TOM BAKER INTERVIEW
by JASON ARNOPP
First published in Doctor Who Magazine 411 in July 2009
Tom Baker opens those remarkable eyes until each is the size of a cosmos. He has just been asked how he felt when Doctor Who returned to BBC One in 2005.
“With whom?” he wants to know.
“Oh dear. I never saw it.”
But you must have heard it was coming back?
“Oh, of course!”
So how did you feel about that?
“I didn’t feel anything – I just thought, ‘Good on them!’ But it’s interesting – the bloody BBC ends something, then discovers, years later, that they’ve made a terrible gaffe! Typical BBC. I was amazed that they didn’t have Christopher Eccleston – who’s a very powerful actor – on a contract for two seasons, because he was such a hit! Then he left it, and of course the real renaissance is the young one… David. We all owe David Tennant a great debt because, with his style and brio, he has revitalised the whole thing!”
David has arguably made the biggest impact…
Here Tom interrupts, bellowing, “Of all!”
I was going to say “…since you.”
“Well, he’s amazing, and everything he does is such a success. I’ve caught a glimpse of him occasionally and he plays the Doctor very brittle, at very high speed.”
He surely draws on elements of your performance.
“Does he? Well, anyway, I’m glad to see he’s a great success, because we need that.”
Have any particular Eccleston or Tennant stories caught your attention?
“No. I didn’t watch myself in Doctor Who, so I’m not likely to watch anyone else do it!”
If any of this makes Tom Baker seem awkward or evasive, then he really isn’t. You just have to make a few mental adjustments when interviewing the great man. Tom isn’t often going to say the kinds of things that we fans ideally might like him to. This is either because he is more interested in topics beyond our sacred show (imagine!), or because he’s forgotten a fair few of the Doctor Who serials in which he performed during his seven-year run from 1974. Of course, he still remembers the truly iconic tales, or those for which he has recorded DVD audio commentaries, but as for the rest…
“Of course, we did a ‘swarm’ one before, didn’t we?” he notes, during a conversation about the forthcoming BBC audio series Hornets’ Nest in which he reprises his role as the Fourth Doctor. “Was it The Ark in Space?”
Yes, and The Invisible Enemy also featured ‘The Nucleus of the Swarm’, if that counts as a ‘swarm story’.
Tom looks at me blankly. Perhaps suspecting I might be making it up. The Nucleus was the one that looked a bit like a prawn.
“Was it?” he says, then laughs lightly, as if I’m a silly old sausage.
The Invisible Enemy also introduced K9.
Frankly, I might as well be asking him about things which happened in Colin Baker’s life. It’s not that, at the age of 75, any of his marbles have become dislodged – no, he’s as mesmerically eloquent as ever. It’s just that, well… you try lucidly recalling something you did 35 years ago, if you even existed then. It’s blurry.
The good news? This man is Tom Baker.
And every syllable he utters, with those richly chocolaty tones – even if it’s simply an “Ahhhh…” – is more interesting than a few thousand of most other people’s.
Rewind 20 minutes. The single-track country lane which winds lazily down towards Tom Baker’s wonderfully secluded Sussex home might as well be made from yellow brick. Doctor Who Magazine has been granted its first audience with Tom Baker in 12 years, which makes today even more magnificent than it naturally looks. This is picture-postcard England incarnate. Expansive grounds loll into view, across which two horses gallop. The lovely single-storey home which Tom shares with Sue Jerrard, whom he married in 1986, nestles beside these fields.
Approaching the house, I spot Tom through windows, sitting at a kitchen table, reading. What to do – ring the front doorbell, or enter through the wide-open kitchen doors? You can’t help but feel trepidation when meeting Tom Baker for the first time. For a whole generation of us 30-somethings, he was the first person we ever looked up to, who didn’t have a hand in conceiving us. But such thoughts are no good: professional head on, and… breathe…
“Come in!” booms an unmistakable voice from the kitchen.
A grey lurcher bounds excitedly out through those open doors. This is Poppy – the first dog Tom Baker has ever owned. Tom welcomes me in, seeming pleased that I’m so very prompt, and starts to make me a cup of tea. Good God, he’s tall. Somehow never quite expected him to be this tall. We somehow plunge straight into one of Tom’s pet topics, religion. “I saw an ad outside a chapel the other day,” he grins. “‘Carpenter from Nazareth, seeks six labourers’. I thought that was quite funny. But when they’re standing up there, saying they believe in the resurrection of the body and eternal life…. When I was a boy, Roman Catholics weren’t allowed to be cremated, because they thought that would bugger God about. You can’t raise the dead if they’re scattered all over the place!”
He laughs, pouring water into a tea cup. “They’ve modified that now. Are you religious?”
No. I probably believe in a creator, but why would I want to subscribe to any of the man-made belief systems?
“Absolutely!” he beams. “Do you take sugar?”
We talk about the afterlife – Tom Baker being one of the few men on Earth with whom you can discuss such things within five minutes of meeting him. I suggest we’ll have to wait and see what it’s like. Maybe it will be a nice surprise.
“Well, yes,” says Tom, with a slightly doubtful smile. “And if it isn’t, we’ll just have to come to terms with it. Would you like an orange juice as well, or anything?”
He captures a nearby fat, hovering bumble bee with the aid of a glass and a Withnail & I postcard, then releases it outside. Is he a fan of this 1987 film?
“No, I’m not a fan,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I’ve seen it more than once, but I’m not particularly a fan. I’m a member of the BAFTA, of course, so I can always go up to Piccadilly and see films, or they send them to me. If you’re on the board of voters, then you have to look at a certain number.”
Does that become a pain?
“Well no. Anything, really, to avoid the dictatorship of television. I love to watch movies on the big screen that I want to watch, when
I want to watch them. I don’t watch anything on television except the rugby and cricket. I’ve never really been a fan of television.”
Especially if it’s broadcasting something in which you’ve appeared. Why’s that?
“Well, life was more casual in those days when I was in Doctor Who. Saturday was for football or the alehouse, or whatever. Besides, I always felt, really, that once I’d done something, there was nothing I could do. There’s always the risk that you’ll watch something and say, ‘I told the fella we could do an extra take there and make it better’. Or you’ll look at it and say, ‘That’s a terrible piece of editing’. So I take no pleasure in that – I take great pleasure in pleasing the audience, when people say they like what I do. Hello!”
The “Hello!” is to Poppy, who has just scampered in. We sit at the kitchen table, where it turns out Tom has been reading the scripts for Episodes 4 and 5 of Hornets’ Nest. He settles into the interview, occasionally toying in an absent-minded fashion with the small carry-strap of one of my recording devices (I’m using two, taking no chances), seeming happiest when it’s arranged in an oval shape. Time to ask the Big Question: why, 28 years after he played the Doctor in the regular television series, and 16 since he briefly reprised the role for the Children in Need Special Dimensions in Time, has he come back to don an imaginary hat and scarf for five-part audio play Hornets’ Nest?
“Hornets’ Nest, I agreed to do because Nick was going to be in it,” says Tom, referring to Nicholas Courtney, who has played one of Doctor Who’s most-loved characters, Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, since 1968. “It would have been lovely to have Nicholas Courtney and Tom Baker starring, but then Nick became ill. So now it’s Richard Franklin and Tom Baker. I don’t know anything about Richard Franklin and I haven’t met him yet.”
But why do this now? Not that we’re complaining: it’s just a delightful surprise.
“Well, because… I’m quite choosy, really. Sometimes people make me offers, or make suggestions, and it doesn’t really inspire me. But other people are persuasive…”
He recalls a recording session last year, for the BBC audiobook, Pyramids of Mars. When Tom’s narration was in the can, he, producer Kate Thomas and BBC Audiobooks’ commissioning editor Michael Stevens were having a laugh, and ideas began to brew.
“We were talking about how the old Doctor Whos could be exploited, for the fans, if you came up with the right stories. Because I was funny
that day, they later rang me up and told me they had a writer [Paul Magrs] with a story, and said they had Nick. Of course, everyone’s fond of
Nick. Everybody loves Nick Courtney. And that’s how it happened. That’s all. I’m perfectly open to any ideas. I think Doctor Who could still work,
in very short chunks, on the radio, in the style of Dick Barton. And I also think there could be some amusing scenes with other Doctors, couldn’t there?”
After so long, most fans had probably given up hope of you playing the Fourth Doctor again.
“Maybe they had, yes. And of course, I very rarely do interviews now, unless it’s for something like this.” He ponders, for a moment. “Did I do one for a gardening magazine? Oh no, I turned it down. Somehow or other, I wasn’t inspired by the letter. There’s an awful lot of journalism now about quite-well-known actors or whatever we are, that they call Celebrity Interviews. These five-minute things, called something like, ‘What old Time Lords think about new architecture’… what do I know about architecture?”
Probably a great deal, sir.
“Well, I don’t know about that. But I don’t want to be going up to London and meeting people who ask me about that kind of thing. Someone rang me up the other day, from The Observer or The Times, about some series of articles they write about people, called This I Have Learned. Have you seen that?”
“I haven’t either. I thought, ‘Christ!’ They put it rather euphemistically, saying it’s the opinion of ‘golden oldies’. I didn’t really think I wanted to do that one…”
So how did you feel about reprising the role for Hornets’ Nest? Any anxiety of living up to the 1970s?
“It was absolutely effortless. Doctor Who is not an acting role.” Reacting to my laughter, he insists, “Well, no, it’s not! Neither is Sherlock Holmes an acting role, except in the show-offy sense of phrasing the stuff or scoring off people. Because, you know, most popular heroes, like Holmes and Bond and Doctor Who… on television, you must have noticed, that when a character gets a large audience hitting big figures, those characters…” – and here he slams a hand down on the table for emphasis – “FREEZE. There’s no development. They don’t change their attitudes at all, until they’re being written out in a dramatic way. So the fun of playing those characters is how to be surprising, within the utter predictability. You always know the Doctor’s going to win, you know that Bond’s going to win and that Holmes is going to crack it. So how do you make it witty and amusing? When I did Doctor Who, there was no question of acting. I’m not very good at acting. What I’m quite good at, I think, is performing, which is not always the same. So I didn’t have to reach for it – it just happened!”
As you’ve said before, the Doctor was Tom Baker, and vice versa.
“Yeah, that’s right. It was effortless. Even though it was very galling to know that, for a long time after I took it over, the writers were still writing for Jon Pertwee, who had so powerfully imposed a big personality on the part. So there was still that terrible put-down style – Jon Pertwee was absolutely brilliant at putting people down and being sarcastic, whereas I’m not very good at that. Sarcasm doesn’t much interest me, really. I much prefer a kind of benevolent lunacy… because I’m an alien.
“Sometimes when they write for me, it doesn’t sound very alien,” he laughs. “How do you illustrate an alien, who actually comes from somewhere else? Of course, one of the problems about science-fiction is how would you describe what sort of drinks they have, or food? Futuristic, ordinary artefacts like that are quite hard to imagine. I mean, when you think about this…”
He picks up one of the digital-recorders and waggles it. “I remember when Grundig made tape recorders that you couldn’t carry! When I made those  TV commercials for Prime Computers, they were as big as fridges! So if you’re describing vehicles, dentists or – I don’t know – hats, it’s very difficult to do that. The cop-out, of course, is to say it’s too complicated to tell you, or…”
Suddenly, two front-paws plonk themselves on my back.
“Get down, Poppy! Get down!” says Tom, with the kind of sudden venom previously reserved for savaging Borusa in 1978’s The Invasion of Time.
If you ever wanted an affirmation of the old adage that life begins at 40, Tom Baker’s life would certainly provide it. Mere weeks after hitting the big ‘4-0’, Tom inherited the TARDIS keys from Jon Pertwee. A major chapter of his life stretched before him. Rather inspirational, considering that some people think of 40 as…
“… the end of it,” completes Tom. “Well, it’s not like that with actors. But before Doctor Who, I had done a couple of films, hadn’t I, and I was
at the National Theatre. So I might have got siphoned off, solely into the theatre, which was indeed my expectation. I used to love being in
the theatre and being with actors in a company. I saw myself – not in any ‘starring’ way – as a good company man who would play good supporting character parts, you know? Within a company, I’ve had some very happy times. Then suddenly Doctor Who transformed everything, because millions of people knew me. Which
meant commercials, which meant fan-mail, which meant the opportunity to travel, which meant… celebrity, really. And therefore, luxury:
the luxury of celebrity. People wanted to fly me to foreign countries, First Class, and meet me with a big car – all that kind of thing. I don’t do any of that now. None of it. I don’t ever go on those overseas things.”
For Tom, the gap between signing up for the role and starting work was two or three months, whereas the forthcoming Eleventh Doctor, Matt Smith, has had slightly more. Does Tom remember how he spent that pregnant pause before becoming the Doctor? “I just remember being terrifically preoccupied with it. When I got the contract to do Doctor Who, I was already making a film called The Author of Beltraffio, directed by Ridley Scott’s brother, Tony. And I was playing Oscar Wilde at… Chichester, I suppose. No no, Oxford! So I was quite busy. I can remember that it only took one week: between the first Saturday of transmission and the second Saturday, my life then changed. I was being spotted in the street everywhere, because it had a big audience, the series.”
Tom recalls having “a lot of energy for promoting Doctor Who. These days, though, I turn personal appearances down, because they’re pretty fatiguing. Those long signing sessions knock me out a bit. Some of them are six or seven hours.”
It’s a significant moment in the lives of everyone turning up to meet you, and you have to live up to that, right?
“Well, yes I do, but I’m very experienced in that. Everyone’s a fan of someone. I actually know, by sight, hundreds of fans. I know a good few by name! The other actor-attendees like being with me, because at the end of the day I do the last hour up onstage, talking nonsense really. But that’s what the fans expect, and I don’t disappoint them. When it comes to nonsense, I’m something of a virtuoso! One person’s nonsense is another person’s seriousness, isn’t it? Some fans do take me very, very seriously, which means that I can tease them mercilessly! As the years have gone by, I’ve become very fond of the fans. They’re just so idealistic. Who fans – and I suppose sci-fi fans in general, but especially Who fans – seem quite a gentle crowd, really.”
How have you felt about the inevitable upwards shift in the average age of your fan base?
“They are introducing me to their children, in the street, or at signing sessions!
I mean, I finished in… 1981, was it? So that’s 28 years ago. So some of the really dedicated ones are now in their 40s. Some show me a picture, saying, ‘Look, there’s me, sitting on your knee, when I was only seven!’”
Wow. How does that feel?
“Well, it amuses me no end, when I’m looking at a bald, middle-aged man who’s worn out with domesticity, then there he is in the picture, sitting on my knee. But it’s all about the happy memories, isn’t it? The thing about fandom… ahhh… about fandom that endures, is the wonderful nostalgia. That warm feeling about being in a group of other fans, is that you’re sharing an experience which reminds you of when you were young and full of hopes, and when the world was different. Each generation thinks the world was different ‘in those days’.”
Have you ever felt fan-worship for someone?
He considers this. “I’ve been a fan, of course, of great rugby, cricket or football players. Occasionally I’ve met them and been very touched to see those old warriors, who I admired so much. But in television? There have been people who have given me enormous pleasure. I meet them and say I’m a fan – such as when I met Richard Briers while doing Monarch of the Glen, or Susan Hampshire, or people like that. Paul Eddington. There are other actors I’m a fan of, the mighty Paul Schofield. Michael Jayston, Ian Holm… those people I admire enormously.”
Have you ever felt that sickening excitement, though? The butterflies?
“No, I don’t think I get butterflies when meeting actors. Although I think I did when I met Laurence Olivier, because at that time – about 1967 – I wanted to join the National Theatre, and he was late for my audition. So that was an example of me feeling nervous and apprehensive, and I probably ‘dried’ over a couple of speeches, but he didn’t mind. He didn’t know what to make of me, but he gave me a little nudge and said, ‘Why don’t you just join us anyway?’ Because he was a kind man, I think I got into the National Theatre because he was desperately sorry for being so late!”
It has been well established that, as Tom’s seven-year tenure as the Doctor progressed, he did less and less of what he was told to do.
“Well indeed I did, because I had the power! There’s no point in having power and not using it. I had the power because I was the one who was out doing the promoting. They weren’t – I was out there, listening to the children. I was obsessed. It was me, it was my living. I would say, ‘What are we doing that for?’ Also, because I was conscientious to a bloody neurotic degree, I would often know where they’d stolen the ideas from… and I wasn’t always tactful.”
He pauses. “No, I wasn’t always tactful. Anyway, the thing is, when you’re on a show like that, the actors know the characters and places so well.
If you’re on a show like Coronation Street and trying to tell them how to do something on a set, they’ll say, ‘No no no, there’s the table, there’s the fridge…’ And if you’re trying to do fancy angles… I knew every single shot in the TARDIS! Every so often, a director would say, ‘This is what we’ll do’, and I’d say, ‘Why are you doing that, Clive? We did that last week’. And they were grateful. I knew about corridor shots, and about shots in the control room. And so naturally I was very helpful. Most of the time – I can’t even remember a bad experience – I got on terribly well with the actors. As I remember…”
He pauses again, for a moment. “I think I got on terribly well with them. But actors are incredibly accommodating, because they’re glad of a job.”
No-one likes being told what to do – and after formative years of being badgered by priests and corporals (see his excellent 1997 autobiography Who On Earth Is Tom Baker? for details), Tom perhaps likes it less than most. “Unless I rather admire the expertise of someone who’s trying to teach me something,” he qualifies. “Curiously enough, I didn’t mind being kicked around in the Army, because it was very theatrical. I realised there was no hard feeling by anyone – it was just them being terribly theatrical. I found my two years in the Army very funny, and it had a big impression on me.”
Did you change lines in Doctor Who scripts because of a perceived lack of quality? Or would you have done so anyway, even if it was, for example, a Dennis Potter script?
“Well,” he says, “If you’re doing a classic script then it’s impressive, but I frequently wasn’t impressed by the writing. I would say, ‘We don’t need to do that line – we can act it’. Haven’t you noticed that one of the irritating things about drama on television, is that no-one stops talking? It’s not like that in the movies, or the theatre, where there are pauses and silences.”
Looking back now, though, on your demanding behaviour at the time, do you think you were ever out of order?
Tom’s cheeks flap with a sharp exhalation. “Well, I don’t know about being out of order. They could have sacked me! The people in charge had power and they could’ve insisted. It’s always a power struggle, isn’t it, because there’s a lot of ego at stake. If someone said, ‘I want you to do this, and I want you to say that’, I’d say, ‘I’m not saying that’.”
He recounts an example of this, during the filming of 1977’s The Face of Evil. “There was a knife in the scene and I flatly refused to use it.
I had to see someone, hold a knife to his throat and say some preposterous stuff like, ‘Take me to your leader or I’ll kill him’. The director David Maloney, a nice man, said, ‘How are you going to do it then, Tom?’, because it was now my responsibility, as a leading man. He had done what he could, and couldn’t force me to do something, but he had to shoot the scene. So I seized the actor by the neck and produced a jelly baby, then said, ‘Take me to your leader or I’ll kill him with this deadly jelly baby’. The bad guy said, ‘Then kill him’ and I – being Tom Baker now, you see – said, ‘I don’t take orders from anyone!’ and bit the jelly baby’s head off. So that was on a Friday or something and the shot was processed. They looked at the rushes the following Tuesday, and we were expecting trouble. Philip Hinchcliffe [Doctor Who’s producer from 1974-1977] and the script editor Robert Holmes came in, having seen the rushes and said it was terribly funny. So my intuition about doing that was right! And if it hadn’t been right, they could’ve sacked me! I mean, all actors with power are demanding.”
In fairness, as a kid I never thought a line didn’t make sense, or that Tom had obviously put it in. It was just all the Doctor.
“Yes, right. But this kind of melodrama is often very serious, because you’re actually dealing with unprovable things. There’s no evidence for any of it – the whole bloody thing is madness!”
He grabs one of the Hornets’ Nest scripts, flicking through it with a smile. “I’ve got a line here… what a pity I can’t find it… There’s a line where someone says, ‘He’s going to take us out of time and space!’ And you think, ‘Oh really? I wonder where he’s going to take us, then!’ Where do you go, if you’re out of time, and out of space? So when I record it, I’ll leave a gap there, and say, ‘… out of time and out of space, to… the BBC!” That’ll just be to make darling Kate laugh.”
He remembers what happened in the late 1970s, when he wanted to change a line or scene: “You’re visited by the script editor, the producer and maybe the writer but that would be rare. They’ve passed the script as it was, and now they’ve got a bunch of actors and a director calling up and making what amounts to a criticism: they’re saying, ‘We can do it better’. And Graham [Williams, producer 1977-1980] might say, ‘No, Tom, I don’t think we’ll do that’, and I would turn to his then-production assistant John Nathan-Turner and say, ‘What about you, John?’, and he’d agree with Graham. But then, John Nathan-Turner would’ve had to agree with Graham, wouldn’t he, because Graham was his boss! If he’d said, ‘I think Tom’s right’… that’s the politics of power. I used to actually tease them. I would make suggestions about things in the studio – not about lines, but ways to do things. And when I made those suggestions, I’d always end with ‘But we could do it your way…!’”
He delivers this line with a big, vintage Tom Baker grin. “The suggestion being, of course, that if we do it your way it’s going to be terrible! Philip Hinchcliffe used to laugh when I said that, and so did the crew.”
What about the tales of you hurling scripts across rehearsal rooms and branding them rubbish? “Oh yeah, that’s right – but that was all to make the other actors laugh! The other thing I’d do, of course, was not read other actors’ bits until we came to rehearsal. I had a lot of influence, and there was a lot of success there. I feel terribly sorry, of course, when I look back on it, or hear stories or suggestions that people were made unhappy because I was… rough on them. It’s funny, because I don’t remember being very friendly towards Louise Jameson [who played companion Leela] in the series, and I never saw much of any of the girls really… except one. But in the last couple of years I’ve become very fond of Louise. I find her very funny and wry, and she does a lot of work.”
You apparently told Matthew Waterhouse, who played companion Adric, to “piss off” when he made suggestions.
Tom chuckles darkly at this, highly amused.
“Did I? I probably told him to, ‘Piss off back to the post room’, yeah! But Matthew’s become someone I feel sorry for, because he’s now the butt of everybody’s jokes, isn’t he? Does he still work, as an actor? I think he’s gone back to the post room.”
When you’ve watched your stories back while recording DVD commentaries, has anything struck you as a ‘Hamlet moment’ – work of yours which you were surprised and/or impressed by? “Well, I’ve never thought of it like that. But I do remember being intrigued by something I did with Bernard Horsfall – The Deadly Assassin, I think – where he tried to drown me. I was intensely curious, because at that time we were lucky enough to be criticised by Mary Whitehouse. The lovely irony of that, of course, was that if Mary Whitehouse criticised you, you had big viewing figures!”
The Deadly Assassin also saw your Doctor flying solo for the first and last time. And you would never have had a companion at all, given the choice, right? “Oh, well I mean… the companion idea was unashamedly the BBC’s: you had an older man, and you had crumpet! The girls knew that: it was just crumpet. Television is about men and women, isn’t it? Most of the news is presented by a man and a woman!”
You’ve spoken of the “innocence” of your era. How do you feel about today’s Doctor kissing companions and assorted ladies?
“Well, I don’t know how I would’ve done it.
I suppose I would have made it extremely funny. Especially if I’d rescued the girl, and she’d kissed me, I would’ve been able to be absolutely astounded that she was pressing her lips on mine, thinking, ‘Oh, that was rather nice’ and then saying, ‘Would you like to do that again?’” He laughs. “But I don’t know. It was inconceivable during our time. We didn’t think like that. I played him entirely… I never did handle the girls. Or if I did handle the girls, I always did it clumsily, because I reasoned that the Doctor wouldn’t know about that. So, for my part, I played the Doctor without any sexuality at all.”
Is ‘patriarchal’ the word?
“I don’t know what the word is.”
March 1981 saw Tom Baker change into Peter Davison at the climax of Logopolis, Season 18’s season-closing epic. Even after all this time, there’s a vagueness surrounding Tom’s departure from Doctor Who. It has often been said that he wanted to leave but then started to change his mind as the final curtain drew near.
“Well, I mean,” says Tom, frowning as he casts his mind back, “when you make a big decision… when it’s irrevocable… and the time comes to go, or the time comes to get married, or the time comes to get divorced… when the moment is actually on you, the fear is that you made a mistake, isn’t it? I’d had a way of life for seven years, which was about to change. In fact, I needn’t have feared, because here I am, 30 years after that… People ask how it felt when I left Doctor Who, but I never did leave Doctor Who. And Doctor Who never left me. Otherwise we wouldn’t be doing this interview now! So my anxieties were quite ill-founded.”
He’s pleased to learn that Doctor Who Magazine is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. “I remember helping to launch Doctor Who Weekly very well. We went on a tour, yes. I remember at the end of one day there were hundreds of issues left, and the guy asked if I wanted to take them… and I didn’t!” He laughs, guiltily. “They did give me an engraved cigarette lighter, though, which I gave to a friend the other day as a souvenir. As I get older, my friends or acquaintances are very glad of any souvenirs which I have to dispose of. Like old letters or scripts or something like that.”
So you have no sentimentality for that kind of thing?
“No, no, no… I give them to people who have been nice to me. I wouldn’t have any room otherwise!”
Getting back to the topic of leaving Doctor Who, did you ever think you exited too soon?
“No. I could have gone on. But by that time, I was getting so possessive of the part – and also, not really enjoying the people who were telling me what to do. I was not liking the scripts, and I was not liking new producer John [Nathan-Turner, who took over in 1980]. It was only when we finished, that John and I became very friendly and warm. We became very close companions, and he often organised events, being very kind to me. But I didn’t like him as a producer, and he probably… well, I think he approved of me, but found me difficult. By that time, you’re in your seventh year. You’ve changed producers three or four times. You’ve changed girls two or three or four times. You’ve changed script editors three or four times. And you remain the one guy who thinks he knows it all, and says, ‘But we did that years ago!’ It’s very difficult for someone to deal with that, so it was time for me to go on. Time to go. And so I went.”
Did marrying Lalla Ward, who played your assistant Romana, have any bearing on your decision to leave Doctor Who?
“No,” he says casually. “No, no. It didn’t have any effect at all on leaving Doctor Who. I left Doctor Who as I recall – and it almost feels like guesswork to remember, as it was so long ago – because I had started to feel a kind of fatigue at rehearsal that I had never felt until then. I had really done enough, and that was the main reason, but I was also out of sympathy with John, who saw things differently. I knew perfectly well, that when a producer gets his hands on something, he wants to put his mark on it. So John wanted to change the music, its tempo, and to have me wear funny bloody interrogative marks on my shirts. Things like that. Small things, but small things irritate. So I feel I made a good decision.
“Another thing, in my last year, was that I was suddenly surrounded by bloody young people! There were about five young companions in the TARDIS! The irritating thing about having four or five people there, is that you can’t just have them standing there… so what have they got to do, in the conflict? People saying, ‘Really, Doctor?’ is not making much of a contribution.”
If you thought that was bad, you should see 1983’s 20th anniversary serial The Five Doctors. People are standing around like mannequins!
“Really?” he laughs. “Is that on DVD? I must ask them to send me one.”
You famously turned down the offer of a part in The Five Doctors. Is that a good example of how, for the first decade or so after you left Doctor Who, you seemed to crave detachment from the show?
“Well, yes. That decision was perfectly rational on my part – The Five Doctors was too soon. I just wasn’t interested. I didn’t want to be with some stand-in for Bill Hartnell, or Jon Pertwee.”
Did you ever regret the decision, and think it might have been a bit of fun?
“No. I didn’t think that, no.”
You did, at least, take part in the 30th anniversary celebrations by appearing in Dimensions in Time…
“Yeah,” he mutters vaguely, “I may have done that, and all sorts of bits and pieces. And of course, there was the fun of going overseas to big conventions in Australia and America, and being well-received there. But that swiftly wore off. I still get invited, you know! Because, I mean, I’m the last one, so actuarially-speaking, I’ll be the next one to die. I still get messages from American promoters saying it’s their dream to get Tom Baker, because ‘he’s the oldest one of all’.”
Looking back at the Season 17 story City of Death – a classic, filmed in Paris – was that your last hurrah, in terms of enjoying playing the Fourth Doctor?
He chews this over for a second or two.
“Well… maybe. That’s a hard question. I can’t be certain. But that was a great one. I remember Graham Williams and Douglas Adams coming over, slightly pissed, because of course everyone wanted to go to Paris. Oh, and Tom Chadbon was terribly funny. Terribly funny! I used to love the other actors – I was always trying to help them make things funnier, or more dramatic.”
Do you remember how you felt during Season 18? It’s easy to assume that you felt how the Doctor looked: gloomy and full of foreboding.
“Once I’d decided I wanted to go, I just wanted to get it over with. And once I’d decided to go, the wheels were set in motion to replace me. I remember being amazed that they’d cast that excellent actor… who was it?”
“Ah yes – an amazing piece of casting, because he already had a fictional existence! I remember thinking that when the children saw him, they’d say, ‘But that’s not the Doctor – that’s the vet!’ I thought that was absolutely extraordinary. It’s always struck me that, when you’re replacing big heroes, it’s important to… well, obviously it’s important to get someone who’s good at it, but also to get somebody who’s unknown. Otherwise it just gets in the way, doesn’t it? I mean, I’d been in the theatre a bit, but I was completely unknown.”
This is one of Matt Smith’s strengths. Have you seen him and his suitably alien looks?
“Mr Smith didn’t look at all alien to me,” he judges, “though the picture I saw was a bit blurred. Did any of us look alien? Once, outside Silk Sound Studios I was mistaken for Shirley Williams: my hair was wild and I was shaking hands with several people who had mistaken me for Jon Pertwee except for one man who thought I was Jonathan Miller.
“The fans will decide,” he smiles. “But I do sincerely hope Mr Smith is a great success. Looking back nobody ever failed in the part.”
We’re aware that our agreed time-slot with Tom Baker is up. Thankfully, however, he looks at Poppy, down there on the kitchen floor, and says: “The dog is whimpering. Shall we go for a walk in the woods? To the bridge and back?”
“All right, then. Hey ho!”
Next time: Tom takes DWM on a guided tour of his grounds, while discussing dogs, death and debauchery!
BOX OUT MATERIAL
Perhaps Tom Baker’s defining moment as the Fourth Doctor comes in 1975’s Genesis of the Daleks, when he is faced with one of the show’s all-time great moral dilemmas. He has the opportunity to destroy the Daleks forever, simply by touching two wires together. Yet he questions it: “Have I that right?”
Tom reveals, however, that this immortal scene might had carried slightly less gravitas, if he had been given his own way on-set…
“I wanted to do a song there,” he grins. “I wanted to sing ‘Have I the riiiight?’, then go into a musical cabaret number. ‘Historrrrry!’ It would’ve been a very different scene! And of course, the thing about that scene, was that there was no question of destroying the Daleks, because [Dalek creator] Terry Nation wouldn’t have put up with it! He had a wife and three children!”
Tom is interested to learn that Peter Davison reprised his role as the Fifth Doctor, during 2007’s Children in Need Special Time Crash. So would Tom ever visually come back as the Doctor?
“Um…. no, I don’t think so. I’m not interested. I would’ve thought – and I’m saying this as a criticism, because it’s quite nice to criticise big organisations – it would’ve been quite interesting to have me play the Master, on the reasoning that there can only be evil if there’s a possibility of good. In other words, to make it simple: Moriarty and Holmes, or Bond and whoever the villain is, don’t exist without the other. The police love criminals, because without criminals they’d have no existence. So the Doctor and the Master are interdependent. The other thing is, it would have allowed David Tennant to do a lot of double-takes, wouldn’t it? Actors love that. Even though, of course, my appearance has changed dramatically since I played the Doctor.”
Would you really appear in Doctor Who as the Master, though, or is that just a funny thing to say?
“Well… I… I think they wouldn’t let me. But I think I’m right in saying that it would be funny. Some of the audience might be annoyed, though, wouldn’t they? Yeah, I think so. Continuity. So perhaps I wouldn’t do that, but I’d quite like to play a small part…”