Invisible Ink: No 66 - Frank Baker

Christopher Fowler
Sunday 27 February 2011 01:00 GMT

Who wrote the story on which Alfred Hitchcock based his film The Birds?

Before you say Daphne Du Maurier, read on. Thirty years before Du Maurier's short story, Frank Baker wrote The Birds, in which Londoners were attacked by avian predators. Although Baker's version was far more ambitious, the stories are remarkably similar, and like Du Maurier, Baker was also living in Cornwall.

Was it coincidence? Baker's birds seemed more supernatural in origin than Hitchcock's, but he was upset and corresponded with Du Maurier, who sympathised. Hitchcock, who seems to have followed Baker's version more, ignored the likeable young church organist, who was somehow persuaded not to pursue costly litigation against Universal Studios.

Baker was born in Hornsey, London, in 1908, and moved to St Just-in-Penwith, where he began to write. In 1935 his first novel, The Twisted Tree, was published – an odd choice for a man who sought religious comfort (partly, one suspects, because of rumoured issues with his sexuality). It told the story of a woman who gives birth to a child who turns out to be a monster.

Although Baker was drawn to the whimsical, he grounded his novels with recognisable characters and locations. Mr Allenby Loses His Way (1946) reflected this curious mix of realism and fantasy. In it, a fat little shopkeeper leaves his family to discover his true magical identity. This morality tale about belief and the demands of social conformity is haunted by the war and by Baker's own self-doubts.

Of his 15 novels, his masterpiece is the enchanting Miss Hargreaves, in which two friends on holiday in Ireland are required to invent the titular 83-year-old woman. Later, forced to explain how they met her, they slowly add details to her life, embellishing her back story with the information that she always travels with a cockatoo, a harp and her own bath. The lark gets out of hand when they receive a telegram from Miss Hargreaves herself, informing them that she is coming to stay for an indefinite period – how can they explain who she is when they can't even understand why she exists?

A comedy about the creative imagination, loss of control and the pressures of conformity, Miss Hargreaves came to the London stage starring Margaret Rutherford, the living embodiment of the character and a friend of the author. His novel Lease of Life was filmed with Robert Donat.

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