TOM BAKER INTERVIEW
First published in Doctor Who Magazine 258 in November 1997
This is ground control to Major Tom…
He’s a spaced-out oddity who inhabits a world of Dickens, dingy bars and the dead . . . He’s Tom Baker, the fourth and most popular Doctor, and he’s busy publicising his forthcoming autobiography. Seizing the opportunity, Gary Gillatt tried to get the measure of the man – only to come away more confused than ever . . .
Sorry, but there is no-one of that name in the hotel,” chimes the receptionist, oozing condescension.
“But. . . but. . . Excuse me?”
“There is no-one called Tom Baker at this hotel.”
I look down at the page of my diary and there it still is: September 17, 12 noon, the Langham Hilton Hotel, Portland Street – Tom. Just ‘Tom’ mind; no surnames are necessary for this one.
Damn, damn, damn. Have I got the wrong day? It’s taken far too long to get even this close and I’m too wound up to deal with the situation in a mature or competent way. For a moment I feel that one of two things might happen. If this is my fault, I’ll collapse in an exhausted and sobbing heap on the marble, or, if it’s not, I’ll vent my frustration on this smug receptionist with a stream of vitriol that would make a Paratroop sergeant wince and look away in discomfort.
I’m in complete denial. I hear myself saying “OK, I’ll wait over here” and take two steps back until I bang up against a pillar. I smile thinly at the receptionist who smiles thinly back. He obviously feels I’m not improving the aesthetics of his hotel.
Until the middle of last year, I’d never imagined that I’d be able to get a new – or at least a worthwhile – interview with Tom Baker for Doctor Who Magazine. But then Tom announced that he was writing his autobiography and all bets were off.
Books need publicity and publicity means interviews. At Panini Mansions we planned and plotted, and came up with what we thought was the perfect hook for a new piece with Tom Baker. The deal was to be this. He, I, and a photographer would head off into the darkest dens of Soho for an evening, as the man himself took us on a guided tour of his old haunts from the double life that was his last years in Doctor Who – the pubs, the bars, the private drinking dubs. He, in principle, would be amused and entertained by the prospect of spinning stories of those times (we were concerned about failing to limbo under Tom’s famously low boredom threshold) and we would get an entertaining photo-led feature; one in which we’d find out exactly where you escape to play when you are the most popular man on TV. We thought it was a pitch he couldn’t refuse.
And with crushing inevitability, we were wrong.
Tom wrote back: I have applied what passes for my mind to your proposition. Now my feelings are as follows. My love of low life in the Who years was of course expressed in clubs and pubs and dreadful dumps where lonely people and frightened actors gathered together in the hope that the party would never be over. Now while it is possible to talk and write about these people and places, they are (with the passing of time) about as emotive as a blue plaque on a wall. And all this for the simple reason that, as Gertrude Stein said of roses, “a bar is a bar is a bar.” So, without Francis Bacon (dead) or Jeff Bernard (legless) or Dan Fasson (in Devon) or Mick Tobin (dead) or Gaston B (dead) or Tony Harris (dead) – Christ, will the line stretch out to the crack of doom?
Without the above cast list, where will there be anything except the loneliness and emptiness of rooms where we murmur; “Francis sat there, Jeff fell through that window” etc?
But you are so full of energy and good ideas – and it is a one-off – that I think it would be so good to look at another angle. Such as? Well I won’t pretend that I know one right off, but there must surely be one. I hope you have heard or believe that I seriously admire the fans. I adore them. I worry that, your enthusiasm aside, they are not always served well. So whatever you decide I shall do my best. I want your readers to feel good, real good, and not ripped off. Think on it – Tom B.
So, with the Tom’s initial interest and support not in question, we made our formal approaches to the publicity department of HarperColIins, Tom’s publisher. We cajoled, then hassled, then pleaded, and at first we were offered various forms of special access and unique insights. But as the months passed, all that seemed to evaporate as HarperCollins became aware that they had a possible mainstream smash hit on their hands, not just – as they might have seen it – an eccentric memoir for 30,000 Doctor Who loyalists. We continued to bleat. “But we’re the official Doctor Who magazine,” I would listen to myself whine (always the last and sorriest resort) only to hear the indulgent ‘Uh-huh’ of a publicist who is busy negotiating a serialisation with the Daily Mail. Finally, they shut me up with the offer of an hour-and-a-half of the man’s time on his first main interview day. Later I become aware that either side of my slot are further sessions (shorter, I observe smugly) with other sci-fi genre magazines. So much for special access. I realise I will have to rely on Tom’s memory of his own promises of indulgence.
“Excuse me?” It’s the oleaginous receptionist again.
“Yes? Is he here?”
“He is indeed, Mr Gillatt – he deliberately mispronounces my name, I was quite clear – “Room 423”
“So he is in this hotel then.”
“He is now.”
Regular DWM photographer Robin Prichard joins me and we creep up to 423. It claims to be the Re-Raphaelite Suite, and a hope that some sense of occasion will be returned to the interview – is it to be conducted in some darkly-panelled chamber bedecked with the work of Rossetti and Millais? – is half-formed before being cruelly dashed when the door opens onto a candy-striped, but very ordinary hotel room with dingy watercolours of haystacks. Opening the door for me is the Doctor, er, Tom Baker.
He’s not smiling and already looks bored. Oh dear.
We introduce ourselves and Tom offers the encouraging “Of course I remember you.” I perch on the edge of a sofa and Tom sprawls in an armchair; one arm draped over the back, a foot on the coffee table. Last issue, we previewed this interview as a TARDIS tin affair; our plan was that through the purported randomness of the questions, I would be able to get away with stronger, edgier stuff and still keep an innocent smile on my face. As soon as I sit down, however, I knew that Tom will scorn the triviality of such a performance and I head straight for my notes instead.
Small talk first. I wonder how the publicity drive is going. “Well next week I do all the down-the-line television and radio interviews, and then on the fourth of October I start on the 50-date tour of the country – my lap of honour.”
And how do you feel about that?
“It’ll be alright. Well, it will be great to meet the fans because this time I’ll have something new to offer. It’s nice to have something new to offer. The fans get anxious when I haven’t got anything new to offer, which makes them very timid” A phone rings shrilly; Tom’s eyes narrow. “It’s like when I meet another actor and . . ‘ Another ring. Tom glances across, irritated. “And I say ‘Are you working?” and they say “No, Tom” and.. . Christ! Is there no peace?”
He covers the room in two steps and snatches up the receiver. We expect a bellowed response, but he sheepishly murmurs “Yes?” Then again, with Tom, what you don’t expect is exactly what you come to expect.
He’s having fun. “No, I’m terribly sorry, I’m not Mr Harper. Would you like me to be?” We can’t hear the confused response, but I hope it’s Johnson on Reception who’s suffering. Tom continues, “I could try to be Mr Harper for you, but I expect you’ll only be disappointed to the end…”
Tom is performing for us. I become faintly concerned, perhaps a performance is all we’re going to get today. He puts the phone down, sighs, and spreadeagles himself once more.
“So in the same way that two actors become nervous when one suspects the other isn’t doing anything,” he resumes, “the fans become timid when they feel that you have nothing new to bring. So this time the fans will be excited because at last I have something to offer. That’s why I am pleased that the book contains stories that we can’t tell at conventions because there isn’t the time. It’s selected pictures of my background, actually.”
He looks into the air, obviously rolling his next phrase around his mind. “Selected confessions,” he adds in his most conspiratorial voice. The one he saves for radio advertisements.
So was the book a challenge?
“No, I wouldn’t say it was. It was certainly very interesting and sometimes. . . yes, it was certainly interesting. You see, I was out of work and I learned how to use a word processor so I tapped it up and it was nice seeing one’s life, all those people from my past – from this production called Tom Baker – up on the screen, and I was looking at them going, Yes, that’s my Auntie Louie!’
“I found it quite interesting – because I’ve never written on a word processor before – looking slightly objectively at the words on the screen straight ahead; as opposed to down here with a pen or a typewriter, which is so boring because one keeps making mistakes.
“Having done it and now – I haven’t met anyone other than you who has read it all yet – the publishers are enthusiastic. But we’ll see anyway. Ha ha!”
One of the things that strikes me about the book, particularly reading the early chapters covering your life as a boy, is that the voice you offer as yourself seems identical to what I may hear from you now or on a convention stage – that suggestion that you are in a state of continual surprise. You appear quite emotionally detached, as if even your own parents are seen as just the source of a series of anecdotes.
“Phew, well. . . aaah. Well I think the state of childhood is a state of surprise, isn’t it, because children don’t know anything. So I am being true to who I was then. That’s a nice observation really, but I deliberately didn’t add an adult commentary to that time because I wanted to remain true to that feeling of surprise of the young Tom Baker. As you grow older, if you stay in one place nothing will happen that is surprising. This is what leads people into mischief, or leads them into fiction, or leads them into religion – they are constantly looking for new surprises. That’s why people change clothes or change brands of drinks or change partners; we need new surprises. People find it very difficult – I know I find it difficult – to cope with the monotony of an unsurprising life. So you ask a fellow down the pub at night what kind of a day he’s had, he rolls his eyes and goes, “Wooah, bleedin’ tell me about it!” and you go, “Oh dear” – because obviously nothing much has happened to him. So the whole point of banter or badinage between people is in painting and inventing the picture of your life in a surprising way.”
Inventing? How many of your stories are invention?
“Well, say that identical things happen to two people during the same half-hour period, and in telling you about it later you find that one person’s story convulses you and the other guy has got nothing to say about that half-hour.
“I don’t know really how much you can say about life that is actually true – apart from the date and the certainty of death – it just depends how you are looking at it. So a child’s perspective is always looking up, very different to an adult’s perspective, showing that life is all about how you look at it really. So I’ve tried to paint a picture. I mean I could have just drawn it up as a list, as I would for an insurance claim, but I had to try and recall not only the facts, but to find a way to paint and decorate the facts to compel the reader. That’s the way I see it. I mean, if I met any of those people from childhood – Tommy Fitzgerald or Brian Jones – then they wouldn’t remember it being like that, of course they wouldn’t. You know, people argue about a football match, don’t they? They see the same pass but remember it entirely differently.
“In the book I don’t mean to seem detached in the sense that I didn’t feel anything for those times. I really felt that as one examines oneself anew, then it’s almost like examining a different person. I was a child, then a young monk, then an actor or a father; and all these things, all these influences around me, gave me a different skin. It was the same Tom Baker, but with many skins.”
Do you feel there is an essential Tom Baker who has remained reasonably unchanged then, whatever the skins or masks you’ve worn? Have you always reacted to things in a generally consistent way?
“No, no, no . . . Well, I don’t think so. I just respond. Most of the time I’ve misunderstood things. I mean, my life has just been a continual stream of misunderstandings. I don’t have a very analytical mind, I can’t prepare, I just react to things, and most of it’s been rather confused. There have been some happy confusions. Doctor Who was a happy confusion, I didn’t know what I was going to do with that – but in that confusion I managed to find a particular mode for this benevolent alien that struck a chord with the fans. It wasn’t because I knew what I was doing, I didn’t, I was just responding. Essentially the character of the Doctor can’t develop so that can be a real problem.”
So your performance was based on raw instinct?
“Well yes. When you are playing heroes you have this problem, because heroes, unlike the villains, are predictable. How can you be surprising and interesting when everyone knows you are going to win?”
Did you find a hero within yourself?
“Oh no. Objectively I don’t believe in heroes and villains. An actor just plays someone from that point of view. Even the villain doesn’t think of himself as a villain, he just feels misunderstood.”
Back to the book. Is there anyone from your past who may see a copy and find their name within who you would actually like to re-establish contact?
“No-one of my contemporaries as a child, not really. You see, people forget. I can’t really imagine that that might happen really, though I suppose the majority of them will still be alive. Occasionally you do have coincidental meetings. I go into this little shop locally, and the woman who runs it told me that her husband was at school with me. And I remember him quite well – and his brothers and sisters – but I don’t feel an intense desire to see him as if in some way it might spoil the memory. It’s like when someone rings you up and says, “Do you remember that we were lovers once” or “Do you remember, we used to be married” and it turns out they are staying in the same hotel and they are suggesting that we meet up. And you think, mmmm, nah. Because that might be dangerous. Something will have happened to change them – they’ll be older or they wouldn’t remember things in quite the same way. So there isn’t anyone from my past I would like to come and find me for that reason.”
Would you be concerned about being a disappointment to them?
“Of course, but it’s more likely – if they haven’t become actors or big businessmen or something – it’s more likely, simply because of the publicity I get, that they will think my life has been more interesting than theirs. People are constantly saying to actors, “Compared to you I lead a very drab life.” People are always saying that because they think of actors, and people who dash around having their pictures in the papers, as having a hell of a good time. Well some of us do have a hell of a good time – it’s quite nice to play someone else and get paid for it, it’s quite nice to receive nice notices, it’s quite nice to be approved of and applauded – which most people don’t get as much of as actors do. I mean there are certain professions that are inherently glamorous aren’t there? Journalism, for example … People must say to you, “Did you really get to meet so-and-so?” and they think that’s marvellous. And you don’t want to say, ‘Well actually he’s quite tedious” – it’s your duty also to paint an interesting picture. Sometimes you have to do people a favour, and sometimes – if they are offensive – you have to do some kind of hatchet job on them and cut them down to size. But you have to make it interesting. As an editor, Dickens used to say to his writers, “Brighten it up, brighten it up!”
In the book, you talk a lot about your Catholic upbringing. What are your feelings toward religion now?
“The Catholic viewpoint in my day – I don’t know what the received view is now, nor do I care – was that you looked forward, pell-mell, to death. Whether in religion, academe or politics, people hand on the prejudices of a system as it was. So you read, for example, the work of Doctor Spock, who was the genius, the great ghost for mothers on the subject of rearing a child, who 30 years later will suddenly say, “I got it all wrong! I didn’t know nothing! It was all just a theory!” As it was with us. Children wanting to die? Children leaving their parents to be with God? It was all confusion. But that’s the way it is, it was all just another science fantasy script. Religion, philosophy and all those things can’t be separated, they’re areas where people are preoccupied with unquantifiable and undemonstrable beliefs. Aren’t they? Aren’t they? Whether it’s the Old Testament – or the New Testament or the Koran or anything, people don’t come back from the dead, we don’t know what paradise is like. We believe in these things without them being verifiable. So when people knock the Doctor Who or the Star Trek fans they may as well knock the born-again Christians or the Methodists, who are just focusing on another fantasy. We need to believe in miracles and be amazed, but religion is probably in a decline these days because it’s not so interesting as the other miracles we see around us: the miracle of pop music, the miracle of noisy, well-done big-screen sci-fi stuff, the miracle of photography, the miracle of strong lager …”
So do you like noisy big-screen sci-fi stuff?
“As long as it’s well done. I recall going to see Jurassic Park at the cinema in Tunbridge Wells, near where I live. And I watched this film and for the hour and a half all the children were bored out of their brains – it was like being in an aviary. They used to be like that with Doctor Who when I had long dialogue sequences and all they wanted was the action. And then when the action came and the first dinosaur appeared, the amazing thing was that everyone in the cinema thought how wonderful it was except Sam Neill, who at that point was the most important man in the world. So I thought the film was terribly boring and completely relied on its amazing optical effects. What was Men in Black about? It was a piss-take on almost every genre of movie, it was even taking the piss out of itself. There were a few good jokes but of course it had these spectacular model effects. But it was finally all just jokes. You couldn’t interact with it or have any argument with it, it was just a piss-take. There was nothing heroic, nothing lasting. There is nothing profound there – but it’s fine to eat your popcorn to.”
Do you feel the same way about Doctor Who?
“With Doctor Who it was very different, very gentle. And it was heroic and lasting. Of course it couldn’t be particularly profound because everything had to be resolved by violence, simply because everything has ultimately to be resolved by violence – the violence of death generally. That was as true for Doctor Who as it was for God, because God committed the first genocide in chapter seven of Genesis when he flooded the world except for Noah and his pals. Aaah . . . so everything is resolved through death, by an explosion, by annihilation – very few things are resolved by wit. But in between times in Doctor Who there was this benevolent alien quality I mentioned before. And its strength was that it remained, essentially, unique on television. There was nothing else like it. And it hadn’t really, it seemed to me, copied anyone else. Almost everything else in life, be it a success in business or a clever idea for a novel, is copied from something else – and the more people copy each other the less individualism we have. You can only be an individual by being slightly egregious. And at that time Doctor Who remained without competition. It remained unique.”
Yes, but there are a lot of things on television that are unique and don’t have 14 million viewers. Doctor Who must have had something more than that?
“Well, yes, but they can be uniquely boring can’t they? I like arguments, I like viewpoints, I’m desperate for those surprises we talked about earlier. . . We learn from each other. But TV is all sarcasm, and I don’t know why. Shakespeare isn’t full of sarcasm, Doctor Who wasn’t full of sarcasm – just childlike enthusiasm and good arguments. Indeed, I hope the same goes for my book – enthusiasm and good arguments. Someone told me today that he’d read a bit of it and found it quite sad. Sad! My bloody heart skidded! Did you think it was sad?”
Not sad, no. I mean there are some incidents that are sad or bad in themselves, but you seem to have such a good time telling me about them that I laugh, or at worst smile at the consciously bittersweet or ironic stories.
“Well thank God for that.”
Back on the subject of television. You must receive a steady flow of scripts . . .
“No, no, no, it’s by no means a steady flow! I haven’t been offered a job for more than a year, unless you count an appearance in crap”.
But have you been courted? Sounded out?
“Oh, people put out feelers briefly before they hear my venomous rejection of why I don’t want to go on tour as Professor Higgins or even Colonel Pickering, when really I’d like to go on tour as Eliza. The scripts I’m offered every single day are voice-overs and narrations. I’m doing a fascinating American documentary series at the moment, and I’m very big in the North East at the moment with second hand car dealers. There’s something compulsively disgusting about my voice when I do that, so they like it. That’s how I’m earning my living – not on the stage or on TV.”
How do you feel about that?
“It’s a matter of regret tor me, but I have to feel – because I’m not completely stupid – that it’s probably a matter of great relief for millions of other people, and certainly, obviously, a great relief to the countless producers I’ve worked for. The other night I had to go to a party – there was no escape – at London Weekend Television with some people who once employed me. And I met some directors there, who were shaking hands almost with tears in their eyes – because most directors have tears in their eyes after they’ve worked with me. Indeed some of them die in agony not long afterwards. And there I was with all these fellows who were all busy. One of them is doing Our Mutual Friend and I thought, this is incredible, what about me? I remember him shaking hands once before and saying, “Tom, dear, you’ll be in my next thing.” Incredible, the whole business. Funnily enough, outside of Doctor Who I really don’t think I’ve ever worked for a director twice, and even then that’s because they were stuck with me. If they wanted the job there was no way they were going to dodge me. I would have thought I’d be more popular because I’m a fast worker. In fact, I’m a very fast worker because I’m so superficial. If you’re superficial then you have to go bloody quick so people don’t spot it. You’ve got to produce the effect quick and get out. That’s what is so good about voice-over work. I can be instantly sincere – people can be in tears – and then I’m out through the door and I’ve only been there 20 minutes. Sometimes I give the runner a tip.”
Other actors have commented that you’re quite a driven man to work with. Is that because you are, as you say, covering your own superficiality, or are you also trying to maintain your enthusiasm in material that you feel isn’t as sophisticated as it might be?
“When you’re an actor and you’re discovering a script, such as it is, you open it and say “Christ, it’s the same as last week’s whippet-shit. It’s about as surprising as a Big Mac” or, “My god, it’s a Spud-u-Like with dog vomit.” But the director says, “Don’t say that Tom, please don’t say that.” And you reply, “But it is! It’s dog vomit, isn’t it George?” Then he says, “Well yeah, but we’ve got to do something with it.” And so you all gather round and you do the alchemy. It’s like people looking in a cupboard when they come back from the pub and there’s next to nothing in. But you’re bloody starving so you say, “Well there’s some rice here, some ham here and this and that,” and you work a miracle on it, you pull together something you really enjoy.”
That must bring you into friction with other performers who aren’t willing to try so hard, who can’t be bothered with alchemy?
“When you’re doing something, of course they’ll be that collision of egos and personalities. I like to work flat out, but I love being with actors most of the time. I like to think that the actors who worked with me on Doctor Who enjoyed it . . . Not many of them said that when I look back . . . Hmmn, not many actors ring me up, come to think of it. . .”
I think it would be fair to say that people who have spoken to DWM on the subject of working with you on Doctor Who fall into one of two camps: those who would celebrate you for how much you excited them and opened up the possibilities of a script, and those who thought you were a monomaniacal egotist who was all over the place, making the job harder all the time. Were you both of those people?
“Well I’m sure I was both of those – and more, I hope. I can’t have only been two people, I’m more complicated than that! I do quite like creative tension but not just as a chance to indulge myself. I don’t like something to be as if we are just making jam or something like that – I was always very aware of how little time there was. But at the same time you’ve got to get in there haven’t you? You can’t be taking too many prisoners if you’ve only got a day and a half to get the job done. A thing that actors do, generally because they’re so sodding timid, is that they keep their bloody heads down and cry “Don’t make waves!” As if there is some terrible danger from drawing attention to yourself. An actor can ask the director, “Where am I to be placed, Ian?” and Ian will say, ‘You stand there and deliver your line towards there,” and so on. But if someone says to Tom Baker, “You stand there” then Tom will say, “Why?” And if Ian’s response is, “Well, that’s the best place to light you,” I’ll say, “Well what a good reason!” But if someone says, “I walked through it in my hotel room last night and that’s the best place for you,” then I’ll say, “Sod your bloody room – let’s play the situation shall we? Let’s play the situation! Someone is coming into this scene through that door, and you say that you did it all last night in your room! What do you think us actors are for?” That’s a reasonable kind of conflict on a set, and I’ll take time to put forward my view. But if the director can say, “I don’t think that’s right because this has just happened or such-and-such is about to happen” than I might stop, look at my feet, look up and say “That was a terrible idea of mine just, now. I think we should do it your way!” That strikes me as a very interesting approach to work, and it’s the only way you are going to make it good and tight and dramatic and strange. Of course if you are just a small-part actor in a big television production or film then you’ve got no power to do that. You ask the director where your camera is and he’ll say, “Never mind where the bloody camera is, just shut your mouth and stand there.” But if you are the leading man – or the director likes you – then you can challenge things more. I don’t mean you challenge them there and then – obviously the best thing to do is to have dinner the night before, or grab him in the pub and say, “Listen when we do that scene tomorrow, how about trying this?” You can’t do that on set because if you haven’t sorted it all out by the time you’re rolling then you’re not going to sort it out. I just tried to make it exciting because it was my life. I had fans! I don’t have any more fans now, I have the same fans.
“This is important, this is vital! Fans are crucial, you can’t live without fans! Unless you are some kind of Carthusian monk then you must have one fan and that’s your partner. Then you have a little family and you’ve got four fans. Some nice neighbours and you’ve got 11 fans. But if you’re a star footballer or big actor then you might have thousands of fans. If you were Doctor Who in 1976 then you’d have millions of fans!”
Proceedings are halted briefly as Tom lets loose a huge laugh at the absurdity of his life. He grins broadly. I don’t think I’ve ever interviewed someone who has tried quite so hard to be liked. Is it genuine or is just part of the sales pitch? Does it turn off and on? I’d like to be able to offer some insight, but Tom Baker isn’t like you and me – or anyone I’ve ever met. You can’t read him any more than you a can read the expression on the Mona Lisa. From moment to moment he seems variously terrifying, endearing, superficial and hilarious. Yes, superficial, because the feelings he displays seem entirely linked to the needs of the story he’s telling. Moods are employed to heighten the dramatic value of a tale.
Further, I’m never quite sure whether he’s answered my question. Often he seems to drop sideways into the most amusing tried-and-tested anecdote that’s in easy reach of my offered theme. Sometimes you seem to get a glimpse of true feelings and emotions, but then a new anecdote is identified, his eyes light up, and we’re off on another circuit.
Tom just can’t seem to stop performing.
Did your length of time as Doctor Who change you as an actor in that approach to directors or producers? You’ve admitted becoming more proprietorial.
“Oh, I certainly became more proprietorial about Doctor Who. But when I became insufferable, I went. I didn’t go after any big scene or any unhappiness. I just went because it was getting very difficult. It wasn’t changing, the scripts weren’t getting any better and there were lots of juveniles coming in. But I thought, that’s fine, we had a new producer, which was John [Nathan-Turner] and I thought that perhaps my day was over and I’d better go. Maybe I’d stayed too long, I don’t know. Some people think that Philip Hinchcliffe’s days were the best days. He was fresh and I was fresh, so maybe that is why it appears that those serials were better. Eventually it got very repetitive about how these things would be shot – especially in the TARDIS or in corridors – so after a while it was very difficult to maintain that sense of wonder or excitement, that surprise again. I mean I tried not to just walk through it, because I was supposed to be from somewhere else. Of course, for years I’ve been mocked by certain people about how seriously I took the part . . . but I was an alien, I had fans to be responsible to. Ha ha! Fans again! You know this, you yourself have got readers to be responsible to, fans of your own – and you must consciously try to be excited by your work or your subject or else you’ll lose them! And you can’t live without fans.”
But did you believe you could live without them in 1980?
“No, no, no. I thought that I would go on to new things, I thought I could beat typecasting. Obviously I didn’t, since my professional life has gone down since Doctor Who. It’s only the repeats of Doctor Who that have sustained me. I don’t mean financially – although I do earn some money from royalties – I mean in the sense that it has kept me in the public eye. People say, “Christ! Tom Baker! Is he still alive?’ and I get little jobs. Particularly it has sustained me in commercials because a lot of people who make them are quite young, and they are fans of Doctor Who themselves.”
But you’re associative of a certain time for them. You’re more than just Doctor Who, you’re the football results and Basil Brush, you’re jam sandwiches and indulgent parents.. .
“Absolutely. Nothing’s ever in isolation. I was a figure in a whole series of contrasts. I was lucky to feature in that amazing scheduling of Brian whatsisname for BBC1 at that time. Amazing! It was irresistible. They were glorious days! Days of my own glory! Thank you for reminding me of them.”
When you were the Doctor, did you feel taller when walking down the street?
“The thing is, I was leading several lives at the time. Most people do but they don’t go on about it like I do. I was ten people in a day. Sometimes I was ten people in an hour! So I was the great children’s hero – I was known all over the world. I didn’t need credit cards, I was welcomed in everybody’s house and that kind of thing. But in the afternoon, there I was in the bloody stewpots of Soho, absolutely raving it up, pissing it up like a good ‘un. That was an amazing other life I had. I also had, from time to time, some sort of fragmentary domestic life – but domestic life can’t possibly admit a comparison with being a children’s hero throughout half the bloody world, or even to access to Soho and all that fun! I didn’t want sodding domesticity! All that getting up in the morning in the same bloody place, saying hello and having three meals a day with the same bloody person. Get off! Let’s get down to Soho and crack some champagne and listen to tall stories from those guys. In low life, you can’t be boring, you can’t whine. If you go in and say, “I’m a bit tired,” you’ll be told to piss off home to bed! You come in and say “Hello Jeff” and you’ve got to be amusing, you’ve got to give a performance – because if you’re not funny then everyone will sod off to the next cabaret. And that’s what it was, this amazing pub crawl-cum-cabaret.”
So why did you leave it?
“Because nothing can go on forever! It’s like a footballer giving up before his legs go. The casualty rate was pretty high in Soho as people fell down steps onto their heads or simply dropped dead in front of you. Sometimes their noses exploded if their liver didn’t go that way first! There was a lot of exploding going on. Things changed when I was in Ireland in a marvellous failure as both Sherlock Holrnes and Moriarty in the same play. It must be some sort of record to cock them both up in the same production, which depressed me because I knew I should have been better. While I was there, the girl who was my partner, and now my wife, saw this wonderful house in Kent. I came over, looked at it and instantly said “Let’s buy that.” I was frantic to make a change. Even whooping it up in Soho was getting repetitive . . . So we moved to the countryside with lots of cats, and gradually I found a lot to distract me there. It wasn’t really that difficult to leave the Soho life behind, because I wasn’t in many plays so I wasn’t up there nearly as much. Then I was doing 30-odd episodes of Medics up in Manchester. So I slowly drifted away.”
Was the role in Medics one that you connected with?
“Well it didn’t take much out of me. I was just a latterday James Robertson Justice. I just went up there, said the lines and tried to be interesting about it. Then that finished. But then most of the things I’ve been in, except Doctor Who, have stopped. Oh, actually that’s stopped as well now! Ha ha! Well at least they can’t pin that on me! There were four of the buggers after me, so no-one can say that’s my fault!”
Would you consider playing Doctor Who again?
“Ha ha ha ha ha!”
Sorry, but it’s my job to ask! It’s in my contract!
“Yes. Well, it’s extremely unlikely, but it would have to be different and exciting again.
For example, I can’t see why the Doctor shouldn’t come back with a fragmented personality, so he’s constantly reinventing himself as he goes along – so in certain situations he becomes whatever is necessary – so the part is constantly entertaining and interesting. Or maybe I could play a Doctor Who villain – that would be fun!
Oh yes! Ha ha ha ha ha!”