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George Baker

Johnny and the Dead

LWT Press Release • 1995

George Baker would have taken a big risk if he’d rejected the role of Alderman Bowler.

“I’d have probably been struck off as a grandfather!” he says. “My grandchildren are great fans of Terry Pratchett, so I would have been in grave trouble. Their mother, my 32-year-old daughter, actually introduced me to Terry’s work. I think she’s a bigger fan than the kids!”

As it happens, George loved the script and loved the story, so had no hesitation in taking the role of the upright - but rather dead - former town leader who gets a new lease of life in Johnny and the Dead.

“It’s such a fun piece - it’s got something for children of all ages. It tells a lovely story, and the Alderman is a splendid sort of Cockney character. I like to think that this sort of character is still around. I’d be very sorry if those characters disappeared.”

George, a prolific writer as well as a renowned actor, rejected the idea of a municipal career for himself early on. “I did work for Poplar Borough Council in about 1945/46 as a junior clerk in the baths and washhouses department - there was certainly no danger of me rising to become an alderman!”

Alderman Thomas Bowler is the first of the dead to appear to Johnny Maxwell and acts as the boy’s guide. Blackbury’s prominent citizen lived from 1822 to 1906, and his ‘home’ in the cemetery is an imposing marble mausoleum - until he sees a whole new set of possibilities open up before him.

Once he breaks free from the graveyard, the Alderman finds he rather likes some aspects of modern life - allowing George to demonstrate some pretty nifty footwork!

Filming also gave George the chance to catch up with some old friends. “I last worked with Brian Blessed in I Claudius, Jane Lapotaire was a very dear friend of my late wife, and I’ve spent a lot of time with Harry Landis (who plays Solomon Einstein) over the years, so we all spent a lot of time gossiping.”

And who said acting was a glamorous life? “One day I recall in particular we moved from Nunhead Cemetery to Hackney Marshes. So much for exotic locations!” he jokes. “When we got there, it was raining so much that the day’s shooting had to be cancelled.”

“I’ve never known it rain so much, but you can’t tell in the finished product. I think it’s wonderful.”

Much of the shoot took place in a real-life cemetery, with only a few prop gravestones, but George didn’t find anything spooky about the location. “I didn’t mind at all. I’m a bit like Johnny in that respect, I think the ‘dead’ are lovely.”

At 64, George has no plans to slow down his hectic work schedule, juggling dual careers as a writer and actor. “I do get into trouble and accused of being a workaholic - doesn’t everyone work 16-hour days?!”