George Baker was once described by film director Tony Richardson as the worst actor in England. That was in his early days, long before he made Ruth Rendell’s character Detective Chief Inspector Reg Wexford, his own, and it was hardly surprising that George lost his confidence. ‘To drown my sorrows, I drank daily and I drank plenty,’ he recalls.
After one dispiriting performance, he fled to the pub and got so drunk that he smashed his head against the glass door. ‘Actor injured in pub brawl’, read the next day’s headlines. For George, it was an unseemly episode at a low point in a life blighted by a struggling childhood, divorce from his first wife - the marriage was not helped by his affair with Brigitte Bardot - the agonising death of his second wife, followed by his own fight against cancer.
Then there was the professional disappointment of being proposed by James Bond author, Ian Fleming, to star in the first 007 movie, Dr No, only to see the part go to Sean Connery.
But to say he is an unhappy or maudlin man is far from the truth. His cottage in the tiny Wiltshire village of West Lavington echoes with whoops of laughter as he and his third wife, Louie Ramsay, tease each other like young lovers rather than the settled couple in their 70s that they are. ‘I have never been so happy,’ says George. ‘That is not to take anything away from the good times I had before Louie, but I would be a lesser man without her.’
Louie plays George’s wife in the Inspector Wexford TV series. She and his second wife, Sally, were devoted friends and she helped him to get over her death. ‘Sally had a tumour on her spine, which went undiagnosed for a long time,’ says George. ‘She was told that women of her age should expect backache now and then, so nothing was done. By the time she finally had surgery, it was too late; the cancer had spread. We were together 28 years, so it took a long time to get over her death. In fact, you don’t ever get over it.’ George, who has four daughters, and Louie, a divorcee with a son, became so close that their own children suggested they should marry. Recalls George, ‘One of them said, “After all, you haven’t got a lot of time left.”’ George is soon to appear in an episode of BBC1’s Spooks and in Midsomer Murders on ITV1. He is also rehearsing for his role as Sir Anthony Absolute to Stephanie Cole’s Mrs Malaprop in The Rivals, opening in Bath.
It is only occasionally that you spot George pausing and looking a little thoughtful, as if remembering a hurt long past. His first marriage, to Julia Squire, a costume designer, was marred by debt. ‘I was barely a step ahead of the bank manager,’ says George, ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul, but we were unable to stop spending money.’ Although George had always been attractive to women, he stayed faithful to Julia until he met Brigitte Bardot. ‘I was at Pinewood making a film, A Woman For Joe. She was also there making Doctor At Sea, and her dressing room was across the corridor from mine. She was standing in her doorway as I passed; we exchanged small talk and I invited her in. I still don’t know how it happened, but the next thing, she’s in my arms. It was absolutely electric. She was a very, very beautiful girl.
‘If that sounds fantastic enough - Bardot, the world’s number one screen sex bomb at the time in a clinch with me, George Baker, jobbing actor - within a short time we were still in each other’s arms, only this time in bed. It just happened and I could hardly believe it. Of course, I was completely dazzled by her and hopelessly in lust, but it wasn’t really a love affair because, to be honest, I think Brigitte regarded me simply as someone to provide a sort of dalliance while she was filming. It was a great fillip to my ego at a time when I needed one. Brigitte was a very beautiful girl, somewhat mercurial, and highly intelligent. I was hooked, mesmerised, and I followed wherever she led.
‘Needless to say, I had to lie to Julia to keep the affair going. I’m not proud of myself for that. Every time I tried to get away from Brigitte to go home, I just couldn’t do it.
What man could? She was certainly a highly sexual person.
Six weeks later she said goodbye and returned to France, and that was the end of that.
‘As smitten as I was, I realised, after about a week, that she was never going to be the great love of my life.
But there was this terrible compulsion between us. Her sexual power was quite extraordinary. It was shabby and deeply hurtful to Julia. She found out halfway through, but didn’t say anything.’ When he began an affair with Sally, Julia slipped into alcoholism as George lived a double life with Sally in London and Julia in the country, a situation which, as George himself says, ‘had everyone behaving well and hurting badly’. Divorce was inevitable and George set up home with Sally. Then George got a call to say that Julia had fallen down the stairs, broken her neck and had died instantly.
This was one more extraordinary landmark in a life that began in Bulgaria, where he was born to an English father who had been posted there in the Army, and an Irish nurse. ‘Mummy was glamorous, beautiful and exciting, but she wasn’t a good mother. Despite that, I adored her. She was more interested in writing, but when she had a nervous breakdown it made our lives even more difficult.’ His father died, hit by an Army truck, when George was 12, and, with his mother struggling to keep their heads above water, ‘I was expected to look after my brothers and sister. Mummy didn’t have much time for us - she spent a lot of her time upstairs, writing.’ He and his siblings lived like refugees, continually on the move as their mother struggled to pay the rent and find food. ‘Mummy had a severe nervous breakdown and she spent days and nights weeping, crying out my father’s name. The rest of us just cowered in fear, because there was no one to help us. But, for all that, we loved her.’ George left school at 15 without telling her, and took up lodgings in south-east London.
When he began acting, the parts came slowly at first, but his good looks helped. Certainly, James Bond’s creator took a shine to him. ‘I was having lunch in a restaurant with an impresario, Robert Clark, when Ian Fleming came over. He said to Robert, “You should turn my books into films. And that’s James Bond sitting next to you.” The next thing I knew, Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were turning them into films and, at Ian’s suggestion, Robert had put my name forward to play Bond. But I never heard from them.’ George has survived, he concedes, because of Louie. ‘I was always very healthy and fit, but Louie nagged me to have a check-up. I had all the tests done but one of them showed that I needed a biopsy. A week later the surgeon told me that if I didn’t have a radical prostatectomy I’d be dead in three years.
‘It was a big op, but I went through with it and everything was fine; I’ve had no further problems. If it hadn’t been for Louie’s insistence, I wouldn’t be here. I owe her my life.’