Wolf in sheep's clothing
Murder, they cry but where is the body? It is a case to baffle Det Chief Insp Reg Wexford, hero of 13 novels by top woman crime writer Ruth Rendell. Now George Baker stars as Wexford, the latest in a long line of television detectives, in Wolf to the Slaughter, dramatised in four parts and starting on ITV this Sunday.
Invariably, there will be comparisons with Roy Marsden’s portrayal of Adam Dalgleish, the quietly cerebral detective in the series of PD James novels adapted for ITV, the latest of which—A Taste for Death—is due to be screened next year.
“Wexford couldn’t be more different,” says Baker. “Dalgleish is much sharper, much brighter in his own way. On the surface, you might consider Wexford to be a slow man, although his brain is working all the time. He is very much the country copper, no smart alec, rather old-fashioned, in fact. Wexford is a family man who adores his grandchildren and enjoys the odd pint. He gardens, but only under duress—and he loves his food.”
In the garden of a hotel in Romsey, Hampshire, not far from the location where Wolf to the Slaughter is being filmed, George Baker continues to pick out the similarities between Wexford and himself. “The first thing that strikes home about the character and myself is that we both diet,” says Baker, an ample 6ft 4in body of a man. “Wexford is always going on a diet—and I only need to walk past a dish of potatoes to put on weight.”
Like Wexford, Baker enjoys his food. But Baker is an excellent cook as well. “I do the shopping and the cooking for every meal in the house except breakfast, which my wife Sally gets.”
Born in Bulgaria, where his father held a diplomatic post, Baker soon got to like local dishes. “Stuffed peppers were my favourite, and I still love cooking with yoghurt and making borsch. But now I favour traditional English cooking, and I find my tastes getting more and more simple.”
The fictional detective has two daughters; Baker has five, four of them from his first marriage to Julia Squires: “Two of my girls are chefs. None is married. They are doing this modern thing of not marrying. I have a couple of common-law sons-in-law, two of whom are in Australia. And I have a grandchild who is six months old. Being a grandfather is absolutely marvellous; I am potty about kids. My youngest daughter is 19, and she’ll be going up to Oxford in October. Then they’ll all be gone.”
Baker has a clear image of the character he is creating. “I see him as quite a solid bloke, and I think all the people in the pubs he uses know him as Reg. He certainly isn’t a Reginald. He has a nice easy relationship with people, even with the local villains. My own Christian name could hardly be more matter-of-fact. In the local pub here, there is George the thatcher, George the barman and me. Mind you, I haven’t drunk beer for a very long time because it does seem to be very fattening. It is very moreish. I found I would have a pint, another pint and then another. This is naughty,” says Baker, who has accepted a gin and tonic, “but I thought, to hell with it.”
Wexford has a great love of poetry, often quoting Shakespeare. George Baker writes poetry, as well as prose and drama. His play The Fatal Spring was shown on BBC 2 in 1980 and won a certificate of merit in the United Nations Media Peace Prize.
Playing Bulldog breed parts in such films as The Dam Busters (1954) and A Hill in Korea (1956), Baker was groomed for stardom. However, disenchanted with the parts he was being offered, Baker left the studio contract system for a varied career as an actor/manager, director and writer.
Eight years ago, he gave up acting on the stage. “I couldn’t bear the way everyone took it all so seriously. I write a lot now, and If Wexford were to become an established character on television, another series would suit me down to the ground. It would take care of my acting urge and leave me free to put pen to paper.”