TOM BAKER INTERVIEW
by JASON ARNOPP
First published in Doctor Who Magazine 412 in August 2009.
“I’m afraid I have no gift for friendship. I quickly get tired of people and off they go. Odd, isn’t it, not to have a friend… I haven’t even got a dog…” – Tom Baker, in his autobiography Who On Earth Is Tom Baker?, HarperCollins, 1997.
Tom Baker’s grey lurcher Poppy bounds into the woods ahead. We’re walking away from the former Fourth Doctor’s Sussex house, across his picturesque, sprawling land, as he shows Doctor Who Magazine the sights. Having grilled him for Doctor Who information [see last issue – Ed], we’ve gladly taken up his invitation of a guided tour, and hope to find out a little more about him as a person. We are, of course, dealing with a gentleman whose middle name would be Enigma if it wasn’t Stewart – and a man prone to the kind of tangents which would give mathematicians a migraine. Still, we’ll give it our best shot. The chat which follows will hopefully lend insight into his lifestyle these days, while taking in such topics as alcohol, drugs and death. But don’t worry, it has a happy ending. Promise.
“All this stuff is ours,” says Tom, casually, as we stroll. “Well, not all of it. Twelve acres.”
Only twelve? Oh dear.
Thankfully, he chuckles at this ribbing, before nodding at Poppy. “Lurchers are very sweet and soppy. They need a lot of attention. I sometimes go out with her four or five times a day when I’m here. We walk down these woods and I pick up sticks and make little fires. Or prepare fires. I’ve always liked bonfires. Interesting, that.”
The trees swallow us whole, obstructing some of the late-morning sunlight. There’s no real path to follow, and the ground is actually quite treacherous – perhaps all the better to keep a nimble 75-year-old like Tom, well, nimble. He’s holding something that resembles a walking stick, with a handy park-keeper’s spike on the end, which he rarely seems to use like an actual walking stick. He occasionally thwacks a tree with it, though, for no apparent reason.
He owns another handy device, which he calls “a picker-upper. This is what I do for exercise – I’ve got the picker-upper to grab kindling wood for bonfires, and I stack them up there.” He points to a pile of wood, neatly stacked in a triangular formation.
Tom and wife Sue Jerrard have lived here for two years. Before that, they lived in France for a while, and before that, Kent. Roughly a year ago, Tom finally succumbed to owning that dog. Poppy’s a lovely example of the species. Fourteen months old, with a merrily wagging tail.
“Ahhhh, yes,” says Tom, “It’s a wonderful thing to see a happy pet. And we love our cats – we’ve had them for years. We’ve got another kitten coming soon. But in the country it’s easy, you see. We had cats in France, but when I was in Notting Hill Gate, tearing about the place, I couldn’t have had a dog. I could have had a cat. [Tom’s ex-wife and screen companion] Lalla Ward had a cat.”
Poppy comes running back towards us, greeted by an “’Ello-’ello-’ello!” from Tom.
“Every morning, you see, I come down here. Sometimes at half-past-four, on first light! The light is very dramatic and milky at half-past four.”
Good lord – what are you doing up at half-past four, sir?
“Well… if I’m not working, then I go to bed very early. I like to be in bed by the time Channel 4 News comes on, yes. So we have an early dinner, at about quarter-to-six. I then get up in the morning and take Poppy out here. The first dog I’ve ever had. Now at least, in my old age, I’m enjoying being worshipped by a dog.”
Tom has always enjoyed a spot of adoration, which he rightly continues to receive from fans and always will. A dog’s the perfect pet for him, isn’t it?
“Yes, adoration and worship! I didn’t get a pet before, because I was aware it was an awful responsibility. She’s a real drag, in some ways, because you have to think about her all the time. But she’s so affectionate, and it’s honestly very nice to walk a dog. If I walk on my own, I’m likely to get a bit melancholy, you know?”
Oh, we don’t want that!
“No. We don’t want that,” he says, with a faint chuckle. “So when we’re down here, and she’s chasing rabbits or deer… Poppy wants to be with me all the time, and wants to know where I go when I’m up in my room at the computer. She’d love to be there, you see. Sometimes I’ve let her up there, and she lies there, looking up at me in that melancholy way which they do. But then they get bold. She looks around and there’s my lovely bed… and if you’re not careful, she’s up on it! Or the furniture. And then, when that happens, you’re making a terrible rod for your back. Animals, like children, need to know where they are. Ah. More kindling wood!” He draws my attention to another triangular pile. We’ll be seeing many such piles – these woods rather resemble The Baker Witch Project.
“Well, you have to put it in heaps like this,” he explains, “or you’ll always have to walk a long way to find a pile. Branches fall all the time. Anyway, I always take different routes, through here. You see, dogs’ great pleasure is their noses. That’s the great pleasure of a dog. Food and its nose. When they’re sniffing, they’re surfing the ’net, so to speak! They think, ‘Ah! Squirrel, here!’”
He draws to a sudden halt, as he’s prone to do during this expedition, then stares into a large depression in the ground, which contains some kind of vegetation. Hopefully not a Krynoid.
“I don’t know what that is,” he frowns. “The bluebells have been, and the anemones. Are you a gardener?”
I tell him no, as we start moving again.
“When you’re a gardener, you see, you hate lots of things. For example, I’ve got that gunnera over there, which is quite expensive, but deer come at night and eat it. Gardeners hate deer. They’re adorable to look at, though, in the lower fields, among the horses in the early evenings. The fallow deer are very beautiful, but they’re buggers for coming round and eating things! Gardeners hate lots of things: aphids, spiders…”
He stops dead again.
“There was a Jon Pertwee story about spiders, wasn’t there?”
Yes. 1974’s Planet of the Spiders, which came directly before Robot, your début of the same year. The first episode of Robot went out on 28 December – that must have been a hell of a Christmas for you?
“Yeah, I must have watched some of that, because Philip [Hinchcliffe, Doctor Who producer] rang me up afterwards – I lived in Notting Hill Gate, then – I had seen it with the girl [Marianne Ford] I was living with at the time. Philip said to me, ‘I’ve just watched it with great joy and I want to welcome you – you are going to be a star’. That felt like a big thing coming from Philip, who was very measured. He was very young in those days. We held him in awe – he was very bright. He’d been to Cambridge and all that type of thing. He was full of very good advice for us. I enjoyed most of my time with Philip very much indeed.”
He suddenly points at a pile of chunky wood. “These logs… I’ve got a chap who helps me, because I can’t lift those. We’ve so much woodland, that you always find lots of dead trees.”
Is it exhausting, having so much land to manage?
“Well, not really, because you see over there,” he says, pointing at a five bar gate. “The farmer lets his cattle come in there, and they’ll eat some grass. So do our friend’s horses, out there on the field. Now, I’ll show you my bonfire. I got that in November.”
It has to be said that all this lovely communing with nature feels somewhat at odds with the popular image of Tom Baker as one of the foremost hellraisers of our time. He spent untold years propping up bars in London’s Soho with the likes of writer Jeffrey Bernard, painter Francis Bacon and The Colony Room club’s owner Ian Board – none of whom are now with us. During his Doctor Who years, of course, his love of a libation or two, and certainly the smoking, was kept from the public eye as much as possible, so as not to affect impressionable children.
If Tom was a party animal during his seven years of filming Doctor Who, though, how did he manage to keep functioning? Did he ever turn up to the studio with a lousy hangover?
“No, I didn’t,” he says simply, thwacking another tree. “I had a good head, yeah. But in those days… it’s a long time ago, and it’s a world that no longer exists. It was a world where wine was available all the time, and hard drinking was a sign of being sociable. An actor who said, ‘No thanks, I can’t drink, or won’t drink’ wasn’t very interesting, because most of the conversation was fuelled by alcohol and cigarettes. It didn’t feel extraordinary when I would rush from rehearsals to Soho, to be in The Colony Room with Bacon, Board or Bernard. That was the life!”
Did you ever have a cheeky one while filming Doctor Who?
“Absolutely not!” he bellows, shocked by the notion. “I was quite puritanical in some ways, and never drank before or during work. I knew actors who used to go to The Castle pub before they’d go into rehearsal! They’d have a brandy and milk or something like that. So all that behaviour which seems odd now was absolutely ordinary then.”
In order to illustrate why drinking while acting is a bad idea, he tells a cautionary tale featuring actress Beatrix Lehmann, who so wonderfully portrayed Professor Emilia Rumford in 1978’s The Stones of Blood.
“That was a time, you know, when actors in the theatre drank, too. Leading actors had a lot of drink in their dressing room, for their friends who came in, so there was no control over it. Beatrix was once working at the Apollo. Behind that theatre and the Queens Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, there was a big pub called The Duke of Wellington. So Beatrix was in a play with big, moody scenes. The actors in those days, if they weren’t on early in the play, they used to go to the pub! Beatrix, onstage, was about to go into a soliloquy, when she glanced across the stage and saw a man in full evening dress. She looked at him in amazement, and he looked at her in amazement. Then he looked at his watch and said, ‘Christ, I’m in the wrong theatre!’ And off he went, to rush around to the other theatre. Because of course, the two stage doors were close together, and there was the pub. So he came out of the pub and went in the wrong door!”
He beams at the memory. “What do I know about anything? But now, it seems to me very inconceivable that… I mean, nothing’s inconceivable… but it seems very improbable that actors would drink during a performance. Audiences are not tolerant of that now, and neither are the other actors. I remember a very famous actor. I met him in a pub, when he was recording that night. I asked him if he wanted a drink and he said, ‘No dear, I never drink on the night I’m recording… I’ll have a large Macon’. He actually didn’t think white wine was a drink! His drink was vodka, and that was his rationalisation. A large Macon was a big glass, and he’d probably had a couple before then!”
That era sounds like wonderful fun, and makes hedonism sound so attractive. But is it, really? What’s your attitude towards it now?
“Well, I don’t know, because it’s entirely different now. The entire attitude has changed towards health – and smoking and drinking in particular. It’s amazing to me now to think, ‘Did I really smoke cigarettes?’, and of course I did smoke them quite heavily. I liked strong cigarettes, too. And when I gave them up,
20 or 25 years ago, it was very, very hard. Now, I wouldn’t take a job in a film or in television where I had to smoke a cigarette. I wouldn’t do it. Mind you, you wouldn’t be asked to do it now, because the telly world is a world where nobody smokes or even
drinks! It’s totally unreal, that, isn’t it, because most people still do smoke – young people particularly.
“I spent all these hours in pubs, but pubs have changed. I was doing a commercial, the other day, for some big car company. I was walking through [Soho’s] Romily Street and passed a familiar pub, glancing in through the open windows. I wondered if someone would shout ‘Hello Tom!’, but not a word. I went along to the Coach & Horses and glanced in – it was about one o’clock in the day and the place was empty. I thought, ‘Jesus!’ I’d stood there with Jeff Bernard and Michael Heath the cartoonist and the Private Eye magazine crowd. It’s all changed. So I don’t go to pubs now, because they’re not the same.”
So bars are nothing without friends to drink with?
“Well, yes. Pubs were once like clubs for ordinary people. I used to live in a pub called The Grove Tavern in Beauchamp Place, off the Brompton Road, near Harrods. I was a barman, too. At six o’clock in the pub, ’til seven, there was a heavy drinking session there with terribly grand people, who lived nearby. They would drink very heavily – cocktails ’til seven o’clock. Then they’d go off to their dinner, and at about half-past nine, a good many of them would be back in the pub for their nightcaps! And that was their little pub – it was their club. It was the same for pubs in every area or village. People would tell other people they were sitting in their seat! And people knew what they drank, whereas the bar-staff now are not there long enough to know what customers want. It’s a different world. There’s an entirely different attitude towards work and drink – it’s puritanical now. You ask someone if they want a drink and they look at their watch. What the f*** has that got to do with anything?! ‘Do you want a glass of wine?’ and they look at their watch. I always tell them, ‘What’s that for? Do you want a glass of wine or not?!’ It’s not like that in Europe. At seven o’clock in the morning, you might see a street-sweeper standing next to a banker – they’re both having an espresso and might also have a smart little nip of something!”
Do you see a dark side to such indulgence?
“The thing is,” he says, ducking under a low-hanging bough, “there’s a natural impulse in people to do things to change their consciousness! Whether it’s bloody cocaine, or crack cocaine, or marijuana, or wine, or whisky. When I was a Catholic boy, there was incense-sniffing! I mean, I had to sniff it because I was swinging the incense ball – I was enveloped in clouds of incense! You see, all we know about people taking drugs, or drinks, or whatever they do, we only know about the failures! We only catch the people who can’t deal with it. I am acquainted with people who handle drugs extremely efficiently, and run quite complicated lives. I was at a party about 18 months ago, with a lot of famous people – I was the only person I’d never heard of – and the guy whose party it was, pointed out the two dealers who were absolutely charming young men. There was nothing skulking or strange about them. They were enchanting and apparently dealt great gear – but I don’t do that.”
Did you ever?
“No, that sort of thing hasn’t appealed to me at all. I was terrified of losing control of myself. But there are plenty of people, and I know a few, who handle things brilliantly. What’s desperate is people, in all the classes, who turn to drugs, or turn to booze, out of sheer misery. Their lives are unbearable, so they seek solace.”
So you’ve always approached drinking with a celebratory spirit?
“I have, yes. But my health was always absolutely excellent. Very robust. I had a very good head, so it didn’t hammer me that much. I was lucky. My friend Jeff Bernard, who was one of the best alcoholics of his generation – I mean, I could take it better than him. But then, I didn’t drink as much as he did. I mean, Ian Board… people came from all over the world to look at his nose! A man who drank two bottles of vodka a day – that’s 32 large ones a day. I once asked him if he drank in the mornings. He said, ‘Drink in the morning, luvvie? Ohhh, no. I mean, I might have eight or nine lagers, just to stop the shakes… but
I don’t drink’. He didn’t think that was drinking.”
So there was a tier above you of hardcore drinkers.
“Oh, yes. Supermen!”
Which perhaps accounts for why you’re still with us today?
“Well, when I go past all those places now… it’s amazing, as if I’m thinking about someone else. It could be quite a horror story: you see Tom Baker walking along and coming to the Coach & Horses… he blinks… and looks through the window… and then you cut into the pub and see me, as I was 35 years ago! I think to myself, ‘Did I really stand there, all the time?’ Pubs are a good reference point, because restaurants change all the time.”
If you could go into that pub now and give 1974 Tom some advice, what would it be?
“I never give advice to anyone.”
Not even yourself, in a hypothetical scenario?
“No. Because I don’t like advice. The only advice I like, is the advice I entirely agree with. Which is like most people, isn’t it? Most people only listen to, or take in, what they want to hear. If someone knocks at the door and says, ‘Would you like to wake up the next day, feeling calm and refreshed, and look at the world fearlessly?’, most people would say, ‘Are you a bloody Jehovah’s Witness? Piss off, I’m watching Newcastle on the telly!’ It’s a wonderful idea, waking up after a wonderful night’s sleep and feeling incredible, but you don’t want to hear it. People actually don’t like change.”
So 1974 Tom wouldn’t have appreciated his future self entering the Coach & Horses and holding court?
“Well, you see, the thing with meddling with time… the adventures of Doctor Who were terribly funny, weren’t they, but terribly illogical, because he had no business interfering with history! How could he do it? It’s like that theological argument about a sin, where you say, ‘If God knows everything before it happens, then when I commit that sin, there’s no way I can’t commit that sin, because God has seen the future’. We used to have these discussions about Doctor Who: he couldn’t go back and change the battle of Austerlitz, because it wasn’t his business! [Doctor Who producer] Barry Letts used to take it very seriously: he’d say, ‘You can’t change history, Tom’. And I’d say, ‘I won’t change history, but how can we make it funny?’”
While in the world of pubs, did you ever encounter drinkers who resented your fame?
“I occasionally bumped into people who were rather hostile. Not often, thank God, because I was playing such a benevolent part. I’ve known actors who played big men – Sean Connery, for instance, or Edward Woodward who played [70s hitman] Callan – and they couldn’t go out on their own during their heyday! Otherwise, wherever they went… if they walked into a pub for a beer, someone would say, ‘Are you Callan? Come on, outside, let’s see how hard you are’. I mean, that’s terrifying, eh? And Ted Woodward is such a sweet, gentle soul.”
Do you still raise a bit of hell every now and again, or have you mellowed?
“As one gets older and energy goes… for one thing I’ve got dodgy knees now. Arthritic knees. Although, compared to most people I know – ex-rugby players
and things like that, I’m pretty good, really. But you see, now, apart from reading stories on BBC or occasionally being asked to do something on television, I think people now know that they have to approach me pretty personally if I’m going to do something. I live here in this little paradise, so why would I want to go on tour with a play, when all the time I’d be missing [wife] Sue, or little Poppy, or this house, or this woodland? At my age, I don’t want… I mean, what would I play? Funny old men!”
He grins at my amusement: “Well, that’s right! Cantankerous old men. So I can’t be bothered, really. But sometimes, people ring my agent and ask if there’s any chance of getting Tom to do a scene in something. And the answer’s usually no.” He chuckles. “And yet, I would hotly dispute… I mean, I can’t possibly announce that I’ve retired. Because I have no intention of retiring. I had a hot flush last year, when someone mentioned that The Archers had enquired about me. Well, that would be a marvellous kind of swansong, wouldn’t it, to be in The Archers? But it was only an enquiry, and I think they gave it to John Woodvine, or somebody like that. He used to be in Doctor Who, didn’t he?”
The forthcoming BBC Audio series Hornets’ Nest has revitalised Tom’s interest in promotion. “I guess there’ll be a big push from September onwards, when the first episode is released. I’m looking forward to – I hope, if I’ve got the strength – making a few personal appearances. They’re going to package it very well, I think.”
Will you appear at any conventions?
“Well, I might do. Yes, certainly, I might.
I occasionally do conventions, you know. I mean, I did do one a few months ago in Essex, with Nick [Courtney]. I’m very, very devoted to Nick, although we don’t meet because, of course, we live too far away from each other. Well, I mean, he lives in North London, but I can’t be going up to North London –
I live in the country now.”
We take a breather, by a perimeter fence. Tom suddenly seems very preoccupied by my right foot.
“You’re standing on a wire there,” he intones.
Sadly, the wire doesn’t turn out to be a trap laid by Sutekh, triggering one of the evil Osirian’s invisible forcefields. Tom’s merely concerned I might trip.
So what’s the wire for?
“When I let the dog out on her own, she’s got an electric collar on,” he explains. “There’s a current going around all this part of the fencing so she won’t cross over. When she gets to the fence, there’s a slight buzz. You have to go through the initial agony of the first time they go through the fence. Oh, it’s terrible. They scream! But it only takes two goes, and then they learn, you know.”
I’ve never had a pet, for fear of being too upset when they die. Self-defeating, really.
“Well some people do feel that way. But, I mean, the whole of life is a question of loss, isn’t it? I met a boy in a paper shop the other day. He was only about 16, and he looked rather frail. We were talking, and he said, ‘The thing is, Mr Baker, I don’t want to grow old’. And he was only 16! But yes, everything is loss. The loss of childhood, the loss of youth, the loss of parents, the loss of… you know, hair! The loss of teeth. Everything is loss, and everything that’s precious is a loss. Finally, we don’t own anything, do we, because we’re defeated by death. We just have things. We don’t own them, because we have to leave them, because we’re on our way somewhere – to oblivion! It’s a great terror, isn’t it?”
It is, rather. Would it be overstating the case to say you’re obsessed with death?
“I’m not obsessed with death. But when you get past 75, you open the paper and see obituaries of contemporaries who are a little bit older or younger than you. I get invited to memorial services, and don’t usually go. I went to [Doctor Who producer] John Nathan-Turner’s and made a little speech, actually. But I very rarely go. And I certainly now can’t be bothered with going to funerals. I think the reason why people go to funerals a lot – or partly the reason – is that, of course, if you go to other people’s funerals, a lot of people might come to yours. Unless, of course, you’ve lived so long that you outlive them all. It’s interesting that a mighty actor like John Gielgud – and Gene Kelly – should leave strict instructions that there be no funeral and no memorial service. Nothing. And so did Francis Bacon, who I knew so well. He left absolute instructions that he should be cremated with no service at all. He said, ‘It’s the end. Just dispose of me’.”
How do you feel about that?
“Well, I sympathise rather with that point of view. The grief of funerals… Look, I had that bridge done. Isn’t it sweet?”
We’ve arrived at a fairly short, and clearly hand-crafted, bridge, which stretches from one river bank to another, with a handrail on one side. Was it made from kindling wood, per chance?
“No, not kindling wood. Although it could’ve been kindling wood. Poppy will probably run through the bloody mud under it. She loves that.”
As we head across the bridge, Tom announces, “Here’s that bonfire!”
The bonfire looms into view. It’s huge. More of a ritualistic pyre, really. Tom’s clearly thinking along similar lines…
“I’ll tell you what it looks like – something from The Wicker Man! Ha ha! But I can’t cope with all this, you see, so someone else does it. I just pick up dead saplings or whatever and heap them up.”
Forgive the practical ignorance, but how do you start this enormous bonfire without setting the whole wood ablaze?
“Well, because in the Winter when I light them up, I mean, around here, the odd tree will get singed a bit, but they’ll come back. Or else you have several. When you burn things like this, you don’t do it higgledy-piggledy. What you do is start a small fire, then lay things side by side. And then everything burns. If you leave it higgledy-piggledy, there’ll be lots that won’t burn, and then you’re stuck with all sorts of rubbish.”
Hearing Tom Baker say the words “higgledy-piggledy” surely numbers among life’s greater joys. Does he enjoy barbeques?
“Well, no – I hate standing around. And people covered in bloody barbeque sauce. I can’t bear the sight of people eating, actually – unless of course I’m eating with them, in which case I don’t notice it. But when I’m not eating, and you see people eating at barbeques – oh!” He laughs at the horror of it all. “Anyway, we don’t need a barbeque, because people can come up on our patio.”
Returning to the topic of mortality, is it true that you bought yourself a gravestone, a couple of decades back?
“Oh yeah. It’s still over in Kent, where I used to live. I was going to have it sent over to France but the postage was colossal – it’s a very big stone. I used to mow the tummies of the dead, in the church next to where I lived, and make sarcastic remarks about the headstone inscriptions. For instance, ‘Arthur Simpson: not dead just sleeping’, and I’d say, ‘You’re dead, you silly old bugger!’ and rev my mower.
“The thing about churches,” he continues, launching into fully-fledged Anecdotal Entertainment Mode, “is that they’re always begging. Always begging off the poor, of course, because it’s the poor who pay for everything. So I offered to give them 100 pounds for an old stone – an old early nineteenth-century, maybe early eighteenth-century, stone, worn flat, leaning against one wall of the church. The deal was struck, as they’d do anything for 100 pounds – I could’ve bought the church for five hundred. A few days later, I was mowing on one side of the church when I heard the chink-chink-chink of a chisel. Walked around the corner and this guy was putting the inscription on the stone of some poor guy who’d just been buried. I said, ‘Hello!’, and he said, ‘Christ! Doctor Who?’ I said, ‘Yes, I’m Doctor Who’. He was a great fan, and I asked if he wanted to make 30 quid. He said, ‘Not half!’ I told him I wanted him to put on the gravestone, in big lovely letters, ‘Tom Baker, 1934 –’. I didn’t want him to put the second date, as I wasn’t sure of it yet. It was a beautiful inscription.”
But why get it done at all?
“Well, I think it was me actually being bloody-minded with the church. The reason I had it inscribed, was that I thought they might sell it to someone else. I wanted to get my mark on it, because it belonged to me! At that time, where I lived, in a very beautiful old Victorian school. I saw my life being spent there, and I was going to be buried in that graveyard.”
Did you buy a grave too, then?
“You can’t do that – I tried! Nowadays, in these egalitarian times, you see, you can’t do it. They say you can book a plot, but you can’t choose it, because that’s elitist.”
It’s just political correctness gone mad.
“Absolutely gone mad. One day – here’s a story for you – I was mowing outside the church and over the wall, I could see someone standing by my gravestone. I thought, ‘If he’s having a slash on my bloody gravestone I’ll give him a right bollocking!’ I was doing quite a long strip of lawn, so when I came back for the next one, he was kneeling by my gravestone! My blood ran cold. Eventually, of course, a terrifying thing happened. I stopped by him, and said hello. He said hello back. I switched off the engine and he said, ‘I’ve just been putting flowers on your grave’. How odd. Couldn’t he see I was standing there, very corporeal, by a Honda mower?
“So I said, ‘Good, good’, which is what you say when you’re faced with a lunatic. He asked if I liked forget-me-nots and I said they were my favourite. ‘Oh good’, he said – I’ve just laid some forget-me-nots on your grave. It’s so, so sad!’”
I don’t believe he said that, for a moment!
“He did! He did! So I said, ‘Ah yes, well there you are’, then turned and walked away, towards the house where I lived. I looked back over my shoulder and there he was, waving. There was a lot of hillside to walk up and I thought, ‘Christ, he’s going to be waving forever’. But that chilled me. Talking to me about my death. Did he think I was a revenant?”
Do you have any thoughts on a gravestone inscription to match that of comic Spike Milligan?
“It was quite droll, wasn’t it, his? ‘I told you I wasn’t feeling well’. Perhaps I might have ‘I want a second opinion’. Or ‘This is not all it’s cracked up to be’! I don’t know. But you can’t do things like that anymore. Spike got away with it because he was famous.”
And you’re not?
“Well, I think now, they’re more touchy. They dictate the style of inscriptions. Actually, the whole of monumental art has disappeared because of money and correctness. You must have seen in some fantastic graveyards in North London – especially around Muswell Hill, or Highgate – there were fabulous stones, but now the whole style and layout of stones in municipal graveyards, and ordinary church ones, is all to do with the tosser who bloody mows the lawn! So they’re all the same, in the same line. Whereas they used to be a lovely higgledy-piggledy way of doing it. You don’t see deliberately amusing things on gravestones, not usually. Poor melancholy Spike, being wry until the very end.”
We probably don’t talk about death enough in this country, do we?
“It’s quite a different thing in different generations. When young people lose a friend, they’re overcome with grief, aren’t they? No-one can imagine being
dead – it’s rather like someone asking you to imagine being asleep! ‘What it’s like being asleep?’ And you say, ‘I don’t know – I’m asleep!’ We all know we’re going to die, and the only certainty in life is death. And taxes. And yet we can’t imagine it! Every now and again, we’re shattered by the sense of loss at losing a friend, or a lover. It brings it home, doesn’t it? As one gets older… a friend of ours died recently, aged 54. He had his lunch, went inside to watch the rugby or something, then his wife went in with a cup of coffee for him, and he was dead. He was adored in this country – a very famous vet, and that shocked everyone.”
Is it good to deal with death by talking or joking about it?
“Yeah, I’ll make jokes. But it would depend. You wouldn’t really talk about death in a pub, would you?” He laughs loudly at the thought. “And you wouldn’t really talk about death, in a loud voice, in a hospital!” Another laugh. “And I don’t know if the readers of Doctor Who Magazine want to read too much about death…”
Looking back on his existence so far, does Tom think he’s lived the best of all possible lives? He stops walking, to give this some thought.
“Um… the thing about living a life… I mean, I say this very humbly, because of course I don’t know. But it seems to me that life is largely accidents. George C Scott once said, in a film [1978’s Movie Movie], ‘It’s amazing, the theatre. One minute you’re standing in the wings, the next you’re wearing them’! Existence is a series of accidents, in which people pretend or think they’re in charge of things, when they’re often not. Political events, terrible social upheavals, weather, illness, accidents… one minute you’re okay, then BANG! A local woman here ran into a deer, two or three Sundays ago. A big deer. It came through the windscreen and the woman was hideously injured. And you think: on a Sunday morning, at half-past six! So I don’t know anything about the life I’ve lived. I think I’ve done the best I can.”
So you think you’ve had a good life?
“Yes, that’s right. I think of [late Dad’s Army actor] John Le Mesurier, with his incomparable, light way of comedy. His wife Liz told me that, when he was dying, quite peacefully, his last words were, ‘Well, I suppose it’s all been rather wonderful…’ I mean, that was John. It was the ‘I suppose’!” He laughs. “He wasn’t certain and he didn’t want to be bossy about it.”
After the relatively brief, but wonderful, time I’ve spent with Tom today, my overriding impression is of a more settled and centred man than we might have expected, given his reputation for pop-eyed, off-the-wall eccentricity. On another day, he might perhaps be quite different – and, of course, if anyone ever fully figured out what makes Tom Baker tick, the Earth would surely topple off its axis. Or at least become a slightly less intriguing place.
“There’s no doubt about it. As I get older, I’m much more resigned to my age,” he admits. “There’s nothing I can do about it, so I just have to take it, and try to be cheerful about it. All my life, I’ve tried to be cheerful.”
You generally have been, haven’t you?
“Yes, I think so. I think so. The other day, quite by accident, I saw my name on the internet. I was described as ‘Tom Baker, actor and comedian’. I was rather chuffed about that! So have you got enough stuff? If you haven’t… just make it up.”
We’re heading back the way we came now, in the general direction of Tom’s car, with which he’ll kindly ferry me, through time and space, to a nearby train station. The conversation meanders back to religion, one of Tom’s favourite subjects, with which we started, two-and-a-half hours ago.
“I sometimes read religious books like The Bible,” he says, “because I do find it very funny – especially the Old Testament. Although a lot of people would think that Jesus was a terrible show-off. All that walking on water stuff, and the great big picnic, feeding the five thousand. Doing a Paul Daniels with two loaves and three fishes! Ha ha! It was very impressive. The greatest miracle of all was turning water into wine.”
But could Jesus rumble up 50 tonnes of kindling wood? I don’t think so.
“Ha ha! He had a very influential father, though. Ha. Of course, the amazing joke about existence, according to religion – and a sick joke it is too – is that this life is not ‘the deal’. ‘The deal’ is actually when you die. So you say, ‘Oh really? I’ve got to die before I go to Heaven?’ And they say, ‘Afraid so, yeah’.”
So your whole attitude to life is…
“… That this is the deal!”
He grins a vintage Tom Baker grin, as wide as the horizon. “Yeah. It is. This is the deal.”
His fruity laughter reverberates as we leave the woods, back out into sunlight which seems significantly brighter than before…
BOX OUT MATERIAL
In 2001, Tom Baker provided narration for a Radio 4 show named Little Britain, starring comics Matt Lucas and David Walliams. It went on to become a smash TV hit, once again propelling Tom’s unmistakable voice into millions of households, via broadcast and incredible DVD sales. Knowing Tom’s love of suggesting lines, we wondered how much of his narration is improvised. A lot of it sounds very Tom!
“Well that’s because the boys are very clever writers,” he says. “But in a way,
I am like that. Slightly outrageously pompous. The genius of Little Britain, is that I’m playing this pompous ass who’s totally chauvinistic, but the audience get it straight away, don’t they, because it’s so over-the-top. If anyone’s offended, then Christ, it’s a joke! No-one likes to think they haven’t got a sense of humour. Little Britain is a tremendous show. Matt and David, they gave it to me because they loved me. I’m employed now by people who watched me when they were children!”