Thirty-one years ago, when George Baker was one of the pin-up boys of British movies and shooting A Hill in Korea, an unknown actor named Michael Caine was brought in for a non-speaking role. George, then fresh from his triumph in The Dam Busters, felt a slight injustice was being committed.
“This is ridiculous,” he said to the producer. “You can’t treat an actor like this and not give him a line. He’s not an extra.”
The producer eventually agreed. And so it was, thanks to George, that the future star of Alfie and The Ipcress File was given a speaking role in a film - and his international career was launched. Not a lot of people know that.
Caine has never forgotten George’s kindness, and they joke about it whenever they meet. But it was a typical gesture of the man who has helped so many unknown actors on their way to bigger things, whether as actor-manager of his own theatre company, Candida Plays, or as a director and playwright.
George, the handsome star of such Fifties and Sixties films as The Moonraker, Justine and The Ship that Died of Shame, is one of show business’ versatile unsung heroes.
Of course he was the devastating Tiberius in I, Claudius; of course he was Mr Bowler, the gangster with artistic pretensions, in LWT’s comedy series, Bowler; and of course he was the tough shipping-line owner in the TV soap Triangle and Maid Marian’s father in Robin of Sherwood. But these merely represent the more obvious tip of the creative iceberg that is George Baker.
Perhaps he is less familiar to a public who know him simply as the actor with the cultured voice and oh-so-smooth manner, in his ‘other life’ as a successful radio and television dramatist with his partner, John Michael Phillips, he also writes, produces and directs industrial and promotional films.
“It gives me such a buzz, such a tremendous feeling of achievement, to diversify,” says George, who was last seen on TV earlier this year in the Lenny Henry film, Coast to Coast. It gradually began to hit me about ten years ago that acting alone wasn’t enough for me.
“I’d served my time with the Old Vic and with the Royal Shakespeare Company and done about twenty-five West End plays. I’d been in innumerable films and TV productions. But I needed something more creative to occupy my mind than spouting other people’s words.
“I’d always written—plays, stories, poetry—but it was this moment of awakening which really brought me to my senses. Suddenly I could see an alternative way of serving my career and my family. Today, for the first time, I can at least see the fruition of that turning point. All the threads are coming together at last and I’m having the time of my life.”
This year, George has: written and directed two new promotional films; reemd and talked about his poetry on BBC radio; started work on his first stage play; turned his radio thriller, Executive Order, into a book and received an award nomination from the British Industrial and Scientific Film Association for his film on St. Edmund’s School, Canterbury.
Nevertheless, his legions of fans will be relieved to learn that he has found time to do a bit of acting! He turns up on television in October in LWT’s new six-part series, The Charmer, alongside Nigel Havers and Fiona Fullerton.
And he’s currently starring as Inspector Reg Wexford in TVS’ four-part detective series, Wolf to the Slaughter, based on a novel by one of Britain’s leading crime writers, Ruth Rendell.
“I knew I had to play Wexford the minute I set eyes on the scripts,” says George. “For a start, Wexford loves his food and so do I; and like Wexford, I’ve got to watch my weight. He’s an off-beat policeman who loves music, poetry and Shakespeare, as I do. I think we have a lot in common. I’m a character actor, you see, not a personality actor.”
Although in recent years George has been seen in films such as The 39 Steps, Hopscotch and North Sea Hijack, he effectively abandoned his screen career in the late Sixties. Film fame, he says now, came too early - he was just twenty-four when he played the flight-lieutenant who drops one of the bombs on the Ruhr dams in The Dam Busters.
He had been a humble stage actor in weekly rep before he was discovered by Associated British Pictures and whisked off to make a film, first as a contract player and then as a star. It hit him hard. “It just suddenly came… boom!” he recalls now. “I was unprepared for stardom, unable to cope with it.”
So, encouraged by his first wife, Julia Squire, he said good-bye to movies and resumed his former career as a stage actor. Television then discovered him and, many years later, he was courted once again by the cinema: but this time he accepted roles on his terms.
He’s never looked back. Today he is one of the busiest character actors in the business, even though he limits his appearances in order to give himself more time for his other interests.
On television in recent years he’s found himself hopping from guest appearances on TV’s Hart to Hart and A Woman of Substance to meatier roles in the BBC’s Agatha Christie Miss Marple series. In fact, it was it was his portrayal of the Gilbert-and-Sullivan loving Inspector Davey in one of the Miss Marple stories that convinced producer John Davies that he had found his Wexford.
One thing is certain about George Baker, he has led an eventful, colourful life. He is the son of a Yorkshire importer-exporter who was appointed British Vice-Consul in Varna, Bulgaria, where George was born in 1931. His Irish mother had worked for the Red Cross and, in 1927, was sent out to Bulgaria to help with a serious epidemic of typhoid - and there met and fell in love with Francis Pearson Baker.
“We had a town house in Varna, and a villa overlooking the sea at Golden Sands, and we always moved to the villa for the summer. Father rode very well and he taught us. He was the son of a Yorkshire farmer, and we were always on horses. Riding is still one of the great passions of my life and I have my father to thank for that.”
On his arrival in England for the first time, at the age of nine, George had a rather rude awakening when he attended prep school. He was branded a ‘foreigner’, and it was no different, later, at Lancing public school. “It was incredibly difficult, because I had no ‘background’. I felt persecuted for a long time, not knowing who I really was, or what I was; feeling that I didn’t fit it.”
One day at Lancing he felt enough was enough. He ran away, never to return. ”I was fourteen, my father was already dead, and my mother - well, it was wartime and she was having a very hard time bringing up five children. I rang her up and said, ‘If you’re finding it difficult to pay my school fees…’ I never regretted running away.”
After several stop-gap jobs in local government, and National Service, George worked in almost every repertory theatre in the country until he was spotted by Dam Busters director Michael Anderson.
“It’s a good life!” he cracks and, these days you have no reason to doubt him. Married to his second wife, actress Sally Home, the central point of his life, as are his daughters - one of whom, Ellie, has recently made him a grandfather for the first time.
“The four daughter from my first marriage have now flown the nest and are well scattered,” he says thoughtfully. “Sarah, my youngest daughter from my second marriage, is about to go to Oxford to read English. I love my daughters dearly and, thankfully, I do manage to see them not too infrequently. I simply couldn’t imagine a life without the girls.”
And now that youngest daughter Sarah is about to go to university, George’s wife Sally will resume her acting career on a more permanent basis. From time to time she has appeared in television productions such as Madame Curie, but the family always came first. ”Sally recently played in Charley’s Aunt at Plymouth and that was very courageous because she hadn’t been on the stage for about twelve years. It was a complete change of gear for her. We’re both finding it difficult adjusting - not having to look after our children any more. We can start doing our own thing.”
George met Sally when they appeared together in the BBC serial Rupert of Hentzau. After twenty-two years together, George likes to tell people today that meeting Sally Home was ‘the beginning of the change of my life’. “We’ve grown all the way, not only as a couple but as individuals,” he reasons.
“I don’t know how much longer I’ll go on as an actor… But if the Wexford series is a success, and the producers say ‘Come and do another one next year’, then I’ll probably accept. I won’t act in anything else and I’ll concentrate on my directing and writing. And then I’d like to do something really outrageously extravagant, hire an open-topped Mercedes and take six weeks off with Sally and go through the Rhône Valley, staying at a nice château and drinking white wine and having the holiday of a lifetime.”