By George, an affair to remember
Living in a small village near a small town in Wiltshire is lovely, says George Baker, synonymous for many with Detective Chief Inspector Wexford in ITV’s The Ruth Rendell Mysteries. “They all know me,” he enthuses, “although one of them stopped me in the pedestrian precinct in Devizes recently and said, ‘I could spit in your eye’.” So it’s not that lovely, then? But George is laughing heartily. “It was because of the Brigitte Bardot thing. He was incredibly jealous.”
Ah, yes, the Brigitte Bardot thing. This particular ‘thing’ occupies a mere half-page of George’s truly fascinating autobiography, just published, but the media landed on it like a vulture on roadkill. It recalls a quick fling between our solid TV copper and one of the sex symbols of the 20th Century. It was over in a flash, and George admits he could have left it out of the book. Strictly speaking, it was a skeleton in his cupboard. None of us knew about it, and George was married at the time.
But what a skeleton! Imagine the mental turmoil of any red-blooded male telling his life story, weighing up the pros and cons. Let these particular old bones fall out with a crash, and you might look a bit of a cad - but you might also (as proven by the encounter in Devizes) be the envy of men the world over.
The way George tells it, Bardot was in Britain to film Doctor In The House while he was making another film, The Woman For Joe. Her dressing room was opposite his. "I shall never know how it came about that Brigitte was in my dressing room and in my arms, or how it came about that I was in her dressing room in her arms. It just happened. I was completely dazzled and hopelessly in lust.
“It was not a love affair. As far as Brigitte was concerned, I felt I was there to provide a dalliance while she was filming. As far as I was concerned I was mesmerised and followed on wherever she led.”
The book is in the shops, the cat is out of the bag, and George has no regrets - or at least no more regrets. He concludes the passage in the book by admitting this and other affairs caused pain and were due, in most cases, to his “crassness”. But now, aged 71, he can well understand the “Wow” factor that threw him and Bardot together back then. "I was 24, and I think she was 22, and she was the sex kitten, and I was supposed to be the matinée idol, but none of that came into it really.
“It’s as I describe it. She was working on one side and I was working on the other. It was just bare lust and at that age, you don’t think a lot, or at least you think with something other than your head. But it was wonderful and then it stopped. It lasted just six weeks and she went back to France. I saw her at the Cannes film festival about a year later and we had a lovely talk and a laugh over a couple of drinks and the whole thing was gone. She was a very nice woman - extraordinarily pretty and very sexy, but actually, once you got to know her, a very intelligent and very nice woman.”
George says it was another woman, his “very blunt” second daughter Tessa, who told him he must include the Bardot fling in his book. “She said, ‘You’ve got to put it in because it hurt Mum so much’.”
Women play an enormous part in George’s story and the Bardot incident hardly stands out in one sense. As a younger man, barely out of short trousers, he had been seduced on a train by an older woman and there is another quite funny account of a fling with a Scandinavian beauty. Years later he met her in polite company in Stratford and they had a lovely chat.
But none of these women can claim to have had the biggest role in the life of a man who has been married three times, has five daughters, a beloved sister and memories of a mother whose exploits alone are worthy of a book and probably even a film.
George recalls that when he wrote the first draft of his book, encouraged by talks he had been giving to raise money for a hospital scanner, his literary agent protested: “This is nothing to do with you. This is a biography of your mother and father.” His parents had met in Bulgaria where his father, Francis, a Yorkshireman, had initially worked as a carpet trader and eventually become British honorary vice-consul in Varna. His mother, Eva McDermott, was a Dubliner who found her way to the same part of the world via nursing.
When the Second World War broke out, George’s beloved father stayed behind and he never saw him again, although he always remembered his advice: “Jora (his Bulgarian nickname), remember, always take a woman by the waist and a bottle by the neck. That way you’ll never go wrong.”
His mother, meanwhile, made a last-minute dash for home with George and a brood of siblings, reaching the Channel just before the Dunkirk evacuation. George’s childhood is an extraordinary story of frequent house moves, financial uncertainty, great love and even greater eccentricity. His mother, who must have been driven to distraction by the pressures of war, particularly after news came through that George’s father had died, saw to it that her children attended good schools but couldn’t always pay the bills.
George laughs affectionately when he remembers her, and how, after he could finally stand it no longer and left school to go to London to try to make it as an actor, she turned up at his digs and took over his room. He was relegated to a sofa. “She was wonderful,” he remembers generously. “We knew she wasn’t quite the same as everybody else. We had 18 homes in five years during the war but we became great friends and she was the most enormous influence on my life. She was infuriating and eccentric but what she gave me was a wonderful sense of get up and go. She would urge us to go out and do what we wanted to do, that there was no way we could be beaten, and there wasn’t an ounce of hate in her.”
George’s acting career took off, although he was hampered by his good looks. It sounds contrary but he swears while he was being cast as the romantic leading man, he yearned to play character parts. When Detective Chief Inspector Wexford came along in the late 1980s, he entered the most rewarding period of his career. “It was my happiest role although it coincided with a period of my life when a lot of my relatives died, including my mother and my wife. It was partly due, I think, to Ruth Rendell’s marvellous work which was beautifully adapted. The producer and the director were good, and Christopher Ravenscroft (who played his sidekick) and I never argued the whole time. There was never a word out of place.”
Having set out to write rather a jokey life story full of funny anecdotes, George says he soon realised it would have to be rather more serious than that. His first marriage to Julia ended in divorce. His second wife, Sally, whom he loved deeply, died of cancer.
It almost seems too perfect to be true that his third wife should be the woman who had played his screen spouse, Dora, in the Wexford programmes. He had known Louie Ramsay for many years and, once again, he jovially blames his second daughter for getting them wed. “She said, ‘If you’re going to do it, you’d better get on with it. You haven’t got that much time left you know’.”
George, who was treated a few years ago for prostate cancer, says he appears to be all clear now, touch wood.
Since he claims an actor never really retires, he is rather hoping that Ruth Rendell’s new novel, due out in November, might mean the return of the chief inspector. Following the revelation of the Bardot fling, will we be able to regard the dependable copper in quite the same light?
Man of many roles
The Way To Wexford by George Baker (Headline, £18.99)
George Baker appeared in films including The Dam Busters, The Ship That Died Of Shame, Tread Softly, Stranger and The Moonraker, a 1957 swashbuckler in which he starred opposite Sylvia Syms.
He played Sir Hilary Bray in the Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and was also asked to dub George Lazenby’s voice for a scene where Bond was supposed to mimic Sir Hilary.
George has had many theatre roles, including The Sleeping Prince, which was seen by the playwright, Terence Rattigan, in Newcastle, where he told the actor:
Thank you for making me like my play.
He was championed by Noel Coward, who became a friend, and tore his tights on stage in the Shakespeare play Richard II at the Old Vic.
On TV he appeared in series including Fraud Squad, Z Cars, Doomwatch, Paul Temple and I, Claudius, playing Tiberius. But he became fixed in the public mind as Detective Chief Inspector Wexford in the Ruth Rendell Mysteries which were screened regularly throughout the 1990s.