For a man who has had harrowing surgery for cancer, TV star George Baker is looking remarkably well. His face is healthily weather-beaten from walking and riding through the Wiltshire countryside where he lives with wife, actress Louie Ramsay. His 6ft 4in physique, in open-necked shirt and casual trousers, is trim. He’s fighting fit, and at 70 he could easily pass for a decade younger. But this time last year it was a very different story for the popular actor, who is regularly watched by 15 million playing Ruth Rendell’s family-man detective, Insp Reg Wexford.
He was recovering from a major operation for prostate cancer. He’d had no symptoms of the stealthy disease, which, if left unchecked, could have killed him within three years. And it was thanks to the love of his third wife and co-star Louie Ramsay that it was caught in time. For George, whose second wife Sally died of cancer, admits he would never have gone for the routine check-up without Louie’s persistence. “If it had been left untreated, it would have been too late to operate,” he says. “I really can say I owe my life to Louie.”
Slowly sipping a chilled glass of wine, he explains: “I had two tumours on the prostate gland, one minor and one very virulent. “It was an enormous operation. I had to have an epidural to produce loss of sensation below the waist, and general anaesthetic.” But he was helped by the skill and optimism of his medical team.
“My surgeon gave me the feeling of ‘I think we can do this. It will work,’” he says. “I thought: ‘Let’s hope it will.’ I also knew from my experience from Sal what to expect if I didn’t.”
“We talked about death together a lot. 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.”
Although he is remarkably matter-of-fact about his illness and without any trace of self-pity, being diagnosed with cancer on New Year’s Eve 1998 must have hit him hard.
The memories of actress Sally’s losing battle with spinal cancer were still painful. She put up a tremendous fight - even flying out to Corsica, wheelchair-bound, to be with George as he filmed a Wexford story. She had surgery and radiotherapy. And, for a while, it looked as though she would recover. But the cancer returned and he lost her 8 years ago. “Sally was so brave, but she wouldn’t have chemotherapy,” he says. “It was offered, but by that time she was terminally ill. The doctors could not guarantee that it would extend her life at all. She just couldn’t go through with it. She didn’t want her hair to fall out and she’d been through enough suffering.”
But he still finds her death hard to bear. “I don’t think you ever get over it really. When it comes to the anniversary of Sal’s death, I suddenly find myself very low. “Louie is understanding - she understands that you would be a very sad person if you didn’t remember with gratitude 28 loving years. I still feel Sal’s spirit in the house.”
George took six months to recover after his own operation in March last year. He tried to carry on as normal, even writing the first volume of his autobiography. But the results, he admits, were not up to scratch. “I thought I was doing fabulously well, but my concentration was not good,” he says.
“My publisher was not very happy with what I’d written and sent it back. I left it for a while, and when I went back to it I thought: ‘How embarrassing… did I really send this out to the world?’ It was terrible.” The book, to be published next year, tells his colourful story from birth to the age of 19, when he was on the brink of becoming a star in movies such as The Dam Busters and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the hit TV drama I, Claudius. George, the Bulgarian-born son of an English diplomat and an Irish mother, also married for the first time - to the late costume designer Julia Squire, by whom he had four of his five daughters, now aged from 45 to 33. His eldest, Candy, gave birth to her second child, Anna Julia, last week in Australia.
He counts the break-up of his first marriage among his biggest regrets. “I wish I had made a better job of marriage to Julia,” he says. “But we were both very young at the time, weren’t sensible with our money and had four young daughters to cope with. And if I hadn’t parted from Julia, I would not have had nearly 30 happy years with Sally.”
Despite George’s long career in film, TV and the theatre, it is Wexford who has made him a household name. Almost exactly a year after his operation, he was back in front of the cameras filming the latest episode. And the plot is both timely and controversial.
The 23rd Wexford story, Harm Done, is a highly-charged drama about the disappearance of a little girl days after a convicted paedophile is released from jail and returns to live in the community, which erupts in violence.
It’s a very topical plot, coming so soon after the recent paedophile name-and-shame campaign, and there have been rumours that the feature-length drama could be pulled from the schedules by nervous ITV bosses. At the moment, it is due for transmission next month.
George says: “I think it definitely should be shown, because it does not skate around the matter - it’s a very serious piece of work. It shows the difficulties faced by the police, whose job it is to protect paedophiles from the mob - even though they may be family men themselves, with an absolute horror of children being put at risk of harm from the people they are guarding.”
The stories are very much a family affair for George and Louie, 70. She plays his screen wife Dora. The couple married in 1993 and are blissfully happy living in their snug cottage near Devizes, Wilts. But it would have been a different story had she not insisted that he went for that fateful health check.
“I had what they call a PSA test, which shows if there are signs of cancer,” he explains. “My PSA level was high, so I had a biopsy, which confirmed cancer was there.”
George hopes that talking frankly about his experience of cancer may save other men suffering in the same fashion. The PSA test, a simple blood test, can be carried out by a patient’s own GP.
“I really do believe the test should become routine for men over a certain age,” George says. “Ladies are encouraged to have regular smear tests. There is no reason why gentlemen should not have a PSA in the same way.”
Throughout his illness, he maintained the stiff-upper-lip approach typical of men of his generation. When told he had cancer, he calmly returned home and cooked dinner for a party of family and friends before breaking the news to Louie. “I told her after we’d seen the New Year in,” he says. “Obviously she was upset, but I knew I was in good hands - I had a wonderful surgeon, so there was no point in getting panicky.” But, deep down, he must have been terrified - especially when he developed pneumonia a couple of weeks before he was due to have surgery. “That was a difficult time,” he admits. “I was too ill for the anaesthetic and the operation was delayed until I was in better shape.”
George is a proud man and was naturally left uncomfortable by the incontinence which follows removal of the prostate, a gland at the neck of the bladder. He says: “I was given exercises to do which strengthen the pelvic floor. I used to get a bit twitchy if Louie and I were going to functions, but the situation improved as time went on.”
Another distressing effect of prostate surgery for many men is loss of the ability to father children, but luckily George didn’t have to worry about that. He says: “I’ve got five daughters and eight grandchildren. I could see that if I was 40, with a young wife, I would have a problem. But at my age? No.”
“As far as I was concerned, I wanted the cancer destroyed, and destroyed quickly.” He could have had radiotherapy or the more potent chemotherapy. But his surgeon recommended surgery as the most effective option. “I asked him which would he go for, and he replied that in my case, he would choose surgery.” What helped him through it all was the love of his large extended family - and a determination that he would be fit enough afterwards to play Wexford again.
As he recovered, George found the strength to star in a film version of Return To The Secret Garden, a sequel to the children’s classic The Secret Garden. The movie, which also stars Joan Plowright, comes out later this year - and it is proof of George’s powers of endurance. “When you get to my age, I believe you need more self-confidence than you ever did when you were young,” he says. “You have to decide whether you want to opt out - to retire from the race - or keep on going. I still want, very much, to be in the race, no matter how difficult it gets.”
“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.”
In the meantime he wants to help others. “One family in three will be touched by cancer in some way,” he says. “Awareness is so important. “If it hadn’t been for Louie forcing me to have that check-up, I wouldn’t be here.”