George Baker is hard at work doing what he does best. Ever the professional actor, he is never late on set and rarely needs to glance at the lines that lie on his lap, as he sits rehearsing the last Ruth Rendell series featuring Det Ch Insp Wexford for the foreseeable future…
All around him are the television team who have worked alongside him over the past six years. The producer, director, wardrobe and make-up people are now good friends, who have shared laughter and tears filming Wexford from the Hampshire countryside to the hustle bustle of Hong Kong for Sunday’s story, The Speaker of Mandarin, the first of four new Rendell stories adapted for TV.
At Baker’s side is Sarah, youngest of his five daughters and an assistant with the production team, who stands ready with a cup of tea. “Thank you darling,” says Baker without looking up - there’s no emphasis on the family connection here, but it’s not hard to recognize Sarah Baker, who bears such a close resemblance to her mother, actress Sally Home, Baker’s wife of 28 years.
And it’s a mark of his professionalism, courage and dignity, that he flew out to Hong Kong to film, just days after his beloved Sal had lost her three-year battle against cancer. “The TV team was very kind while Sally was ill and said that they would postpone filming, but it was Sally who said, ‘No, that wouldn’t be like us, would it?’ There was no point in changing things really, because we both knew it was a matter of days. But Sal said, ‘Either I’ll go before you do, or I’ll wait until you get back’.”
Sadly, it was to be the day after Sally’s funeral, that Baker made the 14-hour flight to Hong Kong. “Friday the 13th, a bad omen anyway,” he says. He was whisked to wardrobe for a costume and then straight on to the set for a scene that didn’t finish until 11.30 that night. The punishing schedule kept that pace for the next 10 days. It was also a step back in time for Baker to the seven months he spent as a 19-year-old doing national service in Hong Kong.
With just a few days more filming in Britain remaining when we met, George Baker was cherishing the prospect of quiet days at the Wiltshire cottage he and Sally loved so much. “Her presence is very much there and I can never wait to get back,” he says. He’s also looking forward to moving off centre-stage to concentrate on his writing. He adapted The Mouse in the Corner, which will feature later in the series and has two more commissions. “My diary is starting to fill up, but am saying, ‘No, please leave me for a minute, give me a moment for reflection’. It has been a very hard, strange four years. My aunt, of whom I was extremely fond, died, then Sally’s aunt who we both loved, then my first wife (costume designer Julia Squires, mother of his other four daughters), my mother a few weeks later, followed by my youngest brother Terry, who was like a son to me and then Sal, all died. I just needed to go home, have a shake of the head and see what the hell’s going on.”
Sally of course, is on his mind all the time and her name on the tip of his tongue. But he is not bitter and the word unfair is not in his vocabulary. “Sal and I decided at the beginning never to ask ‘Why me?’. She was brave and smiling to the end, even though it was not a pleasant way to go and it ill-beholds me to go stomping about now.”
Instead he is looking forward to the future and a trip to Australia to meet his first grandson, Samuel George, born to his eldest daughter, writer Candida, 37. “A boy in the family at last, can you imagine?” he smiles with obvious delight. “He was born on 24 February, a couple of weeks before Sally died, so she was able to speak to Candy on the phone.”
Daughter Charlie, a remedial therapist, also lives in Sydney. Her twin Ellie is in England with Baker’s two granddaughters, Rosie and Kim. Tessa, a chief, lives in France, but had flown home to help pack up the London house he and Sally sold shortly before she died and the small Southampton flat he rented during the filming of Wexford. “I am very lucky, they are all so supportive and they are my friends,” he says. “I’ve never had enormous jackpots financially - but I have five very good reasons why.”
And, as he casually slings Wexford’s jacket over his shoulder, possibly for the last time, one of the kindest, nicest men in the business gets back to work.