No Escape from Reality
Whales! Foxes! Badgers! More of the wild life and times of Tom Baker as Andrew Pixley presents a final selection of highlights from the interview tapes recorded for BBC2’s Doctor Who Night. . .
On leaving the series…
“Well, you can’t do something forever and I had to move on and try and do something else. But I suspected that it would be a disappointment afterwards, and of course it was. Nothing has been as successful as the Doctor – it’s the only great success I have had. But because it’s on television, it’s never entirely gone away from me, and so [although] there have been disappointments in the parts I have played since, I do have those memories. And I am reminded by what people send me. I did the equivalent of 45 feature films – 180 [episodes] or something – and they’re cut as 45 feature films in America, and now here I believe, and so it’s still there. Also, I keep getting fan mail from people saying nice things of me.
‘I found a letter in the drawer not long ago. Amazing – an unopened letter. I am quite scrupulous about trying to answer all my mail which gets sent to me from the BBC. I found this letter just a few months ago written in 1975 from Australia somewhere – Perth, Sydney, it doesn’t matter – and it was from this little Australian boy who said, ‘I think you are simply wonderful as Doctor Who. Maybe you could send me a picture or write to me. I’d like that.’ It was very sweet and typical of a young boy’s writing to me and wanting me to write to them. I looked at it and it was unopened. So I opened it, and I swiftly got a picture of myself and I wrote ‘To . . .’ – he had a wonderful name: Clutterbuck! I can’t remember his first name. So I wrote, ‘Dear George. I have been rather busy, but here’s the picture you asked for,’ and a couple of other things I sent him. And a few weeks later, I got this letter from Australia from this chap, who is now a brain surgeon or something – he’s gone on a bit and is not all that interested in Doctor Who, and he had forgotten me, but he was so quick in his wittiness and recalling his lovely childhood that it was quite right there should be a delay of 25 years. He wrote back and said, ‘It’s on the wall of my office – a picture of you 25 years after I wrote to you.’ So little comforting things like that, when people are reminded of their childhood, often make them happy when they see me.
‘In Manchester – where I have worked a lot and still go to for one reason or another – there is a gloomy place called Deansgate; not very well-lit, very boring. I would walk along Deansgate of an evening on my way to St Peter’s Square, and you pass a beggar, a young man who would say, ‘Excuse me. Have you got any small change?’ – the pitiful mantra of beggars. I say, ‘Yeah,’ because I am quite interested in impressing even beggars really -because he may not always be a beggar, he might go into television and become a big producer. So I say, ‘Yeah. Here, have a pound.’ There is no-one around, and the feller is saying ‘Wow! Doctor Who!’ And I would say, ‘Yes, that’s right. Here, have two pounds’ – as I was rather gratified to be remembered. He’d say, ‘Man, you were my hero!’ I’d say, ‘Have three pounds’ . . . and then I would look into his face – wan in a badly-lit Deansgate – and I would see his thought catapult backwards to when he was a child watching Doctor Who on a sofa with his fish fingers and ketchup and all those things, and being frightened or thrilled by the monsters, and his mother was there, and when he was frightened he can look and see his mother. Now, at nearly 30, he is standing in Deansgate begging, and he sees his hero who is now white-haired and offering him three pounds. This has happened to me maybe 20 times – always the same. I hold out my pitiful amount of money, and smile in the hope that I may comfort him with three pounds. And they say, ‘No. Never mind the money.’ And then there is a pause and they say, ‘Can’t you get us out of here? Can’t you get us out of here?’ And there is the power of the imagination, because they are embarrassed to see their hero, and then suddenly they revert to childhood and hope that somehow I might be able to do something. Of course, I can’t do anything except offer three pounds, which makes me feel inadequate.
“And so, I have a fantasy that it will be wonderful to say, ‘Yes! Eight o’clock in St Peter’s Square. . .’ – or the top end of Deansgate or outside the Sawyer’s Arms – ‘. . . I will be there. Put the word around.’ And then at eight o’clock, suddenly in St Peter’s Square there are thousands of them; the roofless, unloved people of Manchester will be there abandoning their mantra of ‘Have you got any small change?’, and the TARDIS would materialise, and I would open the door and they would pile in – all of them – and I would take them off somewhere nice. That’s a marvellous idea. Then the next night, the Manchester Evening News would say – imagine the hypocrisy of the press – ‘Who has stolen all our poor? Where have all the Big Issue sellers gone?’ All those people who have been released into the community. ‘3000 people disappeared last night in St Peter’s Square. There are no beggars left in Manchester.’ And Manchester itself paradoxically becomes impoverished, because there is a very important place for the poor – without the poor, what would the Social Services do?”
On watching his successors in Doctor Who…
‘I didn’t watch when I was there. Occasionally I caught a glimpse of it somewhere if I happened to be in a studio or filming somewhere else Saturday night No. It’s funny isn’t it? I suppose I couldn’t bear it really. You know, those places you can’t bear. You can’t bear going back to a pub, behind a certain door where once you were happy and fell in love. London is full of places which bring back nightmares to me. And so I don’t want to look at anyone else doing Doctor Who . . . I do care about what happens to the character, because the character within the formula was a time of such happiness for me. When they made it last year or wherever in Los Angeles with a very, very interesting-looking actor whose name escapes me – he looked very enigmatic – I thought. I hoped it would be a success. And someone went to see it for me and said it wasn’t very interesting. But I hope it will be. There is some talk that the BBC is going to make it in association with the Americans. I hope they get it right. There’s no reason why they should get it right, and there are plenty of reasons – like evidence and history – that they’ll get it wrong.”
On the Doctor’s enduring appeal . . .
“There are certain kinds of formula – like Sherlock Holmes and Dracula – that have become parodies. Sherlock Holmes is now a great comedy character, but people take it very seriously – I mean he has endured since 1885. When Doctor Who came along, the idea you see in all mythologies. It seems to me – says Tom, who thinks he had read all mythologies – but in all mythologies and all religions and all fantastic stories, something happens in the universe outside of ourselves. There is one common thing which is in the great mythologies – the Gods become human and come down from somewhere else where they have got power, and they may bring us good news and may tell us some of their secrets. This is extended to Doctor Who; he comes in an old Police Box from this place that no one had been to called Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous – ha! And he picks up a girl and he makes contact with lovely people like the Brigadier and all those greatly loved characters – the Brigadier was adored for the way Nicholas Courtney played him. And the Doctor goes on adventures, preserving the world because all the aliens wanted to damage the Earth – so he saved us all the time. And there was a natural impulse in our analytical minds and our imaginations that we need saviours; we long for heroes who will know the answers and comfort us and lead us and defeat out enemies. That is all part of history and literature and mythology, and the Doctor is part of that. I don’t want to suggest for a moment that the Doctor is Christ-like – that might upset people – so, all right, I think he is Christ-like. We look towards him because he solves things and never ever disappoints us. He never betrays us or is treacherous. And he is amusing. So I think that formula, and especially being able to dematerialise across the universe . . . you know, that’s fantastic isn’t it! No time elapses. We just dematerialise . . . It’s rather like in a radio play when in a split second you heard the noise on the gravel and you have come from Boston to Lincolnshire or whatever.”
On working with Elisabeth Sladen …
“I didn’t separate Elisabeth from the character because I didn’t know Elisabeth outside of the rehearsal room. I just found Elisabeth quick-witted and so willing to laugh and go along with me – I adore people who agree with me you know, very ordinary in that way. Elisabeth frequently agreed with me – not always – but she frequently agreed with what I thought was funny or how you do these detailed things. It was only in the detail that we were really able to be influential – obviously we couldn’t change the narrative or ask for other sets. But in the details of how we react. She’s also a great expert on old movies, and especially old comedies, and all those lovely bits of Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle or whoever it was, so we often composed ourselves – because we could see the monitors – in that kind of way. I remember one image – Gosh! Who could remember it except me? – of the Bisto Kids. Bisto was a kind of gravy browning and it was on the side of tramcars – ‘Ahhhhh, Bisto’ -with these two people smelling this thing. And Elisabeth and I secretly tried to compose this picture of the Bisto Kids, me with my crazy hat on and her so sweet and pretty. I thought Elisabeth was wonderful. However, I have to say I think anyone who laughs at my jokes or agrees with my idea of what is fanny is wonderful. I am very vulnerable to them you know. They can generally get their own way…”
On being a Time lord for a living . . .
“Well, it was just simply a pleasure to get up in the morning and go out and do work where we were going to laugh all the time. And those Z Cars fellers would creep into our rehearsal room – they might be rehearsing next door – and you were miming terror, because obviously the monsters weren’t there, and the Z Cars fellers would be shaking with laughter watching us. So it was a great pleasure to go to work. It wasn’t like going to work when you got out of bed. It was great in bed. I like being in bed still, and you get out of bed and your feet hit the ground and you think, ‘Oh, it’s Monday and it’s the real world,’ and you hear the dreadful news. People are voluntarily depressed by listening to news from people who don’t know anything about it really – just reporting ghastly facts and making us depressed. Then I think, ‘But I will be at work at ten o’clock,’ and you go up to boring North Acton and into the Acton Hilton – as they called the rehearsal room – and then we’d get away from this terrible reality. And all the actors would be funny because we were all playing these crazy characters. So it was great to get to work. The real problem was at the end of the day – the real problem was going home. That was the boring bit. It was terrible going home, compared to actually being a superman with a prestigious sonic screwdriver!”
On the sonic screwdriver…
“I like what’s preposterous, so the idea of the sonic screwdriver was wonderful. You would be trapped somewhere, running out of oxygen, and you try it and I would have to say, ‘Sarah Jane, even the sonic screwdriver won’t open this.’ And so we would talk a bit longer, then they would cut somewhere else, then cut back to us, and she would say, ‘Try again.’ And so I would raise my sonic screwdriver and – zzzzzzt – it would open. It was a marvellous device . . . I mean, where would the writers have been without the sonic screwdriver? Where would I have been without the sonic screwdriver? People still joke. ‘Have you got your sonic screwdriver?’ they say ambiguously. I say, ‘Yeah. I’m never without my sonic screwdriver.'”
On how he’ll never tire of talking about Doctor Who…
“I don’t see why I should tire of talking about myself in a success. As long as people are interested, I’m interested to talk about glory days – because it was the only real days of glory I had, so I am glad to share it with people who really want to know. That’s why I am endlessly sympathetic to the fans, some of whom are not so young as they used to be, but there are other generations of fans coming along. And they would be appalled if I was flippant about what excites them.
“I have always tried never to disappoint fans really. Simply because the fans created me. It was their act of common watching that made the BBC say, ‘Tom is an excellent Doctor Who.’ It wasn’t because of what the BBC thought. Who cares what the BBC thinks? What we care about is the vast public. You see, television is so much more important and powerful than film is because television takes place in a domestic context, and so you have got people snug in their own homes. Of course, they could be making love or having arguments or making tea . . . Because it is in a domestic context, when people are beguiled by what they see, then their relationship – however preposterous some people may find it – is intense and profound.
“I have a lady who writes to me – she has been writing to me for a long time – who suddenly has a desire to have a baby. And she keeps writing to me from a long way away saying, ‘Dear Tom – be a father.’ Ha ha ha! Yes! She wants me to be a father of her child you know. I never know what to do about that. . . I don’t answer that one.”
On whether he remembers highlights from particular episodes…
‘I don’t think so – simply because I am not that familiar with it because I didn’t watch it very much. I like a bit from one where I refused to use a knife in some story – I’ve forgotten what it is now, it’s all blended together. David Maloney was a director who was a dear friend of mine – he often laughed at my jokes – and I refused to use a knife to threaten this creature and say ‘take me to your leader’ or something intelligible like that.” [Tom is actually recalling Pennant Roberts directing The Face of Evil here] “David said, ‘How do you want to do it?’ So I said, ‘I will do it with a jelly baby because on this planet they don’t know what jelly babies are,’ and so I changed the line to ‘Take me to your leader or I will kill him with this deadly jelly baby.’ David had doubts about that – maybe it doesn’t sound much in the telling. But what was so wonderful was the way the children were onto it. I quite liked that. I always found it very extraordinary that children liked me eating jelly babies. There is actually something gruesome about eating something in the shape of a baby, but never mind. And so I liked that bit very much, and when I used to meet the children afterwards, they would say, ‘We liked that bit.’ And children used to produce jelly babies and do this to me. So I wonder what it would be like to see that again. You know, the BBC keeps sending me copies of the compilations and I never look at them you know. It’s terrible. I like to see them on the shelf, but I never look at them. Never.”
On Genesis of the Daleks…
“I had a chance of killing off the Daleks and then I took the head off a Dalek and got out the kind of brain of something – very slimy – so wonderful. There was a close-up and I was acting all apocalyptically – the only way I know how to act – and the great line was that all I had to do was rip this thing apart to end the Daleks forever, and then there was this marvellous line the Doctor had to say: ‘But have I the right?’ [laughs] And so, the Doctor was not wanting to impinge or change the course of history and didn’t do it. But the real reason why I didn’t kill the Daleks was that I would have destroyed Terry Nation’s livelihood. Ha ha ha!”
On playing the Doctor in the future…
“I have been asked to be the Doctor again on audio – because you can’t see me on audio – and these people are very keen and I have listened to some of their stories, and they want me to be the Doctor again in two or three stories. But this time I will have some influence on the script. I like the Doctor to be quite fierce about certain things . . . I want to do a story where the Doctor hears a strange mayday call sound, and I put the sounds through my synthesiser and it’s a mother whale. And this school of whales is being attacked and destroyed by Japanese fishermen. So I am able to speak back to the whales and I tell them what to do, and there are several strands to this story, but by the end I have advised the whales – because the Doctor is so clever he can talk to whales – that we are leaving to go somewhere else and there is a second mayday. This is from the whalers who are complaining bitterly that they are being attacked by the whales – ha ha ha – and then I have to decide whether in fact I answer that mayday or not. I’ll find a way of doing that. We will do it in such a way that when I am going away from some control tower, it’s too late and I don’t hear the cry of help from the fishermen and the whalers get what’s coming to them.
“I like that. In fact, I would quite like to move into that whole area. I don’t mean in a whimsical sense like Doctor Doolittle, but rather in the HH Munro/Saki sense of being able to enter and talk to animals and hear their point of view and argue with them and help them out. I quite like the idea of talking to foxes. That’s very contemporary, seeing if they have a point of view. Or badgers. Yeah! Badgers! I think the children would like it if I could talk to badgers.”
On how Doctor Who has lived on…
I say that Doctor Who fans are a bit like born-again Christians or a bit like pilgrims – the endless pilgrimages they go on like Star Trek fans who trek from place to place and they meet each other at conventions. And this is absolutely wonderful, and rather like pilgrims going to Mecca or Catholics going to Lourdes. There are endless little souvenirs like plaster saints and holy pictures, and this is all part of being a fan when they exchange the holy pictures or the little images of me as a chess piece or something. You can’t just have someone as a fictional character and not exploit him. It’s unthinkable in our complex society. We must have photographs, images, interviews, so that it’s all shared around. I mean, a great amount of the press – particularly the tabloid press – is taken up reporting on fiction isn’t it? Whether it’s Coronation Street, EastEnders – used to be Doctor Who.
“The other thing about fans of course – football fans or Roman Catholics – is that fans make sacrifices as well. That’s a wonderful thing about a fan: they feel they have to suffer. They send me things – fans feel impelled to. People have sent me tomato ketchup from America or pickles from Cornwall, which often arrive in a terrible state. Old pickles that have been delivered to the BBC and have gone to various places – like mince pies – don’t travel well. Somebody actually sent – I think they went to Jon Pertwee first, and he sarcastically said ‘Not known here’ – somebody sent me kippers from the Isle of Man. They went all round the place and eventually I got these about 18 months later. Phew! Boy, that was a memorable day! I love kippers, don’t you? But not if they are that old.”
On where he’d go if he had a TARDIS…
“Well, I think I would like to go to Soho which is where they serve nice bitter. I have no other desire. I get opportunities to travel quite far because of Doctor Who and because of the fans. They invite me all over the world and they make sacrifices to have a whip-round to send me a ticket. So, last year I was in New Zealand, and I have been to Australia. I can go anytime I want to Canada and once a month to America. The Americans are very generous in that way of inviting me to hear the same old stories. Fans like the same old stories . . . because I have only got the same old stories.
“But if I could travel in the TARDIS, I think I would go to lots of small town places in America or New Zealand where I was very happy briefly. Whereas now, when I can go anywhere in the world, I don’t want to go anywhere, because I find the process of travelling utterly fatiguing and unglamorous. I think very young people will want to travel in squalor and perhaps don’t mind – it is part of their laws about being young, it’s so long since I was young I can’t remember. But for me, I don’t want to go anywhere simply because the process of travel always disappoints me and it always means I have a lower standard of living. Someone proposed to me recently that I might like to go to New Zealand for 15 months on a big film project, and I thought to myself, ‘No, I don’t want to go. I am not going to leave my wife and my cats and my old school to go all that way just for work.’ I don’t want to go anywhere really… but if it was in the TARDIS, I’d go everywhere. Yeah, I would go everywhere.
“And I’d take you all with me…”