Wexford star George Baker travels to Australia to meet the grandson born days before his wife died…
Pride and joy shine in his craggy face as he cuddles the baby close. “Sam is a very, very special boy,’’ George Baker says. And he wipes away a tear. For with the happiness there is sadness, too. Sally, the wife who was like a second mother to the Inspector Wexford star’s four daughters, can’t be with him in Australia to share this moment. She died of cancer just a few days after Samuel George was born.
The bouncing baby grandson - George’s first - will do much to ease his heartache. But now, more than ever, he feels Sally’s absence deeply. “It was wonderful that Sam was born before Sal died,’’ George says. “They were able to speak to each other on the phone - he made gurgling noises to her. Sally said, ‘Isn’t it extraordinary - I go and Sam comes?’ She was very philosophical and happy about it in that way. It would have been horrid if he had been born a few days after she died.’‘
George and Sally had been planning to fly out to Australia for his daughter Candy’s wedding to novelist Robert Drewe two years ago. But, just as she never saw Candy’s baby, Sally was denied that, too. The trip had to be cancelled when Sally was told the cancer she thought was beaten had returned. She spent the next 18 months putting a brave face on her illness, with lots of loving support from George.
Missing, too, from this family reunion Down Under is George’s first wife, Julia Squire - Candy’s mum. She died three years ago in a tragic fall down a flight of stairs. “I was very sad that Julia didn’t see the boy,’’ George says. “But she saw one of our granddaughters. Still, that’s life. It isn’t as pretty as we are given to understand in fairy tales.”
He brightens. Rather than dwell on the past, he wants to talk about his grandson. “He’s enormous,’’ he says. “He was 10lb when he was born. I hope he is not going to be taller than me. I was 6ft 4in when I was 14 and 6ft 2in when I was 12 … that doesn’t help at all.” George’s love for this happy, chuckling child is just as giant-sized. “This is the first fella I have had in my family. I have five daughters and two granddaughters, so it is pretty exciting, as you can imagine, suddenly to have a boy. I’ve been used to playing dolls all these years. Now I’ll have to learn to play football.’‘
Such thoughts and many others went through his mind on his journey to Australia. He was thrilled about the prospect of seeing Candy, 37, for the first time in three years. It was also a chance to see another daughter, Charlie, 29, who has also made her home in Sydney. And, of course, there was baby Sam to dangle on his knee. George loves kids.
The 60-year-old actor has two granddaughters, Rose, 5, and three-year-old Kim by daughter Ellie. Naturally, he spoils them rotten.But the day before he boarded the plane the pleasure of the reunion was tinged with sorrow. Sally wasn’t with him. And he knew he’d be more keenly aware of her loss than ever because he wouldn’t be able to bury himself in his work.
The Ruth Rendell Mysteries re-established George as a household name. It was Sally’s dying wish that he should throw himself into his role as country copper Inspector Reg Wexford - and that he has done with a vengeance. Six months of 12-hour days, six days a week - that’s what it has taken to film the only four Wexford stories not previously adapted for TV. George put the finishing touches to the last episode just over a week ago, and the new ITV series starts next Sunday. Unless Miss Rendell writes any more Wexford adventures, he has played the man from Kingsmarkham for the very last time. “Now,’’ he says, “I can do my grieving in peace. I only hope I did everything Sally would have wanted me to do. I got on with the work, tried very hard to stay jovial, and kept a smiling face. Now I might sit down on the beach and have a good blub.’‘
Candy, a journalist who settled in Australia 15 years ago, offers comfort. She feels the loss of her mum and Sally too. “I have missed them very much since Sam was born. There is not a day which goes by when I don’t think of them,’’ she says. “I was very close to Sally. We have always been a close family although there are 12,000 miles between us. I was so pleased she lived until just after Sam was born. It was a bright moment in a dark time. Sally was dad’s lynch-pin and her death was a great shock, especially coming so close to the loss of my mum. The trip will help him get over Sal’s death. It will also give him a chance to recharge his batteries and have a look at where he is going next.’‘
George will make the most of the chance to unwind in the Australian sunshine - it’s spring over there. But his dedication to work will be in evidence too. He has already written the pilot for a new series called Dead On Time. It’s about a London-based detective and his TV bosses are eager to have the rest of the scripts.
“I’m a total puritan about work,’’ he confesses. “If I go on holiday and don’t do some work, I feel it is quite reprehensible. So I plan to do a couple of hours’ writing in the morning then go off and have a swim in the afternoon. That’s when I’ll do my thinking about Sal and Julia and the days I shared with them.’‘
But George is a realist. He knows that life goes on. Little Samuel is testimony to that. So his focus is on the future - Sam’s future. “My daughter and her husband have asked me to be his godfather as well as his grandfather,’’ he says. “That means I’m responsible for his spiritual welfare. And that means I shall have to live longer to be around when he needs me.’’ Determination shows on his face. Sally would have wanted that.