TOM BAKER INTERVIEW
First published in Doctor Who Magazine 180 in November 1991
Talking to Tom Baker
Continuing our three part interview with the programme’s most popular Doctor, we investigate the Graham William years, Tom’s thoughts about the TARDIS and his decision to leave the show.
“Mind and matter,” said the lady in the wig, “glide swift into the vortex of immensity. Howls the sublime, and softly sleeps the calm Ideal, in the whispering chambers of Imagination.” Martin Chuzzlewit, Charles Dickens
A summer afternoon in a surprisingly cool studio with an even cooler Tom Baker, armed with a bag of books and a personal outlook that always catches you by surprise – which seems to be the way he likes to be seen. Having covered memories of his early seasons on Doctor Who, our conversation came around to talk of Tom’s own creative side. Tom’s said to have re-written a lot of scenes during his time in Doctor Who. Examples include the final minutes of The Hand of Fear which saw the departure of Elisabeth Sladen (who played Sarah Jane Smith) as well as a lot of material during the Graham Williams era, sometimes aided by Lalla Ward (the second Romana) who was to later become his wife. Has he ever been tempted to write a book or play himself?
“Well, I taught myself to type recently, simply because some publisher saw me on a train and brought up an idea I mentioned earlier, that I could write a memoir – a selected autobiography. But when it comes to writing it down, I’m afraid I don’t know whether I’m capable of it. It’s an amazing skill, isn’t it, to be able to write? I mean, of course I’ve got stories to tell about myself but to write them down? That’s very difficult. But people do ask me.
“One of the problems with story telling is that when I meet the fans, particularly in America, I often find the mix of audiences very demanding. Sometimes (I’m happy to say), over fifteen hundred people will turn up when I’m talking, and their ages range from about five years old to people sometimes older than I am. This is a daunting prospect for an actor, because what I’m obliged to do is try and pitch what I’m saying in such a way as to please all of them, which is very difficult. I can’t shock a child, I would never do that – but it’s very inviting! By that, I don’t mean I’ve got anything outrageous to say, but if I suddenly feel like cutting loose or using bad language – to illustrate a point or tell a half-truth (which I’m very good at) or refract a story – that’s difficult.”
It must be daunting that a lot of those audiences know a lot more about the programmes than he may remember.
“They do of course. But finally, after they’ve asked the initial questions, what they really want to know is on a very similar level to what the popular press is interested in – what the Princess of Wales looks like in a bikini or what the Prince of Wales talks about at dinner for instance. In other words, we still want to look behind the facade, behind the pedantry if you like, at what that person is really like. We know he’s an ice skater but what did he say? What’s his favourite food? What’s his wife like? Does he like dogs or cats.
“These things build up a pattern, and a picture emerges. We insist on creating it and when we haven’t got the access, we invent the picture, which is what people do about the Royal Family. .
And due to his low public profile (bar the occasional selection of tall stories in tabloids such as The Sun) that’s what a lot of people have been doing about Tom over the last ten years, too.
“For some reason, and it’s not a matter of policy, I simply never got the habit of going to British conventions. Perhaps because they’ve only become more organised in the last years and I’d finished Doctor Who by then. Now they seem to be like American ones, with fees and things anyway, I’ve never been to many events. I know nothing about them.”
LEGENDS AND LEELA
With things like Doctor Who of course, there’s a whole false mythology that springs up about its production over the years, particularly when one of its leading lights is so difficult to track down and interview. Facts get caught up in anecdotes, such as accounts from other sources that Tom didn’t like the character of Leela, who replaced Sarah Jane Smith as his companion from The Face of Evil. Was there any truth in the story that he wanted the warrior replaced with a talking cabbage?
“Well, it was an example of something that needed to be changed. I’ve forgotten the details of the character but I do remember being appalled at her aggression, without me having the ammunition to put my side of the argument forward. There was a moral dimension, an ethical dilemma because she killed things. It wasn’t just my character, I was furious at the beginning. There was some facetious dialogue about it, some claptrap ‘I don’t really think you should do that’. The point is that these gentle ironies are quite inappropriate when life and death is at stake. What I tried to give it was outrage and burning indignation -that if it didn’t change, if she didn’t change, the character would have to go. I don’t mean Louise [Jameson], but I would have to threaten Leela with this because I could not coexist with someone whose solution to problems was to kill. So they modified that and Louise was very good and hugely successful. But I was very rattled by it.”
Throughout the interview, Tom talks a lot of comedy and comedy acting, although his roles are rarely those of the straightforward comic.
“Well, when I say comedy, yes I like to make people laugh. I like to find the ironies in the script. I like not to take things too seriously. I don’t like to take myself too seriously!”
The comedy aspect of Doctor Who increased when the late Graham Williams took over as producer, moving away from Hinchcliffe’s more Gothic slant to the series, introducing Romana and K9 as companions in Season Sixteen.
“I don’t know what Graham was told but although he and I worked together and there were some successes in his time, he and I weren’t really all that close. I was just responding to whatever was going there.
“I don’t want to try and attempt to define what my style was; I just responded to the scripts and finally filtered them through me. As you know – I’ve been quoted many times – Doctor Who was not an acting part any more than James Bond is an acting part. By acting I mean an actor’s definition of an acting job, which is when a character actually develops and discovers some-thing so amazing that there is actually a transformation. Either that or there is a realisation that he has been entirely wrong. This isn’t so with heroes. There’s an utter predictability about playing heroic parts. Heroes you know what side they’ll come down on. Doctor Who isn’t suddenly going to become obsessed with sex or money or gratuitous violence – he’s predictably good, like an innocent child. Within that predictability, within all that certainty, the fun of doing it was how do you surprise the audience and hold them and make them want to watch again and again?”
So does he feel fantasy characters respond well to the mood of the day, changing according to the public need? Tom feels it’s subtler than that. The actor remains in control. “You build up a character and the audience enjoys the way that character responds – that response won’t change fundamentally over time. There are just minute shifts.” All the same, there were changes in style during Tom’s years with Doctor Who, from the quick humour and gothic horror of Hinchcliffe, through to the university humour imbued into the show with the combination of Graham Williams and Script Editor Douglas Adams, followed by John Nathan-Turner’s few stories featuring the Fourth Doctor, which saw a return to a more serious character.
“Well, I wasn’t with John long. The actor is just a link in the chain, he’s the one you see. The writers are being influenced, the producer is being influenced, perhaps by instructions from above, I don’t know – I felt that side of it was not my affair as long as they were satisfied by the way I responded to the scripts.”
Tom on the TARDIS
“I often felt myself that they didn’t really pursue the wonderful, cosmically funny aspect of the TARDIS being bigger on the inside than on the outside. I couldn’t understand why on the inside of the TARDIS there shouldn’t be a whole market town with a cathedral which we could keep the wellingtons in!” Despite Tom’s various suggestions, the idea was never really expanded upon. “Instead it was always just the control room – we occasionally went into another area [in stories such as The Masque of Mandragora and The Invasion of Time] – but in my view, no-one ever wrote a story that suggested the logic of dimension transcendentalism, that inside the TARDIS is not just a console room but a whole world.
“It would be amazing, to go into the TARDIS and for the assistant to say ‘My God Doctor, look there are thousands of sheep there!’ And the Doctor would say ‘Good Grief so there are. I remember now . . . And of course he can’t remember the exact details but the sheep would have come in at some difficult time and he’d saved them, intending to transport them somewhere. Why isn’t a world shown, instead of waving it away with some facetious, smart arsed remark? I mean, who cleans for the Doctor? Why isn’t there someone like the amazing Julie T. Wallace [who appeared with Tom in The Lives and Loves of a She Devil] suddenly bellowing ‘Where have you been? I’ve been waiting. Don’t you remember you took me on to clean for you?’ To which the Doctor would say, ‘Did I? I really must get a hold of myself. . .
“All these things go on, it’s not just for laughs. Of course some things have got to be funny – life is funny, you find the ironies everywhere. But there are shades, and the Doctor actually does forget things, and he might be disturbed by that. You might be amused by it – well, that’s fine – but someone else might be touched by it.”
During Tom’s period the Doctor developed a very ‘all-knowing’ persona. By the middle of an adventure he seemed to know when something bad was about to happen, as though his abilities as a Time Lord enabled him to extrapolate from the chaos going on around him and work out what was going to happen. (Something McCoy’s Doctor also seems to have re-discovered!) The fate of the crew and shipwrecked part in Horror of Fang Rock sprang to mind as an example of that.
“Well I don’t think that lighthouse one worked, really. It was extremely difficult to shoot, because if you’re going to shoot a story in a rowing boat, for example, or do that boring Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, you’re really going to restrict yourself, limiting the camera angles. That’s even truer in a lighthouse made of cardboard! I wasn’t all that thrilled with that one. I remember us having reservations because it was so amazingly static and you’ve got to somehow create a vitality in the cutting and camerawork, a vitality that isn’t there because of where we were.
But getting back to the omnipresence of the Doctor. . .
“Ah well, it was very pretentious because it was lifted from a Ray Bradbury story, called The Fog Horn – I suspected it, anyway. Alan Rowe (Colonel Skinsale) was good and Rio Fanning (Harker) was terribly good in that story, but I found it very difficult. “Sometimes things just didn’t gel during recording because I was very possessive and irrational about it. Sometimes I felt that this was my show, although when new actors came on it I wanted to love them, albeit only for the duration of production. I wanted them to really be amazed at this world they came into, so that when we started rolling the cameras there would be this realistic element of people being constantly amazed by me and what was going on around them.
“There was tension all the time, which I wanted, but sometimes when it didn’t go as well as other times, I became very irascible. I read an article the other day which said how moody I was and I said to my wife, ‘Moody? They say I’m moody! Am I moody?’ And she said, ‘Well . . .’ and I cut in with ‘Well it’s ridiculous isn’t it. Me? Moody? It’s like saying I’ve got no manners!’ So she said, ‘Well sometimes you’re very moody and often you’ve got the manners of a pig!”‘
Much has been made of Tom Baker’s opinions about Leela’s character and his variable relationship with his co-star. “I think Tom’s dilemma was that he wanted to travel on his own,” Louise Jameson once said (DWM Issue 136). “It’s a well-known fact and Bob Holmes wrote the story [The Deadly Assassin] with him on his own, after Lis left and before I joined, to prove to him that it couldn’t work like that. But of course, Bob wrote such a lovely script that all it did was make things worse.
“Tom’s quite a forceful character and none of the directors stood up to him – I didn’t stand up for myself for a good nine months, and when I did it was up in Birmingham while we were recording Horror of Fang Rock. It wasn’t too heavy – a slight confrontation over a scene. He was very quiet with me afterwards and with heart pounding I went up to him and said, ‘I’m sorry to have caused the delay, but it’s actually because I care about the programme,’ and he said ‘That’s all right love,’ like it had been nothing. We really got on much better after that. . . I do believe he’s an exceedingly fine actor. I wish he’d believe it himself.”
Does Tom have a ‘Least Favourite Story’?
“Looking back on it, my last one [Logopolis]. I remember not liking the final shot because I was leaving by then. I wanted to be gone. I remember thinking the shot wasn’t particularly heroic or witty and they recorded it straight from above with me lying flat. It was very difficult to be heroic in that situation because to do that, I should have at least been able to get up on one elbow. But it had to be that way, because they wanted to do that dreary old reverse shot of me looking into a circle of faces. They were stealing the shot anyway, from a film. “It was all right for them but not me, and I went away with that slight niggling disappointment. I can still remember the shot after all these years – I didn’t like the images, it wasn’t heroic enough.”
LEAVING THE SHOW
Was there a way he wanted to go out?
“No, I don’t think so. I don’t want to give the impression that I claim too much authority. Obviously the writers did try to write for me and the producers did indulge me a great deal, because most of the time I was the one making contact with the audience. Because I had been doing the thing so long it became more and more impossible for me to accept any kind of guidance. I felt I knew it all. I was there week after week, I knew the shots, the set ups; I knew how to do the corridor sequences, I was swift on the words (such as they were) and I knew I had to give the audience a bit of variety.
“So sometimes a director might, say, ‘Tom, I think in this sequence. . . and I’d cut in and say ‘No, let’s not do that because we did that last week in an identical situation.’ Sometimes they’d realise I was only trying to be helpful and we’d reverse it, just to get the variation. So because I was the constant factor I became more and more proprietorial and in the end it became obvious I had to go. If any changes were to be made, if I was to step aside like Elisabeth Sladen had stepped aside for me [as the continuing cast member from the Pertwee years] to let me take the lead, if I was to allow it to go on and grow, I had to go – there was nothing else I could do. “I got more and more irascible and people seemed to think the programme was me, we became so utterly intertwined. This was very bad and a sign that I had to go, and also I didn’t find rehearsals as funny as I had done. Most of the time it was a pleasure to get to work, to get off the street and out of the ghastly world of reality, away from the bloody TV news and into Rehearsal room 603 – it was just bliss.
“During rehearsals, we used to mime a lot and pretend the monsters were there. You’d get actors from other shows peeping in through the bullseye windows and laughing at us – not in a derisive way but with pleasure at all this over acting. They were still enjoying it and lots of people – lots of very distinguished actors – wanted to be in it and used to tell me so in the BBC Canteen, which moved me very much. I remember polished actors like John Woodnutt being killingly funny about it and there were others, like Bill Fraser, Freddy Trieves and George Baker.”
Have you ever seen a film or sitcom and said to yourself, ‘Wouldn’t that be a nice part to play’?
“Not really. I’m in work until the end of the year and I’ve been invited to America over Thanksgiving [for Visions 91], if I’m free, but it’s only a weekend. I’m reading A Christmas Carol and I’ll also be talking on the Friday and Saturday, which is incredibly fatiguing for me but you gather yourself. The American thing is very demanding. I suppose I take it very seriously because I want to give the fans good value and I want to be near them, but imagine talking for one-and-a-half hours and then doing at least two to three hours in a greetings line afterwards, so that everyone can meet you – and then dinner!”
There have been a couple of stories where Doctors have come back, The Five Doctors being one of the most recent, but you decided not to play in that.
“Well, it was too close to my leaving really, and I was very impatient, I didn’t want to be seen with either new Doctors or old Doctors. In my own mind, I was the most recent. Thinking about it, perhaps that was another good reason why I left. I began to lose that sense of fun and silliness I had, I began to take the Doctor very seriously and I thought, ‘Who are these guys?’ I didn’t know them and I didn’t care about them. At first I said I would and then I read the script and John Nathan-Turner tried to be very accommodating – he always was for me – and he was very disappointed that I couldn’t bring myself to do it.”
Was the idea of his Doctor being dropped into the continuity of the show what put him off?
“No, it wasn’t that. It was simply that I felt there was a danger that it could be very competitive. I felt it would just be a novelty scheme and I wasn’t interested in novelty at the time. I was looking for good drama. ”
On that note, does he regret being the Doctor?
“No, I’ve no regrets at all. It’s a most wonderful thing and it could only happen on TV and film. The work endures, and people are vastly amused. All performers are gratified to be acknowledged years on – ‘That’s the man who used to be Doctor Who, and gave us lots of pleasure’. Although perhaps it’s not as powerful as Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby when they say ‘That’s the guy who fixed the World Series in 1913!’”
One of the highlights of playing Romana was working with Tom Baker, claims Mary Tamm.
‘Tom’s a fascinating man in many ways and very refreshing to work with, if occasionally difficult. He was just so different. He suited the part down to the around and in a rehearsal room he made everyone feel ‘This is my show’, We got on very well which was nice because as with everything an actor does the first few days of rehearsal can be really nerve-wracking. He made me feel welcome quickly and so we got down to work without any real hassles.” Speaking of Tom’s relations with Tamm’s character she feels that “He didn’t like the fact that she was a Time Lady and meant to be cleverer than he was. I don’t think he liked her at all.”
‘We used to have the most awful problems with our writers,” recalls Ward who was at one time married to the actor. “Tom and I used to have to re-write most of our dialogue with the director, usually because it wasn’t right for the parts we were playing. And it happened from the start. Our actual rehearsal time, which was incredibly tight, was reduced still further as a result. So the programme was always a heavy workload – we had this responsibility for the show and we were doing so many a year against the problems of a small budget and scripts that we wouldn’t have done without at least an element of re-writing.”
On working with Baker, Ward says “He works incredibly hard, too hard. He’s a perfectionist at heart with Doctor Who we didn’t have time for perfection. . . he is a superb actor and reflects this.”
“K9 was a blasted hard thing to act with!” recalledTom in his interview with DWM back in 1984. “Off-set there’d be John (Leeson) doing the voice and because the thing is so small all the dialogue shots had to be done at its level. We had tremendous technical problems with it as well; it was always breaking down, especially on location when we’d get annoyed because we were always running behind schedule, so that was just another hold-up.”