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Interview with Sussex actress Alexandra Bastedo

PUBLISHED: 17:50 27 April 2011 | UPDATED: 12:01 28 February 2013

From left,William Gaunt (playing Richard Barrett), Stuart Damon (Craig Stirling) and Alexandra Bastedo (Sharron Macready)

From left,William Gaunt (playing Richard Barrett), Stuart Damon (Craig Stirling) and Alexandra Bastedo (Sharron Macready)

Alexandra Bastedo shot to international stardom when she landed a lead role in the cult Sixties series The Champions. Now she reveals why she has largely turned her back on acting to devote her life to animals

The alluring image of a young and sultry Alexandra Bastedo seems to be indelibly etched on the hearts and minds of countless men of a certain age.
Just call up those tribute sites on YouTube. Judging by the photos posted by her ardent admirers, she appears to have spent most of her 20s posing in bikinis and figure-hugging dresses while seductively tossing her lustrous Bardoesque mane. But her efforts werent wasted. A divine being, writes one admirer. Gorgeous, purrs another. Woof, types a third.


Animal sanctuary
These days, Alexandra, 64, best known for playing the heroine in the cult ATV series The Champions, is still greeted by woofs, mainly from the four-legged friends who have taken up residence at her animal sanctuary in West Chiltington, near Pulborough, in West Sussex.
The actress keeps no fewer than 150 abandoned or vulnerable animals on the 10-acre plot, which she bought with her husband, writer and director Patrick Garland, eight years ago. Nowadays shes more likely to be found in sturdy wellies rather than tottering heels, but shes well aware of the fact and asks for plenty of notice before we dispatch a photographer because she hasnt visited a hair salon in weeks.
Its nearly 30 years since Alexandra welcomed her first animal (a donkey) and her brood now encompasses unwanted ponies, miniature Shetlands, sheep, goats, cats, pigs, poultry and wild birds. Many of her animals are elderly, with health problems or specific dietary needs, and often their owners have died or gone into sheltered accommodation, leaving them unable to care for their pets. At the sanctuary, they are guaranteed a loving home for life, although Alexandra tries to rehouse them whenever possible with suitable new owners.
Sadly, there are always more needy animals than she can accommodate, and in the week we meet she tells me she has rescued no fewer than four pigs and 11 cats. The pigs a rare breed were running amok around Southampton, even making it onto the local news. In despair, the local police asked if she would take them, or they would have to be put down.
Alexandra didnt have the space, but as usual it was a case of making some. We electrified the goats area, put the goats in the donkey area and then the donkeys in with the Shetlands, she says matter of factly, as if describing an ordinary game of musical chairs.
Two days later we took in 11 cats from a woman who had just been diagnosed with cancer, but reluctantly I had to turn down a three-year-old miniature Shetland. It was hard, but we simply didnt have the space and besides we couldnt put a stallion in with seven mares.
From next month Alexandra will be relating all the sanctuarys twists and turns in a regular column for Sussex Life, and she cant wait to get started. Ive always enjoyed reading about the county and hope in a light-hearted way to raise peoples awareness about the characters of animals, she says.


Teenage diplomat
But Alexandra, who grew up in Brighton, hasnt always been inextricably bound up with animals. It was her mother who inadvertently set her on the road to stardom when she spotted an appeal in the London Evening News to find the teenage diplomat for Great Britain.
It was a talent contest, the equivalent in those days of winning The X Factor, and the prize was a trip to Hollywood to appear in a horror film called The Candy Web, she says.
Beating off 14,000 applicants, Alexandra, then just 16, was flown to Hollywood where she met many of the leading stars of the day, including Charlton Heston, Bobby Darren and Ann Margret. On her return home, she completed her education, but signed up with a leading Hollywood agent the day she left school, quickly landing her first film role in Casino Royale opposite Peter Sellers and David Niven. It was the start of a successful film and television career which, notably, also saw her work alongside Kirk Douglas and James Coburn in the film western, Draw.


The Champions
But she will be best remembered for The Champions, an escapist fantasy which followed the adventures of secret agents Craig Stirling (Stuart Damon), Richard Barrett (William Gaunt) and Sharron Macready (Alexandra), who used their superhuman powers to seek out evil-doers on behalf of a Geneva-based organisation called Nemesis.
The series, the brainchild of ATV media mogul Lew Grade, became an international hit after it was first aired in 1968, but had a patchy following in the UK where it went out piecemeal when ATV lost its London franchise.
Alexandra retains huge affection for the show, though she remembers long hours filming at Elstree Studios and wishes, in hindsight, that success hadnt come quite so early because she might have capitalised on it more had she been older.


Poster girl
But more than 30 years after the series was first aired, its still regularly repeated on British television (though the repeat fees are negligible, she grumbles) and she was recently reunited with her co-stars when she was flown to Los Angeles for a special documentary.
While the series brought fame and recognition, however, she was ill-prepared for the attention her striking and exotic looks attracted. Though I was 21, Id led a sheltered life and was still quite naive, she says. A Native American wrote to me saying hed leave me his tepee in his will and a sailor asked if I would post a pair of my high-heeled shoes. But while I publicly laughed it off, I found it distinctly unnerving.
It had its plus sides, of course. Shell made her its poster girl, pasting her image on roadside hoardings across Europe. And she was hotly pursued by many of Hollywoods leading men, including Warren Beatty and Steve McQueen. But she was distinctly unimpressed by McQueen, despite his looks and international stardom.
We met when I auditioned for a part in the motor racing film Le Mans, and afterwards he insisted on escorting me back to the lift. I know people defend him because he had a sad background, but he came out with terrible lines like: Babe, you should be with a winner and My wife doesnt understand me. We did have one date, and later he invited me to Paris, but by then I was seeing someone else.
She didnt fend off all her male admirers, however, and has been linked with several famous men, including Anthony Valentine, David Frost and Omar Sharif, whom she met at a London hotel.
Id hit my 30th birthday and was depressed and boyfriend-less, she laughs. Omar invited me to dinner, but the relationship lasted all of two weeks. I couldnt bear his endless bridge evenings or the string of beautiful women who stuffed their phone number into his pocket wherever he went. It was just too much, particularly as he took them! He was enormously attractive, but not exclusive.
Today, of course, Alexandra is happily married to the writer and director Patrick Garland, whose illustrious career has encompassed two stints as artistic director of Chichester Festival Theatre in the Eighties and Nineties, where he directed more than 20 productions.
But although Alexandra continues to act sporadically, those glamorous Hollywood days must seem a world away, particularly as shes had it tough of late. Two years ago, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and took the difficult decision to have a mastectomy, though she has no regrets.
When I woke up, I was extremely happy because I knew the cancer had gone and I was now able to get on with my life. She has no doubt that fertility drugs, taken when she married at the age of 36, triggered the disease.
Whenever her worries threaten to overwhelm her, however, the sanctuary has a habit of taking her mind off things. She gave up overall responsibility when it acquired charitable status three years ago, but the trustees still rely on her public profile to swell the coffers. Alexandra is in turn indebted to her devoted band of volunteers some 55 in total who turn out in all weathers.
Nevertheless, despite their unpaid help, running costs remain high. Last year the sanctuary gobbled up 35,000 and has taken in more animals than ever this year, which, coupled with the sharp increase in hay prices, is expected to lead to even higher bills. But Alexandra is a fighter and something tells me that her resilience will win through, just as it has always done. After all, she is a Champion.


The sanctuary holds its annual open day at West Chiltington on June 4 and 5. Activities will include a parade of the animals and an animal artist. Well-known names, including Lorraine Chase, Peter Egan and Susan Jameson, are also expected to attend. www.abcanimalsanctuary.co.uk


MY FAVOURITE SUSSEX


Restaurant:
The White Horse at Steyning. The owner, David White, trained at the Savoy and the food is fabulous. It has been sensitively refurbished, and they have lighted open fires in winter and outside seating areas in summer. I also like the Golden Willow Chinese restaurant overlooking Storrington duck pond. They serve very good food and the owners are charming. Weve held several poetry evenings there to raise funds for the sanctuary.


Pub:
The Swan Inn at Fittleworth, which is owned by the same people. It has a fascinating history and serves very good food and a wide selection of beers. Not that Im a beer drinker, but I like my cider.


Shop:
From an animal point of view, it would be Gatleys, the agricultural merchant, in Storrington. They sell country clothing and cover the whole gamut of animal feeds. The owners are very knowledgeable.


View:
The drive from Storrington to Amberley, which must be one of the prettiest drives in England.


Place to visit:
West Wittering Beach. I adore the sand dunes and ambling along the wide expanse of beach, with its views to the Isle of Wight. After Ive stretched my legs, I like to lunch at the Harbour Chalet on the West Strand.

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