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Baker, Roy Ward (1916-2010)

Director, Producer, Writer

Main image of Baker, Roy Ward (1916-2010)

Roy Baker served his apprenticeship at Gainsborough Pictures in the 1930s and in documentary film-making during the Second World War. After the war, Baker's friendship with Eric Ambler led to his directorial debut on The October Man (1947), which was characteristic of some of his best work. After a brief period working in Hollywood in the early '50s, Baker returned to Britain to direct some effective dramas. He also carved a successful career during the '60s directing for British television. Billed as Roy Ward Baker, his return to cinema in 1967 with Quatermass and the Pit began an association with Hammer studios. From the '70s he worked largely in the horror genre, but he continued directing for television until the early '90s.

Roy Baker was born in London on 19 December 1916 and educated in France and at the City of London School. As a boy he was fascinated by wireless and in 1934 he joined Gainsborough Pictures hoping to get a job in the sound department. Starting as a 'gopher,' he worked his way up to production manager, location manager and was assistant director on Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938).

Baker was a commissioned officer during the war, but in 1943 became involved with the Army Kinematograph Unit as a production manager and director on training and instructional films. During this time Baker met novelist and screenwriter Eric Ambler who became head of production for the Unit. Ambler had agreed to write and produce a film for Two Cities and he requested that Baker direct it. The October Man was the first of several collaborations between Baker and John Mills who gives a compelling performance as the vulnerable, falsely accused central character. A taut thriller, its finely observed character studies and claustrophobic, suburban atmosphere demonstrate Baker's directorial strengths.

His next two films, The Weaker Sex (1948), a nicely handled version of Esther McCracken's play about a family at war, and Paper Orchid (1949), a murder mystery set in the newspaper industry, were both popular, but they were overshadowed by the success of Morning Departure (1950) featuring John Mills. The original play, about a submarine whose crew are trapped after it hits a mine, was greatly enhanced by Baker's skill at conveying tension in a confined setting. Bizarrely, shortly after the film's completion, the crew of the submarine 'Truculent' all perished after colliding with a Dutch freighter on the Thames. Baker partly attributed the success of Morning Departure to the fact that, despite fears that the release might be cancelled, the Royal Navy approved it as a fitting tribute to those who had died. It also drew international attention to Baker's talent and prompted Darryl Zanuck to invite him to Hollywood, where he made three films in two years, the best of which was Inferno (US, 1953), a 3D production starring Robert Ryan.

Roy Baker's career in the 1950s was notable for a succession of high quality dramas made for Rank, including Passage Home (1955), a moody nautical tale, and The One That Got Away (1957), an engrossing real life story of a German flyer who habitually escapes from British POW camps. Tiger in the Smoke (1956), about a group of embittered ex-servicemen, was a quirky, atmospheric thriller which aroused serious critical interest in Baker's work for the first time. A Night to Remember (1958), scripted by Ambler, remains one of the best screen versions of the Titanic disaster.

Although Baker claimed that he detested The Singer not the Song (1960), which was set in Mexico and featured a leather clad Dirk Bogarde as a Mexican bandit and John Mills as a Catholic priest, the film has subsequently acquired cult status. Flame in the Streets (1961), adapted from Ted Willis's play, was one of the first films to deal with racial issues. Its highly charged narrative was intensified by being shot in colour and CinemaScope and, although this format was unusual for a small-scale film with a working-class background, Baker defended its use, arguing that detail could be achieved through the correct staging. (Baker, p. 38)

Between 1960 and 1967, Baker worked in television, directing episodes of series such as The Avengers (ITV, 1961-69), The Saint (ITV, 1962-1969) and The Champions (ITV, 1961-79). In 1967 he made Quatermass and the Pit for Hammer, the first of several films he made for the studio, including The Anniversary (1967), an entertaining black comedy with Bette Davis as a one-eyed malevolent matriarch; , the 'space Western', Moon Zero Two (1969); the sexually explicit The Vampire Lovers (1970), and the effectively chilling Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971).

Roy Baker makes no claims to being an auteur and firmly rejects the idea that the audience should be aware of the director. However, his aptitude for creating claustrophobic atmospheres and a sense of isolation show a talent beyond mere competence, and several of his films might be included among the best dramas of the post-war years. Though he made his last feature film in 1980, he continued to work in television until the early '90s on series such as The Irish RM (Channel 4, 1983-85) and Minder (ITV, 1979-94).

Baker, Roy, 'Discovering Where the Truth Lies', Films and Filming, May 1961, pp. 17, 38
Dixon, Wheeler Winston, 'Interview with Roy Ward Baker', Classic Images, 234, Dec, 1994, pp. 14-16, 18, 34
Hutchings, Peter, 'Authorship and British Cinema: The Case of Roy Ward Baker', in Justine Ashby and Andrew Higson (eds), British Cinema: Past and Present (London: Routledge, 2000)
McFarlane, Brian, An Autobiography of British Cinema (London: Methuen, 1997)

Margaret Butler, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971)Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971)

Hammer's sex-change update of the famous Stevenson story

Thumbnail image of Flame In The Streets (1961)Flame In The Streets (1961)

Melodrama dealing with race relations and mixed-race romance

Thumbnail image of Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, The (1974)Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, The (1974)

Hammer Horror goes oriental as the studio cashed in on the kung fu craze

Thumbnail image of Singer Not The Song, The (1961)Singer Not The Song, The (1961)

Dirk Bogarde and John Mills star in a bizarre gay Mexican western

Thumbnail image of Danger U.X.B. (1979)Danger U.X.B. (1979)

White-knuckle drama following a bomb-disposal unit in Blitz-torn London

Thumbnail image of Fairly Secret Army (1984-86)Fairly Secret Army (1984-86)

Sitcom about the patriotic exploits of a retired Army major

Thumbnail image of Flame Trees of Thika, The (1981)Flame Trees of Thika, The (1981)

Epic drama of English settlers in 1910s Kenya, starring Hayley Mills

Thumbnail image of Human Jungle, The (1963-65)Human Jungle, The (1963-65)

Stylish drama starring Herbert Lom as an unorthodox psychiatrist

Thumbnail image of Minder (1979-94)Minder (1979-94)

A nice little earner for George Cole and Dennis Waterman

Thumbnail image of Persuaders!, The (1971-72)Persuaders!, The (1971-72)

Adventure series about a US millionaire and an English lord

Thumbnail image of Saint, The (1962-69)Saint, The (1962-69)

Roger Moore stars as the latter-day Robin Hood, Simon Templar

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