The home I'll share with Louie
TV’s Inspector Wexford, the actor George Baker, introduces Woman’s Weekly readers to the lovely home he will soon be sharing in real life with his co-star, Louie Ramsay, and recalls his love for, and the courage of, his late wife Sally.
The handshake is firm, the smile is wide, and the welcome is very warm. George Baker’s regal bearing and mellow voice fill the scrubbed pine kitchen in his Wiltshire cottage, where Louie Ramsay, his devoted TV wife, Dora, in the Ruth Rendell Mysteries, will shortly be joining him. The loneliness and despair since the death of his wife Sally, in March 1992, will fade in September, when, after a friendship that began more than 40 years ago, George and Louie marry.
Showing the caring side of her nature in real life, as she so often did when comforting the harassed detective on screen, Louie Ramsay came into George’s thoughts one day when he was going to yet another charity event on his own. He asked her to go with him. “We have always liked each other,” he says. “We laugh at the same things.” Both are 62- “a couple of old-age pensioners who suddenly found they were having a lot of fun,” he smiles.
“Louie has been on her own for 15 years, so she knows what it feels like,” explains George, as he throws the supper ingredients together with remarkable ease the delicious aroma of cassoulet of veal and haricot
beans soon fills the kitchen. “Two lonely people have just decided to get together.”
Louie and George will settle down in this beautiful cottage, keeping her flat as their London base. When Sally Baker first saw the cottage near Devizes, she declared it had a kitchen George would kill for. He certainly agrees: “I took one look and that was that we bought it.” It is decorated in a tasteful, traditional style. Every room is filled with sentimental ornaments and memories of Sally.
A pine dresser in the kitchen displays delightful blue and white plates. “Sally’s father was at the Battle of Jutland and bought them in Gibraltar,” explains George, pointing out the royal profile. “They’re Victorian. There were twenty-six; we’ve got nine.” A linen press in the hall is dated 1588. “Sal picked that up in a second-hand shop in Bell Street Market for seven pounds ten!”
The solid silver owl on the bureau in the drawing room came from George’s Irish aunt. “She used to teach elocution at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. I told her I wanted to be an actor, so she taught me how to speak.”
The entire wall above the fireplace is dedicated to pictures of “Sally and her people”. A portrait of his late wife, painted by Canadian artist Oppenheimer in 1956 is compared to an earlier piece - Sally’s great-grandmother. “Look at that,” invites George. “They’re clones, aren’t they? Isn’t that incredible?”
There is a drawing of Sally above the brick fireplace. Her photograph sits on the desk just across from a picture of George and Louie taken at Easter.
George gazes at the framed drawing. “Sally will never be out of my heart or my life she is there,” he says softly. “I don’t have to explain about her to Lou because they knew each other and are alike in so many ways.”
George remains a family man at heart, despite years of success on the large and small screen. The fame accrued from his portrayal of Tiberius in I, Claudius, Bowler in his own series or, more recently, Inspector Wexford in the Ruth Rendell Mysteries, leaves him unchanged.
“I have five daughters,” he says, proudly showing photographs of them all - Candida, Tessa, the twins Eleanor and Inspector Charlotte (“They prefer to be called Ellie and Charlie”) - by his first wife, the late designer, Julia Squires - and Sarah, the youngest, by Sally. The Baker family is close-knit, even though two daughters now live in Australia with their own families.
“The Australian ones Candida and Charlie don’t visit often, for obvious reasons, but the younger ones came to Sally’s funeral and stayed a while. The other one was having a baby, so she couldn’t.”
Sally and George, together since 1963, were married in 1973. Her death last year, after a long fight against cancer, still brings a furrow to his brow.
“It started with cancer of the spine - the growth was removed and we thought, ‘That’s that’. There was a remission of nearly five months, which was when we bought this house.” He sighs. "Unfortunately, the disease returned and a second operation was performed. That was when they said nothing more could be done.
“Sally underwent radiotherapy, which gave us a little more time, but she refused chemotherapy. She wanted to go for quality of life — and she did!” says George with pride. “Funnily enough, we had an absolutely marvellous time.”
Sally’s three-year illness coincided with the filming of the Wexford series and, at first, George looked after her alone. “I used to leave everything cooked and ready for her before setting off to work.” As her health deteriorated, Sally was confined to a wheelchair and slept downstairs under the care of a resident Macmillan nurse.
“Sally was incredibly brave,” recalls George, “and she took it all as fun. She used to come whizzing on her wheelchair into the kitchen to help me with the washing-up.”
Over the last 15 months, George’s life has been dominated by writing. But the good news is that a new Wexford mystery is in the pipeline, piquantly starring George with Louie who, by the time it appears on TV, will be real-life husband and wife.
Right now, George’s daily routine is simple. “I get up at quarter to five, go into the office and do three hours’ work. My Calvinistic nature then feels it’s earned itself the two hours I go out riding. When I come back, I work until one, have lunch and then write until seven.”
George’s love of horses began early. His father put him on horseback at 18 months and he has ridden ever since. He rides his event horse, Scotch Lyric, daily. “I have seen almost every country in the world from the back of a horse.”
A fondness for New Zealand developed when he played Inspector Alleyn in the Ngaio Marsh books for TV. “I saw parts of the country I don’t think many New Zealanders have!”
Baker’s extraordinary career spans over 40 years, including a string of famous films including The Dambusters, Goodbye Mr Chips and The 39 Steps, yet, surprisingly, he declares, “The medium I adore, both writing for and acting in, is radio.” He has a play to write for BBC Radio later this year. “Then I’ll sit down and write a novel.”
The family is delighted that he plans to marry Louie - all five daughters will attend the wedding. And Sally? “We had no secrets. I never wake up thinking, ‘Oh, I wish I’d said that to her.’ I have no regrets.”