ZANI on One of Britain’s Greatest Actors- Stanley Baker Part TwoWritten by Matteo Sedazzari
© Words Matteo Sedazzari
Baker may have left Wales, but was proud of the country of his birth “I’m a Welshman and proud of it. But I’m no nationalist. I think the Welsh nationalists are foolish and misguided people.” stated Baker in 1969, a comment that could have alienated him. However in 1970, in his home town Ferndale, Rhondda, Baker attended the unveiling of a plaque placed on the house in which he was born Albany Street. It seemed that Ferndale offered solace to Baker, and kept him grounded, as he would return to visit old haunts and catch up with old friends, “Acting can be an artificial business, that’s why I go home when I can to the Rhonda Valley, I do it to be with my own people. They love in a real way, It’s a great leveller.
I always go back to Wales, I’ve good friends there. My great chum is Billy Rossiter. A coal merchant in Ferndale, we went to school together.” stated Baker on his visit to Wales in 1970.
Even though his heart and soul belonged to Wales, his accent couldn’t be further from his origin. However Baker was a product of the time, and in the fifties, ‘actors’ did not have a regional accent, that was for music hall comics. So for Baker in his salad days of acting, it would have been drummed into him to have a BBC voice, as with Harold Pinter from the East End who lost his London accent. Music helped to smash the sobriety of accents, with The Beatles and their Scouse voices, and then along came Michael Caine, the boy from Bermondsey.
Furthermore, Caine was the prodigy of Baker, as Caine’s shoot to stardom was in 1964 with Zulu, Caine’s first lead, after eight years of being a supporting actor. Zulu was Baker’s first venture into producing ( he had recently formed a production company, Diamond Films, then later on would form Oakhurst Productions) funded by American Producer Joseph E. Levine ( Long Day's Journey Into Night and Boys' Night Out), and like Baker and Caine, Levine had come from a lower working class family, Boston, Massachusetts. Zulu is totally symbolic of Baker’s character and career choices, it is creative, an epic story line made on a gamble which paid off “So I financed two years of research, and preparation out of my own pocket. Many times I felt disillusioned enough to give up, but in the end I found the money and made the movie, it was very successful” stated a triumphant Baker in 1969. Working on a tight budget, and the film nearly stopped due to an invasion of baboons, (which is quite ironic, as Baker’s next production was Sands of the Kalahari 1965, (based on William Mulvihill’s novel from 1960) which is about seven people who survive an air crash in Southern Africa, and one the many dangers they face is a pack of savage baboons). Baker tried to instil a feeling of solidarity from the crew members to the stars, and would not tolerate bullying especially racism, which was witnessed by Michael Caine. In his autobiography What's It All About? (September 2010) “I saw a black worker make a mistake and stopped to watch him get a real telling off. To my astonishment the foreman didn’t reprimand him, but smashed his face in with his fist. I started to run but Stanley (Baker) got there first. He fired the man on the spot got all the white gang bosses together and laid down the law, how everyone should be treated from then on” Zulu also saw Baker reunited with Cy Endfield, screen writer of Hell Drivers, and a political exile from the US, due to his left wing views. It is clear that Baker respected self made men who had slightly socialist views.
Baker’s production company would go on to produce another seven films, and the one that everyone knows is The Italian Job, and then at the end of the sixties he co-founded Harlech Television (HTV).
With a keen interest in historical events like Zulu, and having friends from the underworld, like Albert Dimes, it seemed only fitting that Baker should make the first film about the crime of the century, The Great Train Robbery of 1963. A gang of thieves led by Bruce Reynolds, with known gang members Gordon Goody, Buster Edwards, Charlie Wilson, Jimmy Hussey, Ronnie Biggs, Tommy Wisbey, John Wheater, Jimmy White and Brian Fields. There were three other members who have never been named. They stole over £2.6 million (worth £46 million today), from a Royal Mail train bound for London from Glasgow, and with the likes of Reynolds, Edwards and Biggs going on the run, it was a hot topic. Robbery was Baker’s third stint at being a producer, and in fact it was for legal reasons that names and places had to be changed. The film makers wanted to avoid getting sued or maybe receiving unwanted callers late at night. Yet it is clear, after its release, that it is about Reynolds and his gang, with Baker playing the leader of the gang. Bruce Reynolds has mentioned Stanley Baker in his autobiography. Robbery is a compelling film, a heist, honour amongst thieves, Jaguar car chases and no messy geezers in camel hair coats. It is a film that should not go off the radar, and seen as a classic British Gangster film. It is up there with Get Carter and A Long Good Friday.
Outspoken and honest as he was, Baker didn’t always praise those he worked with, and often lashed out at the leading ladies. “Most women at some time during the course of the production upset the balance of the picture by either behaving stupidly or emotionally” ranted Baker in 1968. However he had words of admiration for some screen beauty queens “I did enjoy working with Ursula Andress. People like Honor Blackman are professional actresses with whom there is no bother” So he was far from a misogynist, but if he didn’t like you, he wouldn’t play the PR, and would go for the throat, and one woman to feel his wrath was Jeanne Moreau “ She was fine, but I don’t subscribe to the opinion held in certain circles that she’s infallible and the greatest actress to appear on the screen”. At least you knew where you stood with Baker, which is highly refreshing. In addition, Baker would speak with immense honesty about his own relationship with Ellen, who not only was his lover, but his best friend, book keeper and unofficial manager “I don’t think anybody is a perfect husband or a perfect wife. But, without fear of being called a sentimentalist, I’m as much in love with her today as I was 26 years ago” said Baker in 1976, for whom family and love was an important aspect to him.
Baker’s was far from clean living, and one vice he developed from an early age was gambling, and perhaps, if it hadn’t been for his love for Ellen and their children, Baker may have frittered his fortune away at the card table. And when he did play, he was cautious, “ I still like playing poker with people who can play well. If you know the guys you’re with there’s no guilt if you win and no remorse if you lose”, he said after playing cards with the silver screen’s greatest ever poker player Omar Sheriff. Baker didn’t favour the working class gambling in get rich quick schemes and the casino would lure the poor on the pretence of wealth beyond their wildest dreams, “Unless you have a million to spend, there’s no way you can beat the operator. An ordinary man can get up to his eyeballs in debt. That’s what I don’t like about gambling today” Baker stated in 1976. By all accounts his biggest loss in one sitting was £2,000 in the late sixties.
There aren’t any reports of drugs. He was a heavy drinker but no legendary anecdotes of drunken madness, like perhaps his peer, Richard Burton. He openly admitted to going on benders, yet compared to other hell raisers from Hollywood, he was a boy in a man’s world “I gave up first and he’s older than me” recalled Baker in 1973, after quitting from 74 hours of nonstop drinking with Robert Mitchum, but 74 hours is certainly not for lightweights. Baker, a heavy smoker all his life, was diagnosed with lung cancer on 13thFebruary 1976. Even though he went into surgery in March of that year, the surgeons couldn’t prevent the cancer from spreading, therefore his immune system was weak and when Baker developed pneumonia he was too weak to fight it. After a lifetime of being strong, the tough kid from Wales passed away on 28th June 1976 in Málaga, Spain. Baker was just two years from his 50th birthday.
Judging from Baker’s track record, he surely would have continued in the world of films, be it acting, producing and probably would have moved into directing. Perhaps his debut would have been Zulu Dawn (1979) the prequel to Zulu. The original concept was Baker’s, however Baker never got the chance and unfortunately for Baker the role he would have played was portrayed by Burt Lancaster. The seventies, in terms of finance, didn’t prove as successful as the sixties, investing in the fledgling British film industry and also he invested a considerable amount of money into a live event, Great Western Bardney Pop Festival, which allegedly was around £200,000. But Baker had been a gambler all his life, and was a risk taker, and successful people, regardless of their chosen career, follow this conduct.
Yet he was far from destitute, and returned to television, with some stunning performances on ITV in Yorkshire TV’s Who Killed Lamb (1974) playing Detective Inspector Jamieson, a policeman from Scotland Yard investigating a murder in Oxford, a classic whodunit. And after being away from the BBC for nearly ten years, he returned to appear in two BBC’s Play of the Month ; The Changeling 1974, co-starring a very young and beautiful (still is today) Helen Mirren and Brian Cox ( who later in life, like Baker wasn’t interested in the Hollywood lifestyle. Cox, after appearing in Manhunter as Hannibal Lecter, turned down the opportunity to reprise the role in a bigger budget squeal Silence of the Lambs, and of course it went to Anthony Hopkins who made it an iconic piece of cinema ). The other Play of the Month was Robinson Crusoe, a book Baker clearly loved “it is one of the greatest unread masterpieces. It’s a religious and moral story, not just an adventure and it has the curious attribute that so many people think they have read when they haven’t” Baker tells the Radio Times in the December 1974 issue on Daniel Defoe’s master. Ironically his last performance for a British audience was How Green Was My Valley, a story of a mining family in Wales during the reign of Queen Victoria. His last ever appearance was for RAI, (Italy’s equivalent to the BBC) in Orzowei, il figlio della savana, an anti-racist film set in South Africa, based on a novel. Apart from Orzowei, the TV roles certainly supported Baker’s work ethos “I love Britain, I want to make pictures in this country, about this country”.
The cinematic leads may have dried, however that was a sign of the times. Hollywood had created the blockbuster, with the success of Jaws, Close Encounters of a Third Kind, and Star Wars, and the only British actor that benefited from this (off the top of my head) was Alec Guinness( Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi ) and Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin ) (and oh yes Anthony Daniels C3PO) as in the latter. Furthermore, Guinness’s career was in decline before George Lucas gave him a lifeline, and Cushing was making mediocre films. Baker’s friend and rival, Richard Burton, was hardly flourishing in terms of box office success in the early to mid-seventies. Yet Baker saw television offer him the challenging acting roles he relished and the opportunity to appear in adaptations of literature, just as earlier on in his career with The Cruel Sea. Basically Baker returned to acting and put the business side of film making on a hiatus, “When people complain about the boredom of filming, I wonder if they think of the tedium of a repetitive job in a factory or an office. I consider myself lucky to go to foreign countries in style. Acting is my first love, the one I will never desert”.
The BBC missed a wonderful opportunity to celebrate Baker. They should have screened The Games, (1970) before and during last summer’s Olympics. A film about four marathon runners, an English Man, an American, a Czech and an Australian Aborigine , all competing in the 1962 Rome Olympics, starring Michael Crawford as the England runner, and Baker as his coach, and directed by Michael Winner, a director that Baker had a lot of respect for. “ He’s a driver, a little dynamo, when it comes to directing he knows exactly what he wants”. The Games is far from a feel good factor, it is about the focus and determination needed to compete, and as always Baker delivers a powerhouse of a performance as the tough trainer. Oh well, yet it would it would be nice for his films to be more readily available in Box Sets or streaming and maybe a season at the BFI, but before I start wagging my finger at them, they may have already done so. I became a fan of Baker at an early age, well before I got into the concept of style, I just thought he looked ultra-cool and was tough. When watching Sands of the Kalahari one Sunday afternoon in the late seventies as a school boy I remember asking my mother who the actor was, she told me and that he had recently died.
Even though I knew nothing about him back then, I felt sad when I heard this, and from that day onwards I became a fan. At any given opportunity I will watch Sir Stanley Baker, and the more I learn about his life, views and career, the more he inspires me. If you aren’t aware of his work, please check out the films mentioned in this article, and if you do know his work then give his films another viewing, in either case you will not be disappointed.
Sir Stanley Baker fully deserves recognition for not only being an outstanding method actor, he was an astute and brave business man prepared to take risks, (Baker briefly flirted with sport and financed an up and coming boxer, Henry Cooper, something else he gave Britain). He was an interesting, inspiring and loyal human being, not afraid to speak his mind, who was political, and he certainly brushed up well. Baker may have been overshadowed by Burton, and perhaps a few years too old to be part of the swinging sixties, but behind the scenes he certainly contributed to it, think of The Italian Job for a start. He kept going, no matter what, and always achieved something positive, but sadly the only battle he lost was with his life, but by all accounts he was fighting until the end.
Perhaps a quote from one of his final interviews illustrates what sort of man Baker was, a man with principals and no illusion of grandeur, he just wanted to act and make films, and all the fame game meant nothing to him. “When I left Ferndale I was shy. Acting can be an artificial business. That is why it is easy for anyone to lose sight of the real values in life”
Thank you Stanley, for inspiring me and many more…….
Zulu and Sands of the Kalahari available here on Netflix
Stanley Baker on IMDB
Read Part One Here….