a fellow sergeant, Monty Berman, who had previously shot two pictures for the legendary director Michael Powell.
After the war, Baker returned to work as an assistant director, then formed Tempean Films with Berman in 1948. Their first production was the low-budget musical A Date with a Dream (1948), which featured Terry- Thomas in one of his earliest starring roles and included Norman Wisdom in the cast. Impressed by this picture, the distributor Eros Films financed the duo's films over the next few years, when the producers established the skill of churning out a B-movie every few months at a time when British cinema was thriving.
Over 10 years, Baker and Berman made more than 40 films, mostly thrillers and melodramas. With no budget to build sets, they shot many on location close to London and made them attractive to audiences by including faded American stars, including Forrest Tucker, Rory Calhoun and the blacklisted Larry Parks. Thora Hird, Dora Bryan, Jean Kent and a young Michael Caine also appeared. Occasionally, the producers directed, such as with The Siege of Sidney Street (1960, a rare step into first-feature territory) and The Treasure of Monte Cristo (1960). Baker also wrote and filmed some pictures.
In the late 1950s, Baker and Berman tried to rival Hammer by switching to horror films with Blood of the Vampire (1958), The Trollenberg Terror (1958), Jack the Ripper (1959, directed by them) and The Flesh and the Fiends (1960, starring Peter Cushing). They then answered the increasing demand of television for filmed series, which had flourished following the start of ITV, especially with Lew Grade's ITC programmes such as The Adventures of Robin Hood and Danger Man.
After launching The Saint, the pair had success with the police-procedural series Gideon's Way (1964-66), starring John Gregson as the Scotland Yard detective featured in John Creasey's novels, and The Baron (1966-67), with Steve Forrest as the antiques dealer John Mannering, who uses his specialist knowledge to work as an undercover agent – another Creasey creation.
In 1966, when Berman went his own way to make other tele-fantasy programmes for ITC, such as The Champions and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), Baker and Roger Moore went into partnership, forming their own production company, Barmore, and making The Saint in colour. The series ended in 1969, after 118 episodes, although Baker was executive producer for Return of the Saint (1978-79, starring Ian Ogilvy) and the television film The Saint in Manhattan (1987, with Andrew Clarke), as well as the 1997 feature film featuring Val Kilmer.
Baker and Moore also worked together on the film thriller Crossplot (1969) and another worldwide television hit for ITC, The Persuaders! (1971-72), teaming Moore with Tony Curtis as Lord Brett Sinclair and Danny Wilde, the English and American millionaire playboys who act as "instruments of justice" for the retired Judge Fulton (Laurence Naismith) by apprehending crooks around the world.
The glossy, jet-setting series, with a then British record budget of £100,000 per episode, was pre-sold for £3m to the United States, which ditched it after 24 of the 26 episodes. "The tongue-in-cheek atmosphere of the programme was a bit too early for America," said Baker. However, it was popular elsewhere and dubbed into more than 20 languages. With Moore then offered the role of James Bond, Baker and Grade decided to end the series.
Baker later devised the adventure serial John Silver's Return to Treasure Island (1986), starring Brian Blessed, in a sequel to Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novel.
Robert Sidney Baker, producer, director, writer and cinematographer: born London 27 October 1916; married Alma Rubenstein (died 2003; two daughters); died Harrow, Middlesex 30 September 2009.
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