TOM BAKER INTERVIEW
First published in Doctor Who Magazine 179 in October 1991
The first of our three part interview with the actor voted Favourite Doctor by Doctor Who Magazine readers. . .
“I counted four hundred and thirty varicose veins on the way here today,” announces Tom Baker to nobody in particular in the recording studio reception where we met. His commanding baritone instantly causes heads to turn, as if waiting for a punchline. “It says a lot about life doesn’t it,” he adds, an unmistakeable twinkle in his eye. “When you’re reduced to counting varicose veins. . .” The comment is punctuated with laughter, another Tom Baker hallmark. Before you realise it yourself, with an opening line he has his audience hooked. Now the performance can begin in earnest.
Eleven years on from his final Doctor Who story, Logopolis, Tom looks very different. Gone is the curly hair which, together with that tremendously long scarf, was the Fourth Doctor’s trademark; now his hair is much shorter and he’s more likely to be found in a black suit and tie. But although that outward appearance may have changed, the actor has lost none of his individual charm and he was more than willing to talk freely about his time on the show, at considerable length, albeit with the usual thought-provoking asides on life, the universe and everything. Tom was confronted with a very strange assortment of questions, their only connection being the actor under interrogation, including everything from ‘What’s your favourite football team?’ (Liverpool) to whether or not he would return to the role. Does Tom find it strange answering such queries? A lot of them cover old ground for him, but the answers to those will be new to many younger British fans, since his last British convention appearance was over ten years ago and he has not been interviewed in DWM since 1984. Does he find this enduring appeal daunting in any way, eleven years on?
“Well, it’s jolly really, because most of it’s rather like history. When you’re interested in something, there’s nothing like fans who want to know everything. When you’re collecting stamps for example, you’re looking for crazy watermarks or funny serrations and you want to know everything about it. I mean I love Charles Dickens, he’s my very favourite author. I can’t walk past a book about him. If I was on a train and heard someone say ‘Yes, mumble mumble Charles Dickens’ I’d very likely ask him to repeat it and launch into a conversation about him [Dickens] with a perfect stranger!”
Born in 1934, he’s come a long way as an actor since his first role as ‘professional liar’ at the age of five, when, according to his new video Just Who on Earth is Tom Baker? he started to spice up his confessions to the local Roman Catholic priest, following the advice of older boys. His religious upbringing, which he claims instilled in him the belief that God was everywhere (even in the toilet or up his nose!), had a profound effect on him. “I’ll touch more on that in my autobiography which I’ve been asked to write. It’s not a complete biography, more of a memoir, but yes, religion did influence me enormously.”
But he still went to school like any other child. “I went to a school called St Swithins, which doesn’t exist any more. There’s hardly any of my past that does – schools, churches or unfortunately, friends. But I left school at fifteen. From there, I became a monk until I was twenty-one, which wasn’t unusual at all, then. Some people went in earlier – as young as eleven – but fifteen was a reasonable age to go in.”
Before this he had been offered a job at the famous Abbey Theatre in Dublin but his mother had refused to let him go. Entering a monastery in Jersey seemed a good idea at the time and according to a past interview, he spent much of his time digging the gardens and stoking the boiler and other menial chores and, of course, got up at 5.15am to say Veni Spiritus Sancti with the brothers. Later, he moved to Shropshire as a noviciate but eventually left. Now he sees it as his way of escaping Liverpool although he occasionally has a twinge of regret about not continuing as a monk. Had he gone straight to being an actor after this?
“Well, nothing is as simple as that! I went into the army [doing compulsory National Service for two years], which was an interesting transition from a monastery, and then after I came out I got a scholarship from Liverpool to go to drama school. But I still had to wait a while to become an actor. Having been in the Medical Corps, it was easy for me to join the Merchant Navy and for seven months I sailed out of Liverpool to New York and Canada and then from Southampton to New York several times on the Queen Mary. Then I went to drama school.”
After a two year course he found work in repertory theatres around Britain and it was while he was playing the part of a dog in a late-night revue at the York Repertory Theatre that he was ‘spotted’ by a National Theatre talent scout. He was interviewed by Laurence Olivier and given an acting job with the prestigious London-based company. Although his first job was that of a horse in The Trials of Sancho Panza he rapidly graduated to playing humans and from there to film work.
“I’ve forgotten some of them. There were minor films like Mutations or Dear Parents for an Italian company and Vault of Horror, but the only really very large film I ever did with a major part was of course Nicholas and Alexandra. I was working at the National then and I was recommended by Laurence Olivier. I played Rasputin [The Mad Monk], romping about on the back of wagons!”
ON BECOMING THE DOCTOR
The film role, and that of the villainous magician Prince Koura in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad led to him being offered the part of the Doctor at the suggestion of Bill Slater, then Head of BBC Drama Serials. Both roles reflect Tom’s passion for larger than life, fantastical characters, not least of these being Doctor Who. But what was it about the character that particularly interested him when he auditioned for the role?
“To be honest it was nothing about the character that influenced me at all, it was sheer necessity! I was desperately out of work and was terribly depressed by this. Suddenly, along came the possibility of playing Doctor Who. It was just relief to play a major part!
“Because I didn’t watch Doctor Who much, I had no notion of what this would do. It just so happened that with the new scripts that Barry Letts had commissioned (and later, Phillip Hinchcliffe), the directors, costume and set designers who moved in – such as Roger Murray Leach and Jim [James] Acheson, who’re now both Oscar winners – well, it all came together. I didn’t know what was happening, I just responded to that, which I suppose is the great secret, isn’t it.
“I was working very hard on a building site in Ebury Street when I got the job, next door but one to where Mozart wrote his first symphony. The builders were actually very good to me and I have a happy memory of that but of course I didn’t want to be on a building site because I hadn’t much skill, I wanted to be an actor.
“When I got the part I had this feeling of just huge relief and also one of great pride. I didn’t tell my workmates I’d got the job, I had a day off and went to the BBC and then it was in the first edition of the Evening Standard. I knew they all took that paper and bang, all was revealed! So there they were, looking over the tops of the paper at me, it was a great moment of pleasure. They were very proud of me – and I was very proud of them.”
Tom clearly remembers his years on the show with fondness, right from his first story – Robot – which was originally transmitted in 1974. “I remember them allowing me a few jokes in that,” he recalls, “plenty of double takes with Nick Courtney as I tried to find a new costume from the TARDIS, which the director Chris Barry and Barry Letts allowed to be kept in.”
How did he get his long scarf?
“That’s an old story – Jim Acheson designed it, bought the wool and gave it to someone’s relation at the BBC called Begonia Pope who was thrilled to be working for the company. She didn’t ask any questions, Jim gave her the design and she knitted up all the wool. Jim of course had no knowledge about knitting except for colour and he bought ten times the amount of wool that was needed and she knitted the lot! He omitted to say it was just a scarf, like the sort you’d see on the Left Bank in Paris and when I put it on it was hilarious and Jim instantly said keep it, it’s funny.”
Did he ever get hurt when playing the role of the Doctor?
“Well, in one of the very first ones [The Sontaran Experiment], I broke my shoulder. I took great care not to get hurt after that! I suddenly realised that it made no difference who was doing this thing – the really telling thing in a narrative is the close ups. It was marvellous that I realised that so early and afterwards I never broke a bone!”
A number of his stories have been released on BBC Video, with two more on sale this month. Is there one he’d like to see? “The Ark in Space I think because I so admire Roger Murray Leach’s wonderful circular set in that one.”
Judging from his comments, he obviously has a soft spot for his first season as the Doctor. Was that his favourite? “Well, I don’t know.” ‘Yes, it’s my favourite to an extent that it was my first time. This sort of question is very like being asked who’s my favourite assistant, who in many ways has to be Elisabeth Sladen, because she was so good to me. She was already there, you see and I was just joining – it was crucial that she and I made the chemistry right for me to be secure. Elisabeth, she’s a wonderful girl, but she’s also a beautiful actress with great sensitivity, well, she stepped aside, which was what she was supposed to do. She was marvellous.”
Under producer Philip Hinchcliffe, the series saw a lot of ‘homage’ to Gothic horror, which the actors picked up on. “We also used to see lots of movies at that time and often, like actors and directors do, we adapted scenes from movies, recalling a scene from a film and doing our version of it. If anyone loved the film out there as much as we did we wanted to send them a sort of signal. It was rather like when quite often I had to say the co-ordinates of something I often used the BBC telephone number and the Doctor Who office extension, and no-one ever noticed!
“Of course the stories Phillip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes worked on were all film pastiches and of course we spotted them. In fact, sometimes I was extremely rude about it if they didn’t come clean about where they were nicking the idea from! Like all good comedians, you thrash around anywhere for material and steal and adapt trying to perform that alchemy, transmuting one into another.
If people recognise the influence it adds a certain pleasure, it’s another little level. You don’t have to see those things, but there were lots of little nudges and winks that people who were going through time and space were able to send to their watchers, little signals like an astronaut might send, which means one thing to one listener and something else to another.”
Is there a story that particularly stands out in that respect?
“Well, in The Brain of Morbius there’s the scene where we arrive at the door of this castle and it was pouring with rain. We’d seen a scene in a film and both Lis and I thought it would be terribly funny if, when they did the reverse shot looking out of the door] and it was pouring with rain like it was the end of the world, I said ‘I’m so sorry but could you spare a cup of water?’ or something ridiculous like that. It allowed the ‘Igor’ character [Condo, played by Colin Fay] a very extraordinary take, as if to say ‘Are these fellows taking the mick out of us?'”
Like several of Tom’s stories this one’s now available on video. “Yes, and it’s a very good one. There’s Philip Madoc’s great line when he dropped the brain and says something like ‘Sorry about that, Morbius.’ I was never sure whether that was in the script, but I know they left it in. It was killingly funny.
“I think the formula lent itself to Gothic areas, not because science fantasy should do that but simply because we have that long film background of Gothic horror, tension and fantasy, the tragi-comic if you like. Do you remember the old days when you’d go watch the old Hammer films, especially the late night ones when one had been drinking? You’d get gales of laughter from one particular section of the audience and the rest of the audience would be sat po-faced. It’s rather like going to a theatre with a lot of actors or musicians and they’re picking up one thing and someone else is seeing it on another level.
“Doctor Who was like that. I was always constantly trying to translate whatever was happening to me and add it to the role, drawing on other experiences. One of the reasons I spent so much time on the road promoting the programme was that I was drawing on the children from the audience, so what they told me they liked I did more of, or else adapted it and did variations. I used to get hints of what they liked. So it might have appeared I was being very nice to them but actually what I was doing was ‘vampiring’ them for ideas, it was quite shameless . . .!”
Tom says he didn’t watch Doctor Who much before he got the role, but is there another Doctor that he likes?
“No. I didn’t watch before I was in it and I certainly didn’t watch it while I was in it, because that would only make me unhappy. My reasoning was – it isn’t any false modesty or anything – what is the point in watching it, because we worked under such pressure. I always wished I could do it better you see, and there was never any time, with maybe a maximum of two to three takes per scene. If there was any doubt, I sometimes deliberately used to blow it out on such a scale that they had to do a retake. Directors know about this!
“Occasionally, I might have watched a sequence over which we’d had an argument but I didn’t watch it as a rule because I would never have been pleased with it. I might watch it now out of curiosity after so long, but generally if it’s marvellous someone will tell me about it and if it isn’t so marvellous I’ll just be unhappy.”
Does that still apply to work now?
“Yes it does. I didn’t watch myself in Selling Hitler. I might out of drollery watch something coming up called The Law Lords, which is about the choice of judges, where I play a top civil servant.”
Does he have a favourite monster?
“I must say I did enjoy Davros in Genesis of the Daleks, because Michael Wisher did work so seriously and was unbendingly passionate about the character. He used to make us howl with laughter! He’s a very accomplished actor and he had us gripped from the first rehearsal, he was so unselfconscious. When he used to put the bag over his head, that used to crucify me! I used to yelp. He never relaxed, which is very important for an actor, you must never patronise your own character – this is what happens if you stay too long or people are recalled into cameo parts. Always play a character from his point of view and never be hard on him, because if you do that, it instantly betrays a lack of commitment. You’ve got to believe absolutely, never give him or her a hard time. You must play it the way you believe it should be played.”
Another actor familiar to Doctor Who fans, Philip Madoc, said the same thing about his Solon character from The Brain of Morbius in a recent DWM interview. The weird and wonderful requirements of the Doctor’s role must, however used to the role you become, be very to act convincingly.
“Yes, well as you know, naturalism isn’t my strong point – I’m not even good at coming through doors convincingly! – but never mind, even if you can’t come through a door convincingly, perhaps you can come through a door interestingly or dare one say, amusingly. . . ”
The Doctor’s character has always inspired that sort of optimism, of course, and never more clearly than when he triumphs over evil, something Tom touches on in his video, mentioning that in the real world evil does sometimes triumph, which fantasy rarely allows for.
“It’s very important. After all, the fantasy area is a development of what we’re brought up with, of pantomime and fairy tales. In fairy tales you do not have ambiguous endings, dragons are killed, evil witches are crushed to death, often very violently. There are very few explosions but that’s because Alfred Nobel had not invented dynamite. . .”
But in all the Fourth Doctor’s battles there’s one of Tom’s early stories, Genesis of the Daleks, which breaks those rules about clean endings, where the Doctor only sets the Daleks back by a thousand years at the most – he doesn’t really win.
“Actually that was a very curious one because there he questioned the whole notion of someone committing an act which would change all history, as opposed to just influencing it. It’s the same sort of thing that might go through someone’s mind if they were working on the nuclear bomb. Should we press that button? There’s that old phrase ‘Have I the right?’ That was the only one that did that sort of thing otherwise they were all resolved with explosions. . . ”
Actors are put through all manner of strange directions during their time on a show, and Tom was no exception. For Pyramids of Mars, for example, he had to dress up as a mummy. Was it uncomfortable?
“I found that very strenuous but the director, Paddy Russell, insisted. Although my face was invisible, she felt I should be in it because she said my way of moving would be recognisable. I was very flattered by that but of course it was just a director exercising her influence over an actor. I don’t know whether I was recognisable or not but I had to do it. I wasn’t very keen – it was very uncomfortable and took a long time to do.”
However, it’s stories like Pyramids, for all its difficulties that had made Tom popular worldwide as the Doctor. Apart from television screenings in Australia, the United States and Canada – to name but a few -Doctor Who is available on video elsewhere in the world, including Japan and Norway. Does he ever get asked to do voiceovers for foreign language versions of the show?
“No, never. I don’t get to do much with Doctor Who really, except by Keith Barnfather who asked me to promote the new video which I did with the signing at St. Martins-in-the-Fields crypt. That was the first time in eleven years I’ve done anything like that in Britain.”
Was it strange coming back to British fandom like that?
“Well, of course it was peculiar because quite a lot of the young ones there didn’t know me from the television but from video. There were fans who were curious to see me because they were perhaps twelve or thirteen when I’d finished and now they’re nearly thirty! I was glad to see them. It was incredible how sweet the reaction was, because as you know I’ve changed a lot since then, but no-one batted an eyelid.
“The loyalty of fans, if one responds to it, is that it is absolutely blind. Those kind people who came – there wasn’t one single hostile remark, there was no unkindness at all, it was people thanking me. Even though I’m different now they see me in that heroic mould of eleven years ago, and that’s very touching. There was a lot of that affection there, people hoping that I wouldn’t disappoint them, that I would still be cheerful and optimistic, like the character was.
“I feel the same about people I’m devoted to. I remember telling one of the fans the other day that I actually met the actor James Stewart at a party in Hollywood and when he stood up to speak to me I couldn’t believe my eyes. I couldn’t say how are you Jimmy, all I could see was Destry Rides Again and Shenandoah and The Glen Miller Story and all those wonderful things he did. It didn’t occur to me to think ‘My God he looks older’ or his voice sounds even more cracked. All I could see was this great, beautiful character who played all those marvellous parts. . .”
TOM ON DICKENS
“There is a passion for hunting something deeply implanted in the human breast. . . ” Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Torn’s passion for the nineteenth century writer Charles Dickens is well documented. This year alone, he’s recording three abridged novels – Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities – for the American Talking Book service and a tape of him reading A Christmas Carol has been released through the Friends of Doctor Who fan club in the United States.
What’s the appeal of Dickens?
“Well, he’s just so funny, so outrageous and vivid – I suppose there’s a wonderful optimism about him, sometimes he was ridiculously optimistic in his earlier novels (the later novels are darker). They’re all about redemption, the possibility of change. He wasn’t in any sense a practising Christian but the impulse was very New Testament. All the great religions are about that, that finally we can change and be happy and this is very strong with Dickens. It’s also coupled with his enormous great good humour. He’s killingly funny!”
In a way, Dickens was writing for television in the nineteenth century – much of his work was serialised in the magazines of the day, like a soap or a drama serial is now.
“Yes, he was certainly the first writer to bring what he wanted and what the audience wanted together. Writing in monthly parts – once or twice in weekly parts – he of course knew what the sales figures were, rather like we might know the ratings today for television. If he wanted to change them he would change the story. For example, if the ratings were down, as with Martin Chuzzlewit, he’d send his hero off to America, for no real reason except for a change.
“Comics are like that too, that’s part of the fan. When I remember the comics that I loved, which had such an influence on me when I was a child, I’m often tempted to buy some back copies, but of course I daren’t, in case I now find them ridiculous or badly written. I want to remember them as I do now, uncritically. Really looking forward to them, dreading Monday because there were no comics on a Monday. It was always Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday I looked forward to. I had to work hard to be able to get them all!”