Celebrating the life and career of Sussex actress Alexandra Bastedo

Alexandra Bastedo

Alexandra Bastedo - Credit: Archant

Sussex actress Alexandra Bastedo secured a cult following with The Champions and her ravishing good looks attracted many suitors, including Steve McQueen. But to Sussex Life readers, she will best be remembered for her monthly column charting the ups and downs at her animal sanctuary. Angela Wintle celebrates her life

Alexandra Bastedo

Alexandra Bastedo - Credit: Archant

Alexandra’s Bastedo’s unexpected death last month at the age of 67 sent shockwaves through the Sussex community. As recently as last September she had spoken at a memorial service at Chichester Cathedral for her late husband, the acclaimed theatre director and producer Patrick Garland, and had talked of rewriting her memoirs.

Few could have guessed that soon she, too, would follow her beloved Patrick. Though she had been plagued with breast cancer for five years, many friends and colleagues assumed she would somehow see off the disease as she had always done before. This was a tribute to Alexandra. As the founder of the Alexandra Bastedo Champions (ABC) Animal Sanctuary near Pulborough, she was well used to problem solving. She had a calm, collected, pragmatic approach to almost everything – whether it was an unexpected consignment of pigs, a sharp increase in hay prices... or even cancer.

I interviewed Alexandra on two occasions, in 2001 and 2011, first at the farm she shared with her husband outside Chichester and then at West Chiltington near Pulborough, where they subsequently moved.

Alexandra was a celebrated beauty, but she couldn’t have been further removed from her blonde bombshell persona. She was thoughtful, articulate and highly intelligent. And though she talked of her glamorous past life and youthful good looks with a certain wistfulness, there was never any doubt that she had found her true calling. “The lovely thing about animals is they don’t care what you look like and whether you’ve combed your hair or applied any make-up,” she said.

“I’m at my happiest when I’m here amongst my animals.”

Before she became an animal champion, however, Alexandra had led a very different life. She won acclaim in Britain as the female lead of ITV’s fantasy detective series The Champions, but it was in Spain and South America that she had her greatest cult following, known to her fans simply as ‘la Bastedo’.

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By 1967 she was already familiar to continental drivers as the face of Shell’s advertising campaign, her image appearing on roadside hoardings throughout Europe. Minor roles, notably in the original film of Casino Royale (1967), raised her profile still further, and in 1968 she was offered the part of codebreaker Sharron Macready in The Champions.

She was just 21 when she landed her big break and initially found the media attention daunting. “I’d led a sheltered life and was still quite naive,” she told me in 2011. “An American Indian wrote to me saying he’d leave me his tepee in his will and a sailor asked if I would post a pair of my high-heeled shoes.”

Among her more famous admirers were David Frost, Omar Sharif and Steve McQueen. Her liaison with Sharif lasted just two weeks. “I couldn’t bear his endless bridge evenings or the string of beautiful women who stuffed their phone numbers into his pocket wherever he went.” Typically though, they remained good friends.

The daughter of a Canadian businessman, Alexandra grew up in Brighton, attending Brighton and Hove High School and Worthing School of Drama, although her childhood ambition was to become a vet.

But at 16 she entered a ‘teenage diplomat’ competition organised by London Evening News, beating 4,000 finalists to a role in a comedy thriller, 13 Frightened Girls! (1963). Despite subsequent offers from Hollywood agents – and interest from Alfred Hitchcock – her parents insisted she return home to finish her education. On the very day she left school, however, she informed her agent she was available for work, and didn’t look back.

She married Patrick Garland in 1980 after finding herself seated opposite him at a dinner. With his penetrating blue eyes, mop of bohemian hair and beautifully modulated voice, she quickly fell under his spell.

They holidayed together in Ireland, where she discovered “Patrick read books like some people smoke cigarettes”. But recognising the serious potential of their relationship, they both fled, reluctant to settle down. Thirteen years later, they reignited the spark and were married at Chichester Cathedral.

Semi-retired from acting by the close of the 1980s, Alexandra moved with Patrick to Chichester when he took on the role of artistic director at Chichester Festival Theatre. She soon discovered she was continuously required to host dinner parties at their home for visiting actors and producers, which left them exhausted at the end of each season.

Their farm gave Alexandra a new focus and she returned to her initial vocation in animal welfare as president of her local branch of the RSPCA, before founding the ABC Animal Sanctuary which expanded after their move to West Chiltington. It housed no fewer than 180 abandoned animals and she chronicled its day-to-day challenges in her popular monthly column for Sussex Life.

In later life she made a brief return to acting to raise money for the sanctuary, with a cameo role in Batman Begins (2005) and memorable turns in EastEnders and Absolutely Fabulous. But her last years were clouded by illness. In 2009, she was diagnosed with cancer and took the difficult decision to have a mastectomy.

Conscious that she wouldn’t always be around for her animals, she set up a board of trustees to ensure the sanctuary’s future after her death. Poignantly, she seemed only too aware of her mortality.

“I know it’s possible the cancer will come back,” she said. “But in terms of looking at death, the one thing I find helpful is to remember that everything has to go.

It’s sad to say goodbye, but death comes to everybody. It’s not that your friends get to stay. They don’t. Everybody goes.”

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