An enormous number of women seem to love me as Inspector Wexford. I haven’t the faintest idea what it is that attracts them to him. How they can think that fat old man is in any way handsome, I don’t know, but they all seem to think he is. I get far more letters today from female fans than I did in my days as a matinee idol. I never liked the matinee idol image that I had back in the Fifties.
There was all sorts of rubbish written about ‘dark, vivacious George Baker’ which I really wasn’t very comfortable with. I had always thought of myself as a character actor, but all of a sudden people decided I was terribly good-looking and so I made 16 films in four years. There were only a very few, like Tread Softly Stranger with Diana Dors, that I was proud of. Those roles were actually a dying breed and once the new wave of film-makers like Lindsay Anderson came in, my film career was over. I am the same age as Peter O’Toole but my career as a film star had finished before he started. I was delighted because it meant I could go back into the theatre and also do an enormous amount of television, playing character parts.
I can’t say I ever thought of myself as a matinee idol. I am not a vain man. I look at myself in the mirror when I shave and put my contact lenses in and I don’t look in a mirror again until I take my contact lenses out at night. Nowadays I would say I have an image of someone who is overweight. I have been fighting weight from the age of 24. Before then I was very slim and lithe but unfortunately it’s in my genes. My sister is quite sizeable and so are two of my brothers.
However, I am very fit. I have always walked a great deal and I have been riding horses since my father first put me on one when I was three. I shall soon be 65 and I think I am very fit for my age. I don’t think of myself as a 65-year-old but I think that is partly because actors are very young in spirit. When you are casual labour, which is what actors are, you have to stay on the balls of your feet and dance a bit. You can’t sit back and take things easy. I also have five daughters and they help me to spend my money, so I can’t afford to retire.
There was an article in a newspaper about me recently, in which I said Ruth Rendell had better hurry up and write another Wexford story soon, because most policemen retire at 50 - so I’m already too old to play him. I said I didn’t want to be like Jack Warner and have to be wheeled on, stuttering the lines. This was written up as me telling Ruth that I wanted to retire. When it appeared, an old friend from my National Service days wrote to me saying he couldn’t believe I was thinking of retirement because he still pictured me as this young man riding across the fields on a horse, which is how I think of myself.
The image I have of myself as a husband is that, as I have been married three times, it is a state that seems to suit me. I was 19 when I married my first wife, Julia, so I have been in the state of marriage for most of my life. I would be very lost without a wife to care for. That’s how I see being a husband - I need somebody to look after, not somebody to look after me. My first marriage lasted about 11 years. It was a lovely marriage for a long time but sadly, it went wrong for various reasons. But my first wife and I remained friends until she died. She was very fond of my second wife, Sally, and she used to come and stay with us.
When I was young, perhaps I wasn’t much of a husband - not all I should have been - but with Sally I became a much nicer man and, in a way, a much better husband. We were together for 28 years until she died, nearly four years ago. Although I had become accustomed to the fact that she was dying for three years, it was still a hell of a shock. It has taken me a very long time to get over her death and, to tell you the truth, I think I am only just getting over it now. I can be walking around the corner and suddenly I see something which I want to tell her about and then I realise that she’s not there. Those things creep up on you. By the very thought and gesture you have suddenly brought back 28 years and your memory goes whizzing through all parts of your life, her life and your life together, and it all comes flooding home. You never know when it’s going to happen.
I did have the most wonderful 28 years with her and never a day goes by without me thinking something to myself like ‘I wonder if Sally would approve of that’, so her spirit is with me always. When she had first gone I was sad all the time; but now the sadness comes as a surprise, which means I am getting over it. Now it is the good things that remain - the laughter and the happy times.
I didn’t expect to marry again but in 1994 I married Louie Ramsay, who plays my screen wife in Wexford. We have been friends for a long time and she also knew Sally. Louie has been wonderful for me and she absolutely understands how I feel about Sally. When we first got together, I told her that I wanted us to live in the cottage in Wiltshire which Sally had found for us when we were married. She said: `Fine, I’ll settle for that and I don’t want you to move a single picture or anything else in the cottage.’
Over the mantelpiece I have a beautiful pastel portrait of Sally and I offered to take it down, but she insisted I kept it where it was. She says she doesn’t even want to re-decorate the house, which I think is quite remarkable. I am very happy because Sally is a positive, not a negative influence on my life and Louie understands that.
As a father I have an image of myself as a friend. I have four daughters from my first marriage and one from my second and I think I have been as good a father to them all as I can be. It’s a funny sort of fatherhood because I have always done the cooking in the house and consequently my daughters are all good cooks. I don’t think there are many fathers who can say: ‘I taught my daughters to cook.’ But even when I was a child I did the cooking. In some ways I was the daughter of the house. My father died when I was 12 and my mother, who was 38 at the time, had a nervous breakdown; so I had to take over the running of the house and look after my three brothers, because my sister was too young. Even now I enjoy housework and I’m quite happy to do the sewing, the ironing and the cooking.
My mother recovered but she didn’t have an easy time of it, bringing up five children during the war with no money. But when she died, at the age of 87, she’d had an absolutely remarkable life of which she had made the most, which, I think, is where I get my strength and optimism from. I think that helped me when Sally was dying. We talked about death together a lot, and now that I am the age I am, I do think about my own death. When you are young, you think you have time to waste; but when you become my age, you know you haven’t got any time to waste. I have to try to achieve something every day.
I do believe that the day you are born, you start dying, and so the goal you are making for is your death. It may sound like a morbid thought, but I actually think death is a person’s greatest achievement. All I hope for is that I am vouchsafed a death like my mother who, at 87, died as she was sitting in a chair, sipping a glass of wine, with someone she loved - my brother. So if God would be kind enough to grant me the same exit, I would be very happy.