ZANI on One of Britain’s Greatest Actors- Stanley Baker Part OneWritten by Matteo Sedazzari
© Words Matteo Sedazzari
It may be a romantic notion to say that Stanley Baker was a working class hero, however it is a label that certainly rings true of one of Britain’s finest actors, who died young at the age of 48, leaving behind a legacy in film, TV and the theatre. Born to a mining family on 28th February 1928 in the Rhonda Valley where the main career choice was mining, and the only escape would either be boxing or football. Rock & roll hadn’t hit the youth of Britain yet,
and the idea of a lad from the Valleys becoming an actor seemed absurd. In addition the pre-teen Stanley Baker had not contemplated a thespian life, he was busy playing sports such as boxing, playing cards with his pocket money at pontoon and three card brag. “ As a kid I was a rebel, wild, boisterous and difficult to control. I loved scrapping and actually reached the final of the Welsh schoolboys boxing championship.” So he, Baker, could have become the boxing champion of Wales, until a teacher, Glynne Morse, at his local school felt that this lad could be successful treading the boards, and persuaded him to appear in a school play. Morse opened Baker’s eyes to drama, “ You need to study hard, not only the practical techniques of acting, but the whole range of dramatic literature. If you haven’t read the plays and understood them, how can you ever hope to interpret them” recalls Baker of his first mentor. And as fate would have it, a producer from Ealing films was at the play, Sergeri Nolbandor, and offered Baker a part in the film called Undercover (1943 - about resistance in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia). So at the age of 14 he knew what he wanted to do, an actor’s life for him. “ A few days later I found myself being rushed off to Cardiff, the first time in my life I had ever been outside Ferndale” said Baker reflecting in 1961.
Yet he didn’t become a child star nor an overnight success, but whilst trying to cut his teeth he did later meet the hell raiser and fellow Welshman Richard Burton at an audition for Druids Rest, and Baker would be Burton’s understudy. Burton was a few years older but it was a friendship that lasted a lifetime and always with admiration from Baker, even at their first meeting “I could see at a glance that he was a formidable opponent. He had grace, skill and self – confidence. Even in those days, he possessed that indefinable quality which spells greatness for the cinema or theatre” Unlike Burton, Baker failed to get any acting work, but wishing to stay in the theatre he studied to be an electrician to make ends meet, and again it was his mentor Glynne Morse who aided Baker “He got me a job as an apprentice electrician in a nearby factory. I was eager to make myself a good electrician but still determined in my own heart to be an actor “. Baker then landed a job at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre but his career plans at making it into acting took a further blow, as in 1946 Baker was called up for National Service with the Royal Army Service Corps. Perhaps it did him the world of good because when re-entering civvy street in 1948 Baker did not return to Wales but to London determined to make his fame and fortune as an older and wiser man. He wasted no time in rekindling his friendship with Richard Burton, who not only got him a small part in the West End theatre production , Adventure Story, Burton also introduced Baker to his kindred spirit Ellen who was appearing at the Apollo Theatre in London’s West End. “I was at the stage door talking to a boy in the play when Richard Burton, whom I knew, walked past with Stanley” recalls Ellen, and it was love at first sight, well it seemed so. Later on they went to a party with Burton and a female friend and Ellen recalls with fondness “he came over and said “Can I take you home” I thought “got him” “.
Now Baker had the love of his life, a dream he wanted to chase, but he was hard up and thanks to family support, Baker was able to live in London until he hit the big time. “One day I found my money had run out. There was nowhere to go, and nobody in London to whom I could turn. So I sat and wrote a letter home. By reply came a £5 note from my father. Over a period of the next six weeks he sent a further £20 – all the capital he had in the world. I could never repay him enough”
Still failing to land a lead, Baker took several bit parts, yet he didn’t see it as a setback or a lesser role, but part of the cycle and the bigger picture. “It was easier for me because I started off with smaller roles, and was able to build up technical experience”. His approach certainly paid off, as the roles grew, and he was noticed by Christopher Fry who took him to New York’s Broadway to appear in his play Sleep of Prisoners in 1951. This led to appearing in his first Hollywood film Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951) with Gregory Peck in the lead role. Baker played Mr Harrison (Bosun), both great experiences and highly credible on any actor’s CV, who was up and coming, which Baker certainly was.
It was perhaps during this period that Baker, (by all accounts he was an avid reader) was reading Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea (a story of sailors from The Royal Navy in combat during World War II’s Battle of the Atlantic.) and when Baker found out they were making a film of the book, he wrote to the director, Charles Frend, stating he was the man for the job, his direct approach worked, and he landed a part in 1953. So after six years of an interesting life, that any creative, adventurous and intelligent man or woman would relish, Baker was ready for the big time. From his experience he knew what he wanted to achieve and how to achieve it. “To get there and stay there, I needed the security of achievement, It was never for me a question of being top dog, in the sense of bossing those lower in the pecking order. But I certainly felt I wanted the independence of wealth so that if it came to the crunch I could preserve my own integrity.” Stated by Baker in 1976.
The Cruel Sea was the break Baker needed and deserved, and doors opened for the handsome macho man with raven hair, and “falcon eyes” with a strong physique to match, as he was getting strong supporting roles in Hell Below Zero starring Alan Ladd and Twist of Fate AKA Beautiful Stranger starring Ginger Rogers and Herbert Lom. Clearly, able to hold his own with experienced actors and delivering a strong performance, there was no turning back. Hell Below Zero was produced by Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, who six years later would produce Dr No, and Baker was offered the role of James Bond before Sean Connery. Apparently he turned it down because he did not want to sign a three picture deal but also he had signed up to star in This Sporting Life, which actually came out in 1963, but was meant to be released in 1962. The film is about the rise and fall of a rugby league wild boy, perfect for Baker, yet with the filming of The Guns of Navarone over running, the part was given to Richard Harris, which made Harris into a star and an Oscar nomination. Baker would have made an excellent Bond and a Frank Machin, the antihero from This Sporting Life.
I would say out of the two, which part Baker would have preferred it would have been This Sporting Life, as before the making of Dr No, he turned down the chance to break into the USA in 1960 “I’ve just had the most fantastic offer of my life. It’s worth half a million pounds, but I don’t think I’ll be taking it “ he said at the time, after being approached by Bob Aldrich for a twenty eight hour long programme about An Englishman in New York. Baker wanted to make films that reflected the world as opposed to international stardom “We have just begun to do something the Americans had been doing for years – making down to earth pictures with true stories about real people” stated Baker around the same time as turning down a life changing deal from the US.
As the fifties drew to a close Baker, now in starring roles, appeared in films that illustrated British culture. Hell Drivers, (1957) a US type crime thriller not only starring Baker but oddly enough Sean Connery , David McCallum (Man from Uncle) Herbert Lom (The Pink Panther) and Sid James (Hancock, Carry on) , all then unknowns, yet by the end of the sixties, all household names. Not only was Hell Drivers influenced by the American crime film, but the successful and highly acclaimed French thriller Wages Of Fear. A story of four Europeans driving across Central America with a deadly cargo. In Hell Drivers, Baker plays Tom Yately , an ex con who gets a job as a driver in road haulage, only to find that skulduggery and misdemeanours are afloat. As the outsider who has to deal with male aggression, petty crime and rivalry, whilst trying to keep a clean nose, all focusing on the changing face of the British working class. Wishing to experiment with roles, emphasising Baker’s later statement about making films about real people, was Violent Playground 1958 seen as an equivalent to the USA hit film Blackboard Jungle, set in Liverpool and the then Government Labour policy of “Tough on Crime, Tough on the Causes of Crime”. Baker plays a hardnosed detective investigating a case, whilst failing to get an arrest, he is reassigned to work with deprived children from Merseyside. Baker appeared again with David McCallum and his only screen outing with Peter Cushing in a non–horror role. The film reflects the problem with juvenile crime as well as providing a solution. A social commentary film, which was highly popular in the UK in the 50’s and the 60’s, and terrestrial TV has carried on the trend.
For preparation of the role, Baker worked with the Liverpool police, and if there was an acting style to suit Baker, then it is the world famous Method Acting. An acting approach where the actor goes further than the script, and becomes the character by learning their thoughts and feelings, in a nut shell, they live and breathe the part. Method Acting was made popular by Lee Strasberg and his Actors Studio in New York, and championed by Marlon Brando and Jimmy Dean in the fifties and still popular today with actors such as Daniel Day-Lewis, DeNiro, Sean Penn and Benicio Del Toro.. Baker would later comment on his approach to acting in 1970, “Well of course that’s just the name that someone’s given it. I regard myself as a working actor. Whatever method I apply it’s not brilliant, it’s not bad. It’s worked for me, admittedly sometimes better than others” Always humble.
Baker never played conventional leading men, but complex characters in dangerous situations, yet he still managed to give his character depth and an empathy, and was at ease playing a villain or a hero, and in order to avoid typecasting he appeared in BBC’s Jane Eyre (1956), to show his sensitive side and explore that aspect of his personality. Yet sometimes he would use a combination of both, as illustrated when he played Detective Inspector Martineau a tough cop from Manchester, who wouldn’t hesitate to use brutal methods to obtain a confession. Martineau is certainly a forerunner to the wonderful Inspector Regan, an iconic performance from John Thaw. At an educated guess, Thaw would have been highly influenced by Baker’s performance. Baker as Martineau shows how to survive the tough streets of Manchester and its many characters such as Donald Pleasance , the bookmaker, George A Cooper, the cynical pub landlord , a colourful array of characters, as he is hunting down a murderer, an escaped convict, at a time that his own life is spiralling out of control.
His dedication to acting, coupled with the deliverance and his rugged good looks, backed with high calibre films, came to the notice of Joseph Losey, an American film and theatre director, born in 1909, who had worked with Bertolt Brecht, and was having a highly successful career in the US until, as with other well known outspoken Americans in the fifties, he was accused of being a communist. He came to the UK, bringing his streetwise take on life and cinematic skills of the American cinema, which had been entering the British scene since the end of the war. Losey directed some classic films of the sixties and seventies such as The Servant (1963) and The Go-Between (1971), and Baker appeared in four of his films, Accident, Blind Date, The Criminal and Eva.
All great films, and it is criminal (excuse the pun) that The Criminal (1960) is a forgotten film by the masses. Overshadowed by Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, (released at the same time) a gritty portrayal of working class North of England, centring on the archetype ‘angry young man’ Arthur Seaton, wonderfully played by Albert Finney. And as time has gone by Saturday Night, Sunday Morning has become a classic British film. Nevertheless The Criminal is equal in all merits, plot, acting, film and realism. Stanley Baker plays crime kingpin Johnny Bannion. Upon release from prison, he plans one large heist, as he knows no other life or way to earn an income. The film soon evolves into a journey into the underworld, all the unsavoury characters that inhabit that world and a study of the penal system, which was quite pioneering in the early sixties and copied a lot today. Yet, of course, this being a crime caper all does not go to plan, and if you like all British Crime thrillers, this is a must for your DVD collection. Even has a catchy theme tune sung by Cleo Lane beautifully entitled “Thieving Boy”. Furthermore Baker based his part on a portrayal of London gangland Crime Boss, “Italian” Alberto Dimes, who acted as technical adviser to Criminal, and by all accounts Baker and Dimes were already friends before filming began. Baker would hang out at Dimes’ One Arm Bandit Distribution company Atlantic Machines in Soho, and other partners in the company were also faces of the London underworld Charlie Richardson and Mad Frankie Fraser, so Baker certainly had a bond with this world.
Baker was far from being friends with just ‘gangsters’. He developed a bond with Losey who, like Baker, enjoyed studying and presenting human interactions in different film genre demonstrated by the release of Accident (1967), which is a pessimistic study of human frailty, middle aged men in midlife crisis, yearning, wanting something, but scared they might lose if they reach it . Starring Dirk Bogarde as Stephen whose life has been affected by a car crash (Accident) and his story is told in flashbacks, where we encounter Baker as Charley, a love them and leave them man. Whilst Stephen is a sensitive type, Charley is the alpha male, and the film depicts the conflict between emotion and intelligence, head vs. heart. With a screenplay written by one of England’s finest playwrights, Harold Pinter, an original, stylish and enigmatic writer known for creating tension with characters by withholding their true history and motives. Like Baker, Pinter was not born into wealth or the arts, he was born in Hackney, London in 1930 to a lower middle class family of Jewish ancestry. Yet, like Baker, showed a talent at an early age, and in his case, play writing. Losey and Pinter made three films together, The Servant (1963) and The Go-Between (1970) as well as Accident. Both men made an impression on Baker. On Losey “ He’s a guy again who’s utterly and totally dedicated to what he’s doing. He’s actually happiest when he’s most miserable” and on Pinter “He was there most days and because he had been involved with the previous discussions with actors he knew what we were trying to achieve and if, as an actor, you needed reaffirming about a particular point you could always get an intelligent and objective reply from him” stated Baker during the making of Accident.
Even though Baker was close to his father, as mentioned earlier, perhaps he felt Losey could give him creative guidance and career advice that his father could not. Further alliance would be Losey’s political views. Losey a stern left winger, beliefs that Baker fully adhered to, and was openly supportive of the Labour party and Harold Wilson. Who returned the favour by awarding Stanley Baker a knighthood, in May 1976, a month before his death. The list for knighthoods that year was controversiallyl known as the "Lavender List", as it included business men and leaders of industry who were not akin to Labour’s philosophy. Yet Baker surely deserved recognition for his achievements, sadly he died before he could physically be knighted. As well as being a supporter of the Labour Party, Baker supported the CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), well before the fab four were singing All You Need is Love.
Baker may have been open about his views, yet the media was always criticising him for being a hypocrite as he lived well in the UK, sending his four children to private schools with a house in Spain. However as Baker came from a loving but poor family, and was earning money beyond his wildest dreams, it must have been hard staying true to your ‘roots’ whilst earning a super star’s wage. It’s a dilemma for any working class male or female, who goes from rags to riches. Beyond his movie career, he seemed to have a passion for making money, and would often boast on how he bought a house in Wimbledon village at the start of the 60’s for £7,500 and by the end of the decade he sold it to Greater London Council for £69,000. Whilst stating his understanding of money “If anyone loses their head when they find themselves with a great deal of money, and think there’s no end to it, they’re lost”. In 1970, Baker did try not to be too flamboyant with his wealth, and felt his personal number plate on his Rolls Royce was “too flash”, so he got rid of it.
Part Two Here