TOM BAKER INTERVIEW
First published in Doctor Who Magazine 181 in December 1991
In the final part of our three part interview, Tom Baker reflects on his years as the Doctor, on his present work and the fate of the programme itself…
‘He’d make a lovely corpse’ Martin Chuzzlewit, by Charles Dickens
During the course of our lengthy but entertaining interview, as Tom spoke of acting work both past and present, including his new video Just Who On Earth is Tom Baker?, no clear picture of Tom the Man really emerged, except to say that I have never met anyone like him – and individuality is a rare quality in this day and age. As we moved locations from the sound studio to one of his favoured Soho pubs (Tom and Soho seem to go together – unexpected, perhaps even dangerous, and never dull!) he seemed to pick up steam with his discourse on life in general and his personal future, not forgetting, of course, that very important time in the past when he played the inter-galactic, ever-popular Time Lord. With the part of the Doctor now far behind him, what’s Tom been up to of late?
“The last few months have been very good for me and as I said, I’m in work until the end of the year. Perhaps the influence of Doctor Who is dying away at long last. I’ve done The Law Lords and from here I have my first costume fitting for Medics, which is a new medical series for Granada. I play a big consultant surgeon in that one.”
Were there really problems with typecasting, the perception of Tom the person as the same weird character he played on TV?
“Well I think this is inevitable, isn’t it. For example, and I don’t mean to compare anyone with me or myself with anyone else, but if one thinks of typecasting, it happens. If you think of a mighty person in athletics like say, [the footballer] George Best, he fell into a pattern of a wayward genius. That went on so long that he wanted to oblige the public and he got typecast in the public mind, it was the only way they could see him which was a pity. It’s the same for actors like Oliver Reed who can be wonderfully witty and funny and a fine actor.
“It’s the way we typecast our film stars. We could not for example, I don’t think, see James Stewart, Gregory Peck or Paul Newman as vicious child molesters. We won’t have it, they are heroes in our mind and if they try it – and Peck did in The Boys From Brazil – we found it risible. So after a while when you’re in so many peoples’ minds as one particular character (and in my case particularly in producers’ and directors’ minds) as Doctor Who, of course they couldn’t cast me. I could see their anxiety – they couldn’t see past it.
“The very success of the show made it impossible for them to see behind that image, because they liked it too and they used to say ‘Well no, we know what Tom’s like’ and I hope Just Who On Earth. . . will show that I’m not entirely like that. The tape’s had some very warm reviews and it shows I don’t have just one performance, that I can be different. That typecasting may be just about evaporating now.”
Has it really taken eleven years to shake off the shadow of the Doctor?
“Yes – I think I finally have this year, with Selling Hitler, The Law Lords and now, Medics. I mean, I was amazed that they offered me this part as a consultant surgeon, who is wearing this very expensive suit and talking about very modern issues such as AIDS or cancer and the grief and fear that people have about these things. This is an amazing departure for me.”
Doctor Who actors seem to suffer from these restrictions in different ways. For example, the IBA recently told actress and former companion Sophie Aldred she can’t do adverts involving alcohol, ‘Well, I don’t think that’s unreasonable. I think exploitation of an image for gain, considering the power of that image, is just not on. If we saw newscasters doing zany commercials while they’re still on the television, their authority would be diluted, wouldn’t it? Never mind what their performance was like.”
Would you accept a role in the Doctor Who movie?
‘Well probably yes, if I was amused by the script.”
But as the Doctor or a monster? The idea of playing the villain seemed to have a certain attraction.
“I don’t think for one moment they’d give me the lead role, for the simple reason that I’m not a mighty bankable movie star. So it would be very witty of them if they gave me the part of the baddie, whoever the Scratchman is. It would give the actor who was playing the Doctor, if he was aware of the connection, the chance to do some takes on this. Even if he didn’t know about it I’m sure it would give much of the audience considerable pleasure. And it would delight me! ”
You mention the Scratchman, literally the Devil or villain, but wasn’t that also part of the title of a Doctor Who film Tom himself had written?
“Yes, with Ian Marter. But that’s a long time ago now and I don’t have a copy. It’s not likely to be revived.”
A RETURN TO DOCTOR WHO?
Would he be interested in playing the Doctor in a special if the money was right?
“It’s not entirely the money. I do have a sense of choice and I do want to do the best I can, whether I’m doing a commentary about a building site, playing Doctor Who or trying to play something else. I try to do that by careful preparation so if the script was good that would be the first consideration. I’m not greedy about money; of course I want the going rate for what I think is fair but certainly money wouldn’t be the primary consideration.
‘You see, good actors or conscientious actors, that sounds as if I’m defining myself but I am a conscientious actor, conscientious performers who’ve had a bit of experience – and God knows, I’ve been around long enough – want to invest in work.
“That’s why you never consciously do shabby work. As a writer, if you’ve got a commission to do a book or a script, and you don’t do the best you can, it goes out and people say it’s feeble and you don’t get another one.
“The first consideration is that if you invest in the work it will give you a kick back, which could be another job, especially anything on film. So yes, if the script was right I’d consider being Doctor Who again.”
And was he approached to do that, as reported in August?
“A company called Naked Eye asked me and I gave them the same answer I’ve just given you. Of course, on the back of my agreement they went to the BBC and hoped to get permission because they had raised some finance [£2.4millions] and the BBC turned them down. I have no idea why, but there you are. At least they tried.
“You see, most of the time as an actor you’re living with disappointment. As an actor I’m constantly being asked, like in this interview now, about jobs I’ve been offered. People are always proposing things to me – like marriage, which isn’t possible! They’re either proposing crazy things or they’re indulging in their own fantasies with me and things fall through, like that did”
On that note, how do you think the BBC’s treated Doctor Who?
“As an outsider, and they have access to more figures than I do, but at the video signing, at St Martins-in-the-Fields on a boiling hot day in August, the turnout was enormous. I mean I signed four hundred videos which you had to buy on the door. So if you include the families who came in, who bought a video between them, perhaps I met about a thousand people there. That’s on a boiling hot afternoon, with no TV or radio advertising at all apart from the advertising in the fanzines and Marvel Comics Doctor Who Magazine – that, I think was very significant.”
If it does return, has he any suggestions for its format?
“I think that if it comes back, if the BBC decide to return it, it would be very imprudent or at least carefully discussed as to who they would want to do it. From their point of view they would consider me a retrograde step, they’d say ‘Well, that’s going back, Tom’s done it! What we want is someone new, someone young. . .’ and it wouldn’t be difficult to find someone younger than me. In fact, looking around this pub now, no-one’s older than me and I’m rarely in a situation where anyone is these days. So I think they’d go for someone new, like I was when I did it. I hadn’t been seen very much on television and so it happened for me. But if they wanted to give me another bash at it, I’d be intrigued. Yes, intrigued.
” There’s also talk of a compilation tape, following on from the Years Tapes featuring the first three Doctors. Is there anything he’d like to see included? “Well they’d have to sit down and view a lot of material. I’ve no idea how long that would take to do, and I’ve got no idea what should be on it. It doesn’t surprise me, it’s like another Myth Makers; old footage with hindsight comments. If it were done wittily and generously, it might interest the fans.”
What about Shada, the near mythological ‘Lost Story’ which was to have ended Season Seventeen, which centred around the search for the elusive Salavyin and an even more elusive prison planet? There have been suggestions that it could be edited together with Tom doing some sort of voiceover.
“That’s right, the Cambridge one. I don’t know if it would work. I can’t really remember how much was shot.”
TIME TRAVEL FOR REAL
If time-space travel was possible, where would you like to go, who would you like to meet, and why?
“This is a really difficult one. Certainly I would like to go back to the eighteenth century and meet the writers like Addison and Steele around the time of the French Revolution. It would be amazing to go back and see Charles Dickens in action and see what it that made him tick. He was the theatrical sensation of his day as far as the popular public was concerned.
“Then again, just imagine meeting Oscar Wilde or seeing the early productions of George Bernard Shaw’s plays. Then there’s Edmund Keen – fancy going back to see the Elizabethan theatre! Being in Paris but only being a common man and ****** the aristocrats! And no knitting patterns. . .”
Watching his new video Who On Earth is Tom Baker? Tom obviously has several passions – Dickens, cats, gardens and God. But what else does he find to do in his spare time, away from the bright lights and the latest voiceover, (of which there have been many?)
“I read a lot of escapism. I watch very little television, mainly the news or news comment. I sometimes watch Brian Walden at the weekends and have a glass of wine. I read a lot of newspapers every day; I take four so-called serious newspapers and often two tabloids, which I scour. I read some Dickens every day and some Shaw. This morning it was a play called Getting Married which I’d never seen, which I thought was very funny.
“I also have a self-appointed job as a churchyard keeper in which I look after the dead near my house. There are two cemeteries and I feel very proprietorial about them. I keep them mown and tidy and I know lots of the dead people there and I know the names of lots of them. I had a pruning session recently; they’re full of lots of sinister looking yew trees. This time of year is the growing season so I’m kept busy. Yesterday I was in that cemetery for four hours!
“So if I’m at home I go in and do various odd jobs, a bit of mowing or a bit of weeding or just a bit of looking, keeping things in check. It’s nice to think about the dead and wonder what they were like and speculate on so little evidence. The speculation fires one’s imagination because as you know on gravestones it doesn’t really say what they were like. You don’t know whether they were happy or what their last words were and some of them, well it’s downright lies! When they say ‘Not dead, only sleeping’, well! I had my Honda mower near a fellow’s head yesterday and he definitely wasn’t sleeping, let me tell you!”
Was it difficult to interview yourself for Just Who On Earth. . .? At the end of it he mentions it took ten hours to record. . .
“It did, and some people might say did it really take so long for so little? Of course one’s always vulnerable. If when my friends – and that’s what fans are to me – if they don’t see the kind of irony and the self-mockery. . . It’s me not taking anything seriously. It’s not devised for me to just air my views or sounds portentous or be the oracle of Delphi. If that’s what comes across, then I’ve failed. “What I’ve tried to set out to do, which I’ve always set out to do, is entertain and divert and to find a way of doing it which might be slightly different. Perhaps it is more verbal than just visual, and people have to listen to hear me teasing myself, or sometimes teasing the fans, but it’s meant to divert and amuse the fans, it’s not me saying anything seriously. . .”
And where did that parrot come from?
“Well, curiously enough my wife asked me to look at that again the other night and I thought it was really quite funny, the parrot is funny. Obviously I was afraid of using a parrot, because of the comparisons with Monty Python, I didn’t want to do that. It was linked with Treasure Island and also I wanted to get the idea across of the parrot being the leading man. I was pleased the parrot had those lines – and he delivered them very well, I thought!”
Did Tom enjoy making Hyperworld, a recent documentary on the future of computing for BBC, with Douglas Adams?
“It was interesting to do, and to be with Douglas Adams and Max Whitby, but it was very serious and quite a lot of it I didn’t understand, really. I just did the inserts and I wasn’t in on the preparation and some of the videographics were a bit beyond me, or I wasn’t there when they were doing them, so really that was a kind of presentation job. But it was lovely to be with Douglas again.”
What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done on TV?
“Probably Blackadder, when I played that legless sea captain. People thought that was pretty outrageous and I suppose if they thought it was outrageous then, it was.”
Apart from having a parrot take the lead in Treasure Island have you any unfulfilled ambitions?
“Well, nothing specific – you have to ask me that as a journalist and there’s the journalist in the fans – but I can’t think of anything apart from the most general one, which is to go on being fortunate enough and fit enough to get the work which will amuse people. To go on being the kind of entertainer I am, such as I am, and I hope that I won’t be rejected because I’m utterly passé. One fears that quite justifiably, not only in one’s career but in other ways.
“For example, if I discuss football or cricket with people I find now that I’m frozen in the past, I don’t quite grasp the new nuances which are so important. When one begins not to grasp or appreciate or not be sympathetic to new attitudes then you feel out of step, which is alarming. Then you begin to think ‘Maybe I feel that about the work. Maybe if I don’t find alternative comedians funny that means I’m not funny anymore, that I can’t find the spark to communicate with the audience.'”
Actors, I noted, seem to have this general paranoia about themselves.
“Absolutely! A performer who wants to do comedy, you know perfectly well from the response whether you’re living or dying. The playwright Willy Russell made me laugh a few weeks ago when he was asked, ‘Do you find comedy difficult?’ and he replied ‘Comedy’s easy – it’s dying that’s difficult.’
How do you cope with that, with ‘failing’ on stage? You’re afraid of being disconnected because it’s like anyone in any kind of business if anything threatens his market, if you’ve got a little village shop and a Tescos opens up in the same village, it frightens the hell out of you. Why would anyone come to you if they can get a better deal somewhere else? If it’s more exciting somewhere else. One longs, constantly, for reassurance.
“This is not unique to actors, it’s just a matter of great emphasis and it’s more noticeable but it actually appears in everyone. If a little boy’s mother has a new baby he might feel the same sort of thing, you know – ‘No-one’s taking any notice of me anymore’, or ‘Just a minute! Yesterday everyone was asking me what I wanted for me tea and now there’s this bundle full of tears and snot and everyone’s looking at it. What about me?”
On your new video you talk about ‘fantastical character acting’. Is that your favourite type of acting?
“It’s everyone’s. Everyone wants to do something amazing and have the funniest lines or have the greatest costume, or the best exit or entrance. I mean, we adore what’s fantastic don’t we? People are obsessed with fantasy, whether they know it or not. Middle-aged paunchy men – I’m well past that! – dream of being Maradonna or Viv Richards. I mean he’s just forty and how many forty-year-old men look at him and wish they were him, and wouldn’t dare tell their friends. Everyone has a heroic impulse, a desire towards being amazing, towards achieving, towards being heroic. ”
Is there a part Tom would want to play that would reflect that?
“No, I don’t think so, nothing leaps to mind that I could do. Years ago I dreamt about making it in movies like thousands of actors of my generation did. That’s swept aside – now one hopes to replace that with television and theatre but you know, there are a lot of very gifted people around. The competition is colossal – I’m not inundated with offers.
“I have offers to go on tour with rather proven, safe things that have been done in the West End or thrillers which often don’t interest me. They’re too safe, and I can’t be bothered with going away from home and my wife and my cats.”
If he hadn’t been an actor, what does he think he would have done instead?
“Well, I don’t know. I don’t imagine how I could possibly have earned a living. It would have been a real problem if I’d had to do a proper job, wouldn’t it?! I’d have had to have a skill I think, whatever it would have been.
“When I was starting out in the ‘Fifties, I was anxious to get started and so nervous about trying to make my way. Most people, who have been young students for instance, will tell you they want to achieve something, learn something, build a pattern; find a partner, have somewhere to live that’s nice and where they can feel a bit safe. Most people want to have a couple of children, a car, collect a few books and go on holiday, that’s what most people want, I think. And then there are actors.
“Concomitant with being an actor is that dreadful, exhausting state of being self-aware all the time because you’re marketing your appearance, you’re marketing what you sound like. You’re worried about whether you’re ugly, or going bald or getting fat. You’re worried about dental bills or worried that no-one wants you. In other words you are ill. To want to be an actor, especially these days, is to be ill. It’s a kind of illness – this terrible pernicious itch to want what threatens you most, which is insecurity. Performers are mesmerised, like other people, by what threatens them most. They have to learn to love it and live with it and create out of it.
“Performers create out of anxiety, they don’t create out of jolliness, a happy song. They have to exorcise the most terrible memories of the last effort, to forget past failures and hope all the time that you’re going to please someone. Actors are just professional pleasers, like waiters!”
So how would Tom review his acting career in one sentence?
“That’s another difficult one! It’s been largely disappointing, with one wonderful exception. But then I think this doesn’t depress me too much, I have to live with these kind of big and small regrets depending on how I’m feeling, because with that one success, it’s not bad really, is it? It’s not a bad percentage to have that one success that makes me a star in Abu Dhabi, in Japan, in Norway and on a hot afternoon in August in 1991, a great success in the crypt of St. Martins-in-the-Fields!”
With that, he was off, out of the public house where we finished the interview (Cokes only), to catch a train. And if someone recognised him on the way there, be it a tramp asking for a Carlsberg Special, an adoring fan or an opportunistic books editor, I felt sure that it would become another of Tom’s Stories. And only he could tell it. . . .