Hugh Massingberd

Gentleman and player

Text settings


George Baker

Headline, pp. 346, £

During my brief stint as a showbiz scribe - which unfortunately came to an end when I expressed a preference for profiling Gerald Harper rather than Jean-Claude Van Damme - I had the privilege of interviewing George Baker (celebrated as Chief Inspector Wexford in ITV's The Ruth Rendell Mysteries), whom I had admired since his days as a clean-cut, young officer in British films of the Fifties. What struck me most about this unusually tall actor was his impeccable courtesy. I arrived disgracefully late for our lunch in Soho, and we were then pestered by one of the neighbourhood topers, but Baker's beautiful manners were a humbling object lesson in good behaviour. After reading his enjoyable autobiography I am all the more impressed, for he claims to possess a bad temper (which perhaps one should have guessed from his tour-de-force as Tiberius, suppurating with syphilis and, we now learn, encrusted with cornflakes, in I, Claudius); and at the time I met him his second wife must have been seriously ill.

A churl, I suppose, might complain of a certain blandness of tone in these finely written, if sometimes carelessly proof-read, memoirs. I confess that there were times when I found myself muttering, 'Come on, Georgie, put the boot in' or, 'Dish the dirt, Baker.' Of his affair with Brigitte Bardot (then filming Doctor at Sea, not, as stated here, Doctor in the House), Gentleman George merely observes, 'It just happened.' As Canon Throbbing comments in Alan Bennett's Habeas Corpus, 'They always miss out the best bits.'

Apart from one or two anecdotes about the 'competitive' Robert Shaw (who shouted at Baker during a game of squash, 'When are you going to lose your bloody temper?') and the bullying director Basil Dearden, there is hardly anything in the way of score-settling. That, you soon learn, is simply not Baker's style. Yet he has a nicely understated sense of comedy. For example, rather than spell out the ghastly, priggish self-importance of the RSC, Baker pokes gentle fun at its absurdity:

Trevor Nunn took nearly four hours to tell us that he wouldn't be around a lot as somebody called Terry Hands was going to be in charge