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George Baker

George's charisma made Wexford

Article by Polly Dunbar • MailOnline • 08 Oct 2011

He was, according to Ruth Rendell, not just an unforgettable actor, but the most wonderfully warm and vibrant person. She created George Baker’s most famous role, the affable, homely Inspector Wexford, in 23 novels written over four decades. But it is Baker, who on Friday died of pneumonia aged 80, whom the crime author credits with turning her character into one of Britain’s best-loved fictional detectives through his performance in The Ruth Rendell Mysteries.

George made Wexford, she said. If some other actor had played the part and hadn’t had George’s charisma, Wexford would never have become as well known as he did. He made him more famous than the Irish county he was named after.

It is almost impossible for an actor to match the image an author has in their mind of a character, and when Baroness Rendell first saw Baker performing as Wexford, she was dissatisfied, deeming him too attractive. Yet when she heard his reassuring West Country burr and witnessed the slight air of fallibility he brought to the role, she was convinced he was ideal. In fact, so delighted was she with his portrayal that when writing further Wexford stories, it was Baker she envisaged speaking the dialogue.

I didn’t like George as Wexford at first, she admitted. He is described in the early books as an ugly man but George was handsome, big and tall. It was his marvellous achievement to make the character better than I had intended. George’s warmth was very apparent from my first meeting with him. He was the sort of person who would always be very welcoming. He was also a great reader and a very cultivated person, and he brought those qualities to the part.

For those who were close to Baker, his death was tremendously sad but not unexpected. His third wife, Louie Ramsay, who played his wife Dora in The Ruth Rendell Mysteries, died in March following a long illness throughout which her husband had nursed her. Baker himself had also been frail for some time and recently suffered a stroke.

Baroness Rendell said: I was shocked when I heard about George’s death, because death is always a shock, but not especially surprised because I knew he hadn’t been well. I am very sad to lose him. I knew Louie well too, of course. I went to their wedding and spent time at their home with them. Their — marriage was a very happy one indeed and it was terribly sad for him when she died.

Although Wexford may be the role for which Baker will be best remembered, Baroness Rendell is eager that he is also recognised for his many other achievements over a career which spanned six decades.

George was a wonderful, versatile actor, with a face you can picture in your mind’s eye. He was brilliant in many roles. I particularly enjoyed him in I, Claudius. And he was multi-talented; he wrote many of the adaptations of my stories for The Ruth Rendell Mysteries.

From the start of his career, Baker was a polymath who did not merely act, but co-scripted films wrote for television and devised occasional shows for the stage.

Born in 1931 in Bulgaria, where his English father was working as a diplomat, he returned to England during the Second World War and began acting in repertory while still a teenager. His matinee idol looks and seemingly effortless ability to switch from arrogant to timid or menacing to charming, depending on the requirement of the part, first brought him fame in the Fifties in films including The Dam Busters and The Ship That Died of Shame.

Baker was proposed by James Bond author Ian Fleming as the ideal star for the first 007 movie, Dr No. In an interview, he described meeting the author: ‘I was having lunch in a restaurant with an impresario, Robert Clark, when Ian Fleming came over. He said to Robert, You should turn my books into films. And that’s James Bond sitting next to you.’ In the end, he was unable to take the part because he was tied into a studio contract.

Yesterday his daughter Ellie Baker revealed he had never regretted missing out on the role. He enjoyed being a character actor, being broad and having the chance to do so many different roles, and perhaps if he’d done that one he would have been typecast, she said.

Nonetheless, he did go on to play other characters in three Bond films. The Spy Who Loved Me, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice. He also found success on the stage, touring with the Old Vic, winning plaudits for his many roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company and spending six years running his own theatre company. In 1980, his award-winning play The Fatal Spring. was shown on BBC2.

But it was television which brought him some of his most memorable roles. He dazzled as the corrupt Tiberius in I, Claudius, the BBC’s 1976 adaptation of Robert Graves’s novels about the Roman emperor, and appeared as Number Two in cult drama The Prisoner and in 1987 filmed the first episode of The Ruth Rendell Mysteries.

In the following 13 years, 23 titles were made, each having between one and four episodes which drew huge audiences on Sunday evenings. He also found the time for cameos in many other popular programmes, including Coronation Street, Spooks and New Tricks.

Baker’s personal life was, at times, as colourful as his career. When he found fame, he married costume designer Julia Squire. But he was unfaithful to her with Brigitte Bardot, who he met at Pinewood studios in 1955 while he was making the film The Woman For Joe and she was in Doctor At Sea. They enjoyed a passionate affair, with Baker later describing himself as ‘hooked, mesmerised’. Their liaison ended, however, when she returned to France six weeks later.

He later began an affair with the woman who would become his second wife, Sally Home, leading a double life with Sally in London and Julia and their four daughters in the country. Shortly after he set up home with Sally, Julia died from falling down stairs.

In 1992, Sally, with whom he had a fifth daughter, died of cancer. Following her death, he grew closer to his on-screen wife Louie — so much so that their children suggested they should marry. Baker often spoke of his devotion to Louie and his gratitude that she had helped him overcome his grief over Sally.

I have never been so happy, he said. That is not to take anything away from the good times I had before Louie, but I would be a lesser man without her.

The couple lived in the Wiltshire village of West Lavington, where in 2007 Baker was awarded an MBE for his fundraising for the local youth club. It was at their cottage in the village that he nursed Louie, who suffered dementia and several strokes, until her death.