Morrissey isn’t noted for saying nice things about people but he made an exception for one time sixties sex symbol Alexandra Bastedo who died earlier this month. In a statement following Bastedo’s funeral near her home in West Sussex at the weekend, the singer paid fulsome tribute to an actress who never chased Hollywood and remained “genuine and dignified.”
He was, he said, “Sad beyond words” at her death from cancer at the age of 67. It had come, Morrissey explained “…as I still struggle with the passing of Lou Reed. In this age where only plasticity is welcome, we are losing too many social thinkers.”
Alexandra Bastedo would probably have been quite surprised to be mentioned in the same eulogistic breath as Lou Reed but she certainly knew that Morrissey was a long time admirer, particularly of her work in animal protection. It wasn’t by chance that The Smiths chose an image of her for the cover of their 1988 live album Rank.
She is best remembered as secret agent Sharron McCready in the 1960s cult TV adventure series The Champions, part of an elite team strangely given superhuman powers by a remote Himalayan civilisation. Each week, alongside sidekicks Craig Stirling and Richard Barrett (played by Stuart Damon and William Gaunt), she would battle evil rescuing the good people of Britain and its allies from a variety of dastardly threats to civilisation as we know it.
For years Bastedo continued to appear in films and on stage and TV, but only occasionally. Her public profile diminished but behind the scenes she was still very much in the rescue business – a different kind of champion, battling to save animals from pain, cruelty and neglect. As a tireless campaigner for animal welfare she spent most of the last 30 years running her own ABC Animal Sanctuary, sharing a 10-acre estate near Chichester with her late husband, the actor and director Patrick Garland, and 150 cats, dogs, horses, pigs, sheep, poultry and sundry other creatures. It was a full-time job, but occasionally her “other life” as an actress and celebrity helped out. Whenever she appeared in a movie like Batman Begins or TV shows like Absolutely Fabulous, the money went straight to the sanctuary.
I met Bastedo a few times in recent years. She was a gentle, dignified woman and passionate about her work with animals. She was one of those intriguing characters who had once been at the centre of swinging London but had turned her back on the artifice of celebrity to deal with what she believed really mattered – like her sixties supermodel friend Celia Hammond who once graced the pages of Vogue but went on to devote her life to rescuing stray cats. Unlike Hammond who according two some of the more fanciful tabloid accounts is so driven that she often exists on “chocolate biscuits and adrenalin, Alexandra Bastedo was impressively organised. She had a team of more than 60 volunteers who helped run her ABC Sanctuary.
She told me she had always loved animals. “I wanted to be a vet before I wanted to be an actress but got side-tracked by being sent to Hollywood by Columbia Pictures when I was 16.” She admitted that she grew up as ignorant of the wider issues of animal welfare as most of her generation. “I was just an ordinary girl who thought that chickens were what you bought wrapped in plastic from the supermarket.” One of her earliest dreams was to join the circus. “I wanted to be Elephant Girl”, she told me, adding that she felt that this particular childhood fantasy was curiously prophetic. “The circus is about both animals and showbiz – the two parts of my life.”
Shetland ponies were a problem too. “People treat them as playthings. They seem to think that, because they’re small and cute, they’re just toys. They keep them for a couple of years and, when the novelty wears off, just shove them out.”
Her work was tough and never-ending but she relished the sense of achievement brought by restoring an animal back to health and happiness. With medical and surgical back up from local vets, she saved countless creatures from needless suffering. “My philosophy is to always try to do your little bit”, she told me. “I’m limited by my 10 acres which is absolutely full but I’ll only allow an animal to be destroyed if it’s in terrible pain or there is absolutely no hope.”
She was committed to the fight to end the cruelty of intensive poultry farming but was quick to point out that the issue was not as black and white as some might think. “I rescued a whole lot of free-range chickens that didn’t have a feather between them,” she told me. “It’s about more than free range or organic, it’s about the density of stock and a variety of other factors.” It’s a subject she felt strongly about and revealed that, if she were granted one secret wish, it would be that controversial turkey farmer Bernard Matthews (who died in 2010) would be reincarnated as one of his own birds. “That would really please me!” she chuckled. Now that’s the kind of talk that Morrissey would admire her for.
More information about the ABC Animal Sanctuary can be found at www.abcanimlasanctuary.co.uk