Doctor Who Magazine interview from April 2000
Andrew Pixley listens in to more of the complete and unexpurgated transcripts of the interviews conducted for BBC2’s recent Doctor Who theme night – and hears the testimony of a self-confessed ‘professional fraud’.
Tom Baker’s interview for Doctor Who Night was very different from the others. Firstly, as ‘senior Doctor’, Tom would link most of the programming, and consequently a larger proportion of studio time had been given over to him. Secondly, producer Mike Wadding and assistant producer Christine Kenrick had already met Tom the previous week – and, after discussing his input, had decided that preparing a set of questions in advance to help illustrate various elements of the show and its history would be pointless. Instead, the ‘interview’ would be developed on the spot.
The great actor’s arrival on the day causes some initial concern. Tom has come from an interview in Soho for The Big Issue, and starts to expound upon the status of the poor in society – employing a barrage of colourful phrases. Such material would certainly not be considered broadcastable, and Tom is persuaded to go upstairs for refreshment. “I don’t do water,” he smiles broadly when offered a brand-named bottle, and says he feels he has little to say on Doctor Who that will not have been heard many times over by the fans.
He draws a comparison between fans and religious pilgrims – just the sort of train of thought required, he’s told. At this he brightens. He seems more settled after we chat briefly about the forthcoming promotional tour for his novel The Boy Who Kicked Pigs, remarking that he finds the writing easier than the travelling around to promote it. I tell him how much I enjoyed his Christmas speeches at Coventry Cathedral the previous December – when the parallel he’d drawn between the angel appearing to the Virgin Mary and a stunt for Noel’s House Party had caused a minor ripple of unease throughout the more devout sectors of the congregation. “Good God,” he bubbles, “Did I say that?” His face breaks into the familiar Doctor Who smile. In studio, it’s easy to see why he has taken to writing – he’s a good storyteller with pleasant rhythm, evocative vocabulary and excellent comic timing.
As consultant to the project, I’ve been employed to ensure factual accuracy – but, unlike every other interview conducted for the Night, there is an unspoken understanding that I will not interrupt the Grand Master under any circumstances. “If I say it, you must feel free to use it,” says Tom after some particularly outrageous and provocative statement. He wants to see what he can do, conscious that he has a sympathetic audience. Some of what he says can sound distorted and – frankly – mad, but at times there’s a hint that, like Spike Milligan, maybe, just maybe, he sees the truth of the world in a clearer, purer way than others.
On where his Doctor came from . . .
‘I just responded to the scripts, such as they were, and swiftly learned that I shouldn’t read the scripts except my bits, and I still do that. . . And suddenly in a few weeks when it went out it was amazing. It was miraculous. Not only was I famous in no time at all, but people who had just a few weeks before completely ignored me and walked past me in the street suddenly found me desirable. Not only desirable company, but desirable sexually. And so therefore to be famous and to have a few shillings and to be desired struck me as being a nice state of affairs, you know.
‘I didn’t know very much about Doctor Who. I remember admiring little Patrick Troughton because of his malevolent quality, but I didn’t know much about it because, of course, it ran in an afternoon when I had probably been at a football game or was on my way to the pub or getting ready to go to the pub. So I wasn’t aware of it being what later was called a cult. It was all a great surprise!”
On his costume . . .
“When I was cast, [costume designer] Jim Acheson and I got on terribly well and we went to various costumiers and tried on various bits of tat. It’s very nice to go to a costumiers – it’s great if you’ve had a few drinks – and everyone likes putting on funny hats and arsing about and peeping through the racks of clothes. And gradually a Bohemian image evolved, and then Jim decided that we should also have a scarf made, which was the funniest thing of all really. He bought all this wool – he had a marvellous eye for the colour scheme – and he painted out the colour scheme and gave it all to a woman with a wonderful name, Begonia Pope – I wonder where she is now and I hope she is happy. And she was so impressed to be working for the BBC, so she knitted up all the wool – and because the wool was on the taxpayer, a whole lorry load of wool was delivered. When we got to her little house, she could only talk through the letterbox because we couldn’t get into her house because of the scarf which filled the hall. And so when I tried it on, the thing went round me four or five times. Falling about with laughter, Jim – with a marvellous quick eye – said, ‘Let’s keep that.’ And I understand this year it’s now a fashion item. It said so in the Daily Mail so it must be true…”
On his Doctor’s eccentric character..
“It’s the way I am. I can have three or four contradictory thoughts at the same time. But that’s because I’m an actor and I just respond. I’m a fantasy. I am a professional fraud – it’s my trade, such as it is, to try to be convincing and the more preposterous the situation, then the more interesting it is to try to be convincing. If you are playing a realistic thing, a man with a gun, that can’t be difficult. But to play someone from outer space, a benevolent alien who still looks like a human being and who has secrets – how do you suggest he is alien? So I felt the best way to suggest I was an alien – and had dark thoughts, wonderful thoughts – was to be Tom Baker. And so that’s what I did. And lots of people liked it, to my surprise.”
“Actors often become confused. I became the Doctor, or the Doctor was me. I was just filtering the script through my imagination. It was wonderful to become the Doctor. You know you are a powerful fiction that was being highly paid and all doors are open and people find you desirable and everyone wants to fetch the drinks and pay for spaghetti – and it is very easy to identify with that character. Yes, it did become me.
“And I was always careful to have a hundred pictures of myself in my inside pocket. You see, fans are not like ordinary human beings – they are generous and their love doesn’t pass. They are endlessly loyal and willing to make sacrifices for what they like. . .
“Fans see things in a different way. And so fans of Doctor Who or Star Trek or Tottenham Hotspur or Manchester United – they are incomprehensible to people who are not fans of that subject. Fans don’t really need explanations – fans are intuitive, they are implicit in their affections, rather like very religious people. You know, science fantasy fans are a bit like born-again Christians – it’s a source of joy to them, and they feel good. It makes them feel that somewhere there is some explanation for what makes them unhappy, and this is embodied by their heroes in Star Trek or Superman or, in my case, Doctor Who. And the benevolence of the character soothed and calmed people.
“Sometimes, I would be in a hospital visiting children, and the doctor is playing along with me, calling me ‘Doctor’. You know, it’s wonderful in children’s hospitals, because in children’s medicine they win most of their cases. Not all. And sometimes I would be in a jolly ward and children will be ecstatic to see me . . . and then a doctor would say, ‘There is a boy downstairs in a coma, and his mother says he was a great fan of yours.’ And I would be taken down to a room where a child might be unconscious – dying – and his mother and father there. And when people are suffering like that, they don’t care where they turn for comfort. The mother would say, ‘He was a great fan of yours, Doctor.’ And I would hold the child’s hand and say, ‘George. It’s the Doctor here. I’m sorry Sarah Jane couldn’t come, but I’ve come to see how you are.’
“You know, in that way I was a shameless actor. I didn’t mean to be fraudulent. I wanted to comfort people and so I was aware of them watching me, and then watching the child who was dying. And, of course, the child never recovered consciousness. I would like to say a miracle happened . . . and it didn’t. I was just a common, inadequate actor trying to comfort people. Then, when I came to leave, they would say, ‘Thanks for trying.’ They never reproached me. It’s incredible, the generosity of people who are suffering.”
On how his background in the Roman Catholic Church helped him suspend his disbelief in Doctor Who…
“Being able to believe in miracles. Being able to believe – for priests told us – that being poor was good fortune. ‘You are lucky to be poor,’ my mother used to say. ‘Thank God we are not rich.’ Actors say, ‘Well, if I can believe that I can believe anything,’ and so I would recall those amazing days of my faith and try to do the Doctor Who lines, which I never understood anyway. It doesn’t matter that actors don’t necessarily understand what they are saying – no more than politicians or directors or painters do. They just talk, and so I just said these preposterous lines and people believed them.”
On the importance of the companion . . .
“I think in any kind of family entertainment it is quite nice to have the cast made up of recognisable people, so it is quite nice to have an older man and a younger girl – probably different people identify. And some people identify with the tin dog. Those people, I guess – I don’t mean they have tin heads – but there are some people who get fond of tin animals, like people get fond of their teddy bears.
“Some of the girls were very glamorous, it seemed to me. I mean it was very important to actually play it as if the obvious chemistry didn’t happen between us. There was no question of sex or terrifying things like that. It was kind of innocent, wasn’t it? I can’t say for sure, because of course I didn’t watch Doctor Who when I was in it, because I felt it might have spoiled things . . .
“It had to be whatever my bosses wanted, really. I mean, pretty young girls get big audiences, don’t they really? I mean, I married one of them. Yeah, I did. I married one. Yeah, that was great.”
“I didn’t really know what was going on. All I wanted to know was what the viewing figures were. If they were great and people liked it and stopped me in the street and said so, that was marvellous. I didn’t want to know why they thought it was marvellous . . .
“I avoid actors like the plague. And they avoid me, that’s interesting. And directors avoid me like the plague, and I can’t say I blame them really. And I avoid me like the plague if I possibly can. But when you are famous like Doctor Who was famous, and I embodied Doctor Who, then I was able to escape from myself all the time. One was able to not go back to reality because reality was kept at bay for so many years. I find it so difficult now, coping with reality in the twilight of my life. But for that time, there was very little reality – there was just this constant worship.
“And so when I wasn’t recording Doctor Who, I was being Doctor Who somewhere else – in hospitals or prisons or somewhere. I couldn’t pass anyone in the street – everybody knew me. I was like St Francis of Assisi. I was kissing lepers or embracing anyone at all. I was always catching lice from neglected children – going home absolutely teeming with nits and having to use carbolic soap all the time. But I didn’t mind catching illnesses or disease from them. That’s so pitiful really – it’s a fearful confusion. I would embrace the afflicted and the contagious and the infectious.”
On behind-the-scenes conflict. . .
“I thought it could have been more fantastical in a way, but I could see why the producers did it the way they wanted. I didn’t like the tin dog, you see. I liked the actor who played it – in rehearsal, I thought he was terribly funny, and I thought it would be very funny to have a man playing a benevolent robot. I thought at one time I wanted to have a parrot as well. Or a frog. I wanted it to be more amazing than it was. But I had to watch it a bit, and of course they got very fed up because I got proprietorial because I was living this part. I was out and about meeting the children – from whom I got tips, you know. So I felt that I knew better than they did. But actors often feel that they know better than their bosses. And they put up with me.”
On where he wanted the show to go.. .
“Well, not knowing much about anything, of course, I am extremely emphatic about everything – especially if I knew nothing about it. So I had all sorts of views about jokes or what constituted being funny because the children liked to laugh a lot as well as be made afraid. All sorts of things gave me a sense of power, because I was drunk on this – I was drunk from other things as well – but I was drunk on being Doctor Who. I was drunk on this benevolent character everybody found funny. It was amazing people found it funny all the time and wanted to be with me. Yes, there were fights, there were disagreements where I would shout and roar and make scenes and everything like that. But I lost most of the fights. I have always lost most of the arguments I’ve had. And still I don’t learn anything in spite of losing all the arguments. I still don’t learn. It should depress me really, but I am learning to live with the fact that I never learn anything.”
On taking over from Jon Pertwee…
“Jon Pertwee jumped on this part and made it fantastic. He was immensely stylish. He would have been very good in The Avengers – he was very stylish and quick and cutting and sarcastic. So by the time I got there, the writers could not help themselves, they were still writing for Jon. I was very aware of that, because I began to look at a few old scripts or talk to people, and I was aware that they were still writing in this kind of quick, sarcastic, almost Holmesian way which didn’t suit me at all. So, naturally, I had a certain influence about wrenching things my way or rephrasing them, and gradually they began to write towards me.”
On the monsters…
“I adored them. I mean, I still adore monsters and aliens because we can’t in our imaginations – maybe in real life as well – we can’t actually do without monsters and aliens. In a sense, the criminal classes in our society are terribly important because without these dreadful criminals, appalling criminals, we wouldn’t have anything to write about and there would be no thriller. There would be no television and films at all, since films are often about war and crime and all sorts of deviances. So, to be actually professionally dealing with monsters was right up my street really.
“Of course, I spent so much time reacting to monsters that when it came to going back to theatre and playing more ordinary people, I wasn’t much good at it. I was much better playing horses and dogs. I was a very good dog at York. I got a marvellous notice for a dog called Clint . . . People are always more difficult, but Doctor Who was easy because he wasn’t really a human being, he just looked like a human being. But when I went on to play Noel Coward . . . people weren’t very convinced really.
“My favourite monsters were the monsters that were the favourites of the audience, because it’s nice to give people what they like and like to hate as well. And so naturally the imperiousness of the Daleks trying to take over the entire galaxy – it was a bit like the British Empire trying to take over the entire world really. So I liked them, and I always pretended to be amazed when the children were always telling ’em how to deal with Daleks. I don’t know if it ever dawned on the BBC, but the children were onto it. They would say, ‘Do you know how to deal with Daleks?’ I would say, ‘No, how do you do that, Frank?’ And he would look around very confidentially and he would say, ‘You run upstairs.’ And I kept on having to be amazed, and it was good. It was good for children to work that out.
“I also liked slimy things, because children like slimy things. I began to be like ‘Uncle Tom’ – a kind of children’s entertainer with my silly long scarf and my thyroid eyes and my long hair. So I did what they wanted me to do . . . It’s wonderful to entertain children. And they liked the Daleks, and they hated the Daleks so they loved them. I like that paradox; we often actually like what threatens us. We are sometimes electrified by what threatens us most – and in the area of the imagination, it is wonderful that children can be absolutely terrified. I think children should be terrified . . .
“I had access, you know. ‘Don’t talk to strange men’ – that awful mantra which must disturb children when often the threat is from people they know. But ‘don’t talk to strange men’ didn’t apply to me. So all homes where there were children or grandchildren were open to me. I could just knock on doors. I didn’t need credit cards or anything. People, adults and banks saw the Doctor and the Doctor’s virtue and the Doctor’s honesty. It was an amazing sign of the potency of fiction, you know. It was a great time.
“So the Daleks and the slimy ones. They also liked Cybermen, I think. Yes. I have forgotten how you killed Cybermen. I think it was something to do with blowing gold dust into their chest – that used to make me laugh a lot. But it didn’t matter really, because I always won. I used to say to the children, ‘Isn’t it funny? Have you noticed? In the fourth episode, I always win!’ And they would say, ‘Yes, it’s marvellous Doctor. . .”‘
“Because I’m pathetic in some ways, it made me feel even more important. I was suddenly a worldwide star in television. I heard it sold to 93 countries, and in America more than 200 stations. It was an amazing thing to go to a country like Holland or Australia or America and be very famous. When you got on the plane, pilots used to say ‘Come on up front,’ so I knew what it was to take off in a jumbo jet. And sometimes they would say, ‘Do you want to have a go?’ I don’t think they were very serious because I am not a very good driver. I mean, I have only got a van, never mind a jumbo jet. So they would let me be in aeroplanes or go up in balloons or drive in tanks. I used to go to Germany to divert the troops and they let me drive tanks. It was simply wonderful to be famous, to be recognised and well treated.
‘I remember in Notting Hill Gate, there was a little fellow called Dmitri who had an electrical shop. One day, about 20 children from a school were going by and the coach driver recognised me and stopped. They all piled off the coach and all these children were embracing me and holding onto me, and I was giving them money or sweets or pictures of myself – all that kind of nonsense really amused them. So after they went away happily taking pictures of me, Dmitri – this Greek boy – he said, ‘It must be wonderful, Mr Baker, to be Doctor Who.’ I said, ‘Yes, it is nice’ – I realised he was worried about all the attention I got. I said, ‘But it’s nice to be Dmitri. You often talk to me about your children.’ He said, ‘Yes, but when I walk down the road, nobody says, “There goes Dmitri.” But when you are walking down the street, everybody is saying “There’s the Doctor.” Everybody wants to kiss you. Everybody wants to kiss.’ He was a bit hung up on kissing – I think Greeks are big kissers. I don’t know. But anyway, he kissed me and I left.
“I adored being adored. When I was young, I wanted to be liked. Later on, I wanted to be loved. I finished up as Doctor Who, and I wanted to be adored now. Of course, in my twilight I rather fancy worship.
“I am talking in this confessional way because you are reminding me of happy days, which haven’t entirely gone you see. The thing about television and moving pictures is that they confer a kind of immortality. The reason why everybody wants to get into television – there are lots of reasons, for some it’s a soft option – but the real thing I think is when you are in television, you don’t die. I mean, when did anyone who was on television ever die? I mean, we long for them to die – the people I look on in television, they make me long for death – but somehow or other, you don’t die. On a more serious note – away from getting tired of presenters who won’t die – is that television and films confer immortality. You are forever all the work. You are Humphrey Bogart or James Stewart. We don’t know them privately, so they are immortalised. Now we have an amazing situation with repeats on television and so many channels that the living – such as we are – are entertained by the dead. This is a nice paradox. Something I watch a film I am in – and of course if I see myself running upstairs it makes me weep – but, sometimes, I am the only one left alive. . .
“But to be adored as I was, as Doctor Who, no it never, never went away. It was wonderful. After a while it spoiled me, you see. Why should I ever want to be Tom Baker? Tom Baker was ordinary and full of anxieties and uncertain of himself and insecure. But Doctor Who had secrets. He could solve things. He could save the universe. Yeah.”
On why he chose to leave the series…..
“That’s a good question: why should I leave something that was so wonderful? It was simply that I got so proprietorial. You may have to ask other people this, but as I recall I was so proprietorial that it was almost impossible to direct me. I thought I knew everything – because, of course, it was about me, I thought. Hmm. And therefore I began to sense the clashes, and watched people’s reactions to me, and gradually I thought, ‘Perhaps I’ve done enough, really.’ And when I became aware of these kinds of imperfections in my reaction to people or theirs to me in the rehearsals, I thought I would just go away.
“I gave it up, you know. It was terrible – absolutely terrible.”