TOM BAKER INTERVIEW
First published in Doctor Who Magazine 92 in September 1984
By the time Tom Baker left Doctor Who in 1981, the series had become almost synonymous with his name and for many it seemed almost impossible to imagine a new actor playing the role. That was three years and, incredibly two Doctors ago, but Baker retains the same affection he had for the show which made him a star and has haunted him ever since
“I wasn’t, and I’m still not, worried about typecasting. When I first got the job I was too happy to worry about anything like that – I was just so pleased to have the part. Since I left I’ve had a lot of lovely characters to play, nobody in the profession has type-cast me – at least, if they have I’ve yet to know about it. As for the stigma of playing it – yes, well, that will follow me for the rest of my career, I suppose, especially now that it seems to have really taken off abroad. I can walk along a street without being recognised now, which is quite nice, but being known is something that you have to be able, if you’re an actor, to put up with and cope with. I’m still grateful to Doctor Who; I loved being involved and I’ve never felt it was damaging to me since.”
Like the character he played, Baker is serious about what he does but not necessarily in the way he does it. For instance, when he was with the show he was careful never to appear to children as Tom Baker – to them he was the Doctor.
“The Doctor isn’t just what I did in the studio, you see. I had – and this alone makes the series different – to carry the concept of this semi-perfect man into my own life, so that if there were children around I wouldn’t be seen by them as a disappointment. As in the show, I didn’t smoke, drink or swear – I was literally on my best behaviour, which was very, very exhausting at times but rewarding as well.”
Wasn’t this a bit much to expect from an actor who is, after all, not always in character?
“No, because Doctor Who comes with this responsibility. Obviously to an older fan or to an adult I was Tom Baker but there are an awful lot of small children who watch the programme. Now if they saw me behaving badly they would be disillusioned – they’d lose that sense of magic, the aura of the Doctor which I tried to convey. My friends used to think it was unnecessary, but then they didn’t have my sense of responsibility to the image of the show – I know that sounds very pompous but it was something I thought very consciously and carefully about.”
Apart from any children who might be watching, Baker also had to be wary of the Press because from the announcement of his having won the part he was potentially hot news – and, above all, “gossip-worthy”. This can be far more annoying than fan adulation, as Baker testified.
“It was never so bad if they got it right. The Press love a story with a touch of scandal or malice in it and they’ll bend over backwards to get one. I used to give up reading the news at times, because it was so amazing what rubbish they could print. It could be so frustrating because there’s no real way of replying.”
Tom says he has always been an actor by nature.
“I acted in my youth – I was fascinated by the workings of the Church, I loved anything melodramatic. Unfortunately my family would never contemplate my taking up a career as an actor – it was regarded as just short of heretical!”
With a theatrical career out of the question – or so it seemed – Baker became a monk, a vocation that absorbed six years of his life until he decided that he hadn’t the dedication or the devotion to continue a totally religious life. Having made one mistake, he now realised that if he really wanted to act, now was the time to try. So Baker began to look for training, while supporting himself in a number of menial jobs to pay the rent.
“I did them all – a tremendous variety. I worked on building sites, in pubs, I even spent a while in the Navy. You see, I was terribly lacking in confidence and all this helped – I had been shut away from people and now I had to be able to project my character to an audience, something I found so hard to do at first. Acting is a learning process, it was that which occupied my thoughts throughout so that I found there was no time to be nervous.”
After drama school the usual repertory seasons followed including work with the National Theatre and finally several film parts, notably the hypnotic Rasputin in Nicholas and Alexandra and the magician in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, which of course led to his being offered the role of the Doctor.
“Acting is all luck and this was the best piece of luck I could have. I hadn’t been working, it was all so depressing until one day, quite out of the blue, Barry (Letts) offered me (the part of) the Doctor. I signed the contract before anyone could even ask me how I was going to play it. That was when I really felt nervous.”
It must have been quite a task to take over from the immensely popular Jon Pertwee?
“Oh yes, indeed it was. I was so daunted – I thought Jon has been doing this for five years, to everyone he is the Doctor. He was well known even before he did the series whereas I wasn’t known by anybody. I think it was a brave decision for them to make but at the time I really didn’t know how I was going to approach it or whether I could follow Jon’s act. Now, of course, having played the part, I can afford to say that any actor playing the Doctor cannot fail, because it has passed that stage. It can continue in spite, and because, of the actor playing the lead.”
For Baker, a self-confessed “thinking” actor, the Doctor must have been a confining part. He testifies along with other series stars that the series lacks any consistent character development.
“It follows, really, if you think about it, that the series has survived a string of leading actors supposedly playing the same role but without really changing the overall set-up. The Doctor is a moral being – you know exactly what he’s going to do and why. There’s very little that’s unexpected about him. Character development – well, there’s no such thing because the Doctor is a heroic stereotype who conforms to the patterns of behaviour you expect him to conform to. His character basically stays the same. The challenge is to make that character as diverting and interesting as possible within the given framework. I’d think, ‘How can this be made different?’ or ‘There’s something new to be exploited here’, but it got harder and harder to keep the character fresh. The scripts often didn’t help, either.”
In what way did he think the scripts were deficient?
“They weren’t so much deficient as dull, rather. I didn’t get a great buzz of excitement after reading them. I always felt that the series gave you such a free rein, such scope for imaginative plots, and that our writers were throwing the chance away with dramatic stereotypes. So I was shamefully badly behaved with the scripts – I maltreated our writers’ reputation in rehearsal. More than anything else, I found it so frustrating. It’s not that they were really terrible scripts but they weren’t great either. We did so many as well; I’d get a huge pile of them to wade through, every so often, and it was always the same – a bit of a letdown.”
To what extent had Tom put in his own ideas or dialogue?
“It was a sort of compromise. I was always suggesting this or that – maybe an extra line or a different situation – and the director would say yes or no. Generally they were very kind to me, they humoured some of my extravagances but took me seriously as well. That was nice – it gave us all a working respect for each other. And some of my ideas they kept in!”
Which director had Baker enjoyed working with most?
“There were so many, but Douglas Camfield was one I got on with tremendously well. A very talented man who has now, sadly, died. We had some excellent directors – in fact they used to get just as annoyed with the script at times.”
The success of a story is often largely due to the cast. Philip Hinchcliffe began the practice that continued throughout most of Baker’s reign of engaging well known guest stars: actors of the calibre of Bernard Archard, Philip Madoc, Cyril Luckhan, Peter Jeffrey and Julian Glover, and actresses ranging from Sylvia Colderidge to rising star Suzanne Danielle.
“We had lovely casts, and this used to be a tremendous help. It’s a joy to work with a good actor or actress because everyone feels that bit more attuned to the script – there’s more concentration. We had some magnificent casts and they were such fun too. Once they’d done the show they’d tell their friends it was a fun job so we were able to get some of the best talent available, which is always a pleasure.
“I suppose in one way we were lucky that so much reworking had to be done because it gave us something constructive to do all the time. It was a process that continued from day one on. Nothing would ever be totally changed but it would be varied – you know, one explosion is pretty much the same as another and twice as boring. So we all used to chip in and say, ‘How about this instead?’ Some changed a lot – the Paris one (City of Death) – and some of the Dalek ones. A lot of our dialogue was rewritten, or dropped if a scene was more menacing or funnier without it.”
Which stories did Tom enjoy the most?
“I can never remember story titles, and I never watched the series so all I can remember are the sequences I filmed – which were all out of order anyway – and, of course, rehearsals, which used to go so quickly. My favourite kind of stories were the ‘different’ ones – and the ones I was happy on for personal reasons, like the Renaissance one. That was a good one, I felt quite happy with that. The one set on the giant Ark was another I liked – it had some beautiful, clever sets and quite a good script. Then there was the one with the giant man-eating plants (The Seeds of Doom) which had Tony Beckley who was such a fine actor in it. I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy making Doctor Who but some-times it was very, very exhausting, and occasionally I’d be ill as I was on my last few stories, but usually I used to have so much fun – I’d never have stayed so long otherwise. I was amazed recently when I saw how many episodes I’d made – I thought ‘Goodness, was it really that many?’ – and the days when I felt I needed to get out were, happily, few and far between.”
Which stories were the most problematic for Tom?
“I suppose all the most technical ones, the ones where the scripts just wouldn’t work out however hard we tried. There was that process they use – CSO – which is extremely tiring and requires you to stand about for hours on an all-blue set, acting to nothing. That was hard – I wanted so much for it to be believable, and special effects are always difficult to work to. Of course in our shows there were an awful lot of effects, so it was continually made more difficult than a normal television show or film. The Dalek stories were taxing because of this, and there was one that was virtually all CSO (Underworld) – we all found that a strain. The lighthouse one just didn’t come off for script reasons – there were always one or two like that every season.”
Being the lead actor in a series with a schedule as strenuous as Doctor Who, had Tom ever found his energy flagging and his concentration going? ”
I found it very hard, but then I find all acting difficult – it requires a huge amount of work before I’m happy with my own performance, and on television you never have the time. I used to long for just a few extra days to get it exactly right, but we always had a punishing deadline to work to. As soon as one story was completed I’d find another wad of scripts to learn for the next week, and so on – I did get tired but I couldn’t stop concentrating because if I did it wouldn’t work at all. By the time I left I was seven years older and consequently I didn’t have the same resources of energy I’d had when I joined.”
Tom Baker’s Doctor had an instantly recognisable costume, complete with hat, coat and endless scarf. Did he like it?
“Tremendously – it was right for the character, it had the right amount of extravagance to it. I used to fall over that scarf the whole time – it was silly, really, totally impractical, but I thought it was a good costume. As we went along it got a little more exaggerated.”
Acting alongside Tom were some of the series’ most popular companions, including wife-to-be Lalla Ward. Had he a favourite companion?
“That’s a difficult question. Lis, Ian and I made a good team, I used to think – it was a good feeling to come into that team atmosphere as soon as I joined. I didn’t like the Leela character at all – I thought it was out of place, that this savage who goes around killing people wasn’t in context. I always felt that Lis, lan, Louise, Mary, all had an even more difficult task than I did, trying to create a character from virtually nothing. The writers used to make them such idiots most of the time – I mean, we’d have a supposedly advanced mathematician or scientist character and they’d just end up screaming for help as usual. We all found that tedious. Lis was an amazing girl, a very talented actress who had the ability to rise above these pitfalls. I met my wife through Doctor Who so naturally she was another of my favourites at the time.”
What about K9?
“K9 was a blasted hard thing to act with! 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. I would have loved to have cast a much older actress as a companion, or somebody very fat who would wheeze around after the Doctor. That would have been different – I kept suggesting it, but the producers, probably for good reasons of their own, didn’t like the idea.”
Tom worked with four producers of the programme. How had he found their approaches compared with one another?
“Barry (Letts) only produced my first one – although it was him who got me the job. Then Philip (Hinchcliffe) was with us for quite a while – he was a good, hard-working producer. Graham (Williams) came on and worked like a dog at a rather trying time for all of us when money was getting scarce and we were behind schedule. John (Nathan-Turner) did my last year and was very kind to me, very accommodating. I saw a lot of him socially – we were both bachelors at the time – he’s good company and he cares so much for the programme. In their own ways, and as far as the series would allow, they were all trying to ring the changes, I suppose. They had their job and I had mine and we worked quite closely together; the only conflict we ever had was professional and that kind of conflict is essential.”
Many excellent villains, created by many excellent character actors, and an immense assortment of monsters, old and new, graced the programme in the Tom Baker era.
“I loved some of our monsters because they’re so funny. We used to have a regular set of actors who’d play them so we were all very chummy. I adored the Krynoid – the giant walking vegetable – and I also like the Wirrn; they were both fun. Then there was the giant rat in The Talons of Weng Chiang – I thought that looked rather good. We also had some superb villains. Michael Wisher was brilliant as the creator of the Daleks (Davros) – I remember once he was playing a scene and he was also doing the Dalek voices and I said, ‘Can we all go home now?’ because he was in total control. Some of our villains were quite chilling – I used to try to believe in them so as to communicate their threat to the audience and often I found I didn’t have to try very hard, they were so good.”
During Tom’s time with the series there were two conflicting debates over the programme’s content. First the violence and then the comedy. What were his attitudes to these?
“I didn’t like real violence – the mindless type of thug violence you always get in American police series. I can’t say how much that bores me. I always preferred to outwit the baddies – I don’t think it’s necessary to blow them from here to kingdom-come. I mean, it’s dull, isn’t it? What’s new about that? l don’t feel we really went too far with the violence in the show, I think if it had been over-the-top somebody would have said so. The problem in a show where good always wins over bad is how to do it in a new way. Usually our scripts would blow them up. As for the comedy, I think a lot of the criticism we got was from people who were used to the old way. The audience expected the old cliché scripts – the comedy element was only part of it, but I felt it was a wonderful way of winning the children’s imagination. I always felt Doctor Who was a children’s programme, watched by children of all ages. With a comic approach it was more diverting to laugh our villains into destruction. You can’t tell me we lost all our tension – in the comedy there were very serious bits; that contrast is extraordinarily effective. I didn’t think we overdid either violence or comedy – in fact I think we could have gone further with both elements.”
During the time Baker played the Doctor he was involved in two exciting Doctor Who projects which, sadly, never materialised – the lost story Shada and the lost film Doctor Who Meets Scratchman.
“The Shada thing was terribly disappointing. Douglas (Adams) had written a clever script – and we had done some excellent filming at Cambridge. It was a great shame – at the time we couldn’t believe it was lost, they’d spent so much on it, we’d done studio work and everything. It was Graham’s last story so it was sad for him – he took me to an American convention to cheer us both up. You see, that was a hazard of time – they couldn’t put a remount in, and if they had tried the cast would have been doing other things.
“Doctor Who Meets Scratchman was going to be a sort of horror film. Ian Marter devised the story with me and for a while it looked very hopeful that it might get done; there was a lot of money around but never quite enough. The plot involved this malignant creature called the Scratchman – which is a name for the Devil – who loved causing trouble, revelling in chaos and destructions of all kinds on all scales. It involved scarecrows coming to life; it was very frightening but had a lot of humour as well. I thought it would make a brilliant film, but then I would, Ian liked it too but apart from us very few people did. If it was being mooted now we could probably get the money from America. That’s our business all over – you just have to get used to disappointments.”
The huge success that the programme is currently enjoying in the United States is due in large part to Tom and his episodes which are shown again and again to increasing numbers of fans. What are Tom’s feelings about fan conventions on both sides of the Atlantic?
“When I first went to America for a convention I was stunned by the reaction. They treat you as though you’re royalty – it’s quite amazing. I can’t understand it at all – people who live and breathe the programme, who devote their entire lives to it. It’s hugely flattering of course, but it can be terrifying as well at times. You’ve got such a sense of control – thousands of people are looking to you and you feel you can’t let them down. I don’t always feel able to go to these conventions because I’m too nervous I’ll fail in their eyes. I get overwhelmed because to me, Tom Baker, I’m just an ordinary man – I’m not a hero of any kind. They are so involved with it – it’s as though I belong to them. Americans will come up to you and talk to you as if they know you personally. The British fans are more reserved. It’s a tremendous compliment that people care about you so much – I’ve not been with the show for three years now but people still want to know about me they still write. It humbles you, the effect a television show can have, but it’s deeply touching at times. It’s lovely to have fans.”
Alone, away from the public, Tom pursues a number of his own interests.
“I love reading – I simply couldn’t survive without books. I appreciate art, music, poetry – I love beauty of any kind. I like people too – there’s so much in life to be enjoyed, I can at least say I’m never bored.”
When Tom decided to leave the series after seven years it made front-page news. Many thousands of fans were left aghast. The show without him seemed inconceivable.
“It was in the works though for months before. I struggled with all the arguments for and against staying, but seven years is a long time. I’d given the show all I felt I could give it but I loved it so much that in other ways I didn’t want ever to go. I didn’t want anybody to start feeling awkward about me being there, so I had to take the initiative and say it’s time I did something else and let somebody else come in. I had the happiest years of my life with Doctor Who – it was such a thrill to be the Doctor. I think I was right, too – Peter (Davison) gave the series a new lease of life from all accounts – I never saw him – and now Colin (Baker) is bound to do the same. It comes back to what I was saying about the series never having failed in its lead actors. I wasn’t Doctor Who – I wasn’t bigger than the series. I simply was one of the actors who’ve been lucky enough to play the Doctor. When I announced my decision to leave I felt a tremendous lurch – John was so nice to me then – and it helped to have Tony Ainley, who’s an old friend, in those last shows. It was a shock to realise this is it, the finish, but the time had come and I think I made the necessary decision before someone else made it for me.”
Why then, if the show was so close to his heart, had Tom refused to appear in The Five Doctors?
‘This was another decision I had to think long and hard about. The original plan was to have me with Lis and have us all come together at the end. I finally decided I wouldn’t do it because I simply couldn’t face the prospect of going back. I was lucky also to have other offers, but when I say I couldn’t face the happiness again I mean it. I went to see John and explained all my reasons, and in spite of the difficulties it caused he was very understanding. The programme is my past now – it would, I think, have been a mistake to try to turn the clock back even for that one story.”
Since leaving Tom has added a good many theatrical credits to his name.
“One has to mix and I’d been away from the theatre and live audiences too long.”
Leading roles in the West End and on tour with Educating Rita were among the highlights, and Tom is fully confident for the future.
“I’ve been lucky – when I did the Sherlock Holmes television series I was surrounded by old friends from Doctor Who. Now I think perhaps it’s time for a bit more television or film work, but it would be silly to say I was planning anything. Planning my career hasn’t worked up to now, so I don’t suppose I could if I tried.”
Asked for a final comment on his years with Doctor Who, Tom gave one of his beaming smiles and said, “I owe the show a lot, I still feel attracted to it – it’s something that I’ve never regretted doing and feel immensely proud of being involved with. What more can I say but thank you?”