In Studio with Tom Baker
By Paul Scoones
Trying to eat one's lunch whilst sitting right alongside Tom Baker as he held forth on the evils of porn and snuff movies in the most graphic detail might not have been the most pleasant of experiences but it was certainly one of the most memorable of my day watching the making of a series of television commercials for New Zealand Superannunation Services.
I first learnt of the possibility that Tom Baker might be visiting New Zealand late last year, when the managing director of Tiger Films, the company that had been contracted to make the series of commercials, contacted me. Due to the commercially sensitive nature of the project, I had to remain quiet about it for many weeks. In November and December I supplied requested videotaped and photocopied reference material to aid the designers, and on 8 January I was told that Tom Baker was definitely coming to New Zealand, accompanied by his wife, Sue Jerrard. In addition to arranging a club event at which Tom Baker would be present, I was also invited to watch the making of the commercials.
Arriving at the film studios tucked into a backstreet in Newmarket, Auckland, early on the morning of Tuesday 21 January, I met with the people from Tiger Films with whom I had previously only spoken on the phone. They allowed me inside, where I sat discreetly out of the way.
The set was very impressive, being a full-scale functional replica of the TARDIS console version in use during most of Tom Baker's era. The console room walls had also been faithfully reconstructed, complete with backlit roundels, corner pillars scanner screen and interior door. The walls, console and floor had all been painted a darker matt grey colour than the original. The three panels of the console that would not be seen on screen were bare; the other three were festooned with buttons and switches, and the panel nearest the front of the set had a built in working television monitor which would be used in at least one shot.
The set had a couple of additions, which betrayed the influence of the Paul McGann movie (the production team had borrowed a copy of the move from me to use as reference material). A bundle of thick flexible piping hung down just behind the central column, though which dry ice was pumped at regular intervals. In addition, a working television monitor on an overhead 'scissor' mounting, that could be raised or lowered, was positioned above the console. A 'sonic screwdriver' had been built, and appeared in several shots, but this was simply a standard large screwdriver with what looked like a metal washer mounted on the head.
A full-size replica of the TARDIS police box exterior stood off to one side of the studio, surrounded by a patch of floor and wall that had been painted matt green so that when the box was later filmed against this background the green could be replaced with a new background for the 'vortex' sequences. The back wall was blank but otherwise the prop was an authentic-looking replica, even down to the 'Pull to Open' sign on the door. The police box was later taken out on location to film an exterior scene of the TARDIS arriving on the top of Mt Eden. During the day, the crew discussed weather forecasts for the following morning, as they required clear skies for the 7 AM shoot. If it was overcast, the location work would be postponed until the Thursday. Due to work commitments, I wasn't able to attend the following day's filming, but as it was a fine day, it is therefore safe to assume that the location filming went ahead on the Wednesday as planned.
After watching the film crew busying themselves lining up the first shot for a few minutes, my attention was drawn to a new arrival in the studio. Tom Baker is not quite as tall in the flesh as he appears on screen, but even so immediately struck me as an imposing figure.
His costume was a mixture of his season seventeen and eighteen costumes, including knee-high 'buccaneer' boots, brown trousers, a baggy white shirt, a gold and black striped waistcoat, and a dark brown cravat. Two different sets of a coat and scarf were on hand. One set, which when presented with the two choices, Tom opted to wear, appeared to be his season eighteen coat and scarf. The second coat was a light grey colour, similar to that seen in Tom's earlier seasons as the Doctor, and the other scarf was the more traditional multi-coloured design. A floppy brown hat completed the ensemble. Tom himself had apparently brought over the costumes from Britain.
At Tom's suggestion, the spare coat and scarf ended up adorning the hat stand prop in a corner of the console room. The hat stand immediately tilted under the weight, prompting the production manager to call for sandbags to secure the base of the prop, whilst Tom remarked that wobbly props were usual on Gallifrey, an excuse, as he explained, he'd often used during his days on Doctor Who to explain away the often wobbly nature of the TARDIS sets.
This was the first day Tom had appeared on set, and the pattern for the day was to rehearse-record; that is, each scene would be paced out, rehearsed a few times, then filmed as many times as necessary to get the shot the director wanted. Calling the shots was John Toon, an experienced film director who had served as cinematographer on the recent New Zealand movie Broken English.
Once on set and in front of the camera, Tom fell into character as the Fourth Doctor with astonishing ease and accuracy. Unfortunately, the director's apparent unfamiliarity with the Doctor's character, and perhaps more importantly, the demands of the advertisement, saw Tom soon being instructed to deliver his lines with more directness and forcefulness than he exhibited in the first few run-throughs. Timing was also a factor; Tom's dramatic pauses were effective but didn't suit the fast pace of the commercial.
Tom was very respectful towards the director and the floor manager, addressing both men 'sir', and deferring to their judgement. He was alive with enthusiasm, constantly offering advice on how to deliver a line or improvising on various hand movements and facial expressions. His attempts to ad-lib parts of the script were unsuccessful; the director picked up on every word change and kept Tom on track. When rehearsing the line 'The past is filled with those who didn't care to plan for the future,' Tom decided that 'The past is littered' was a more dramatic phrase, and said so to the director. They discussed this with the writer, whom like myself was watching the recording from the sidelines, but the writer was keen to keep his version, and Tom graciously conceded.
Several shots involved mentioning a race called the Krakanoids from Tarr 7. Tom had a lot of trouble remembering this phrase, necessitating several re-takes. An animated graphic sequence featuring the Krakanoid, strongly reminiscent of the animations from The Hitch-Hikers' Guide to the Galaxy television series had been prepared in advance and was played when required on to the overhead television and the small monitor mounted on the console.
Out of shot, production crewmembers were kept busy pumping smoke and dry ice onto the set in carefully measured quantities, to add just the right amount of what the director referred to as 'atmosphere'. One particular shot required just the right quantity of smoke to billow up from the console, so that Tom could then wave it away with his hat before delivering the line 'The past is filled with those who didn't care to plan for the future.' On the first few attempts, Tom disappeared behind a cloud of smoke, requiring much frantic fanning of the air by crewmembers before another attempt at the shot could be made. In the finished commercial, the beginning of this scene was cut.
The console's central column was designed to rise and fall just as in the television series, here manually operated by a crewmember crouched out of sight under the console. Visually, this looked very effective, but the perspex column had an unfortunate tendency to rub against the rim of the hole in the centre of the console, producing an infrequent but all too audible squeak. Attempts were made to remedy the problem by lubricating the column, but after a couple of otherwise flawless shots were ruined by the squeak on the soundtrack, Tom lost patience and loudly demanded of the director, 'Who's being paid to act here - me or the bloody machine?' At this point, the central column was returned to the fully extended position, where it remained for the rest of the shoot.
Tom was a very professional and entertaining performer, who wasted no opportunity to tell an amusing anecdote whilst the next shot was being set up. The colourful nature of many of his stories unfortunately renders them unprintable in this magazine - suffice to say that his blunt observations about Quentin Crisp and why sheep shepherds have such an affinity with their flock left his audience momentarily silent! He rarely referred to his time on Doctor Who unless prompted, but did mention at one point that he had worked with several producers on the programme, the last of which made radical changes that Tom disliked. When John Toon asked what these changes where, Tom replied that the producer had insisted that his jokes 'start making sense'. It was clear that Tom definitely did not agree with this!
During the break for lunch, at which Tom's favourite topic was, as mentioned above, snuff movies, he proclaimed loudly at one point 'I once got married by mistake,' illiciting a surprised response from those present. Tom went on to explain that he'd married 'a girl who was titled' who of course was Lalla Ward, daughter of Lord Bangor. He never referred to Lalla by name, and mentioned her as part of a broader conversation about the ethics (or rather lack thereof) of tabloid journalism. Tom revealed that when he and Lalla split up, a newspaper had offered him a very large sum of money to tell his story, because she was a member of a titled family, and the tabloids have what he viewed as an unhealthy obsession with the aristocracy. For the record, he declined to 'kiss and tell' as he put it.
'Conversation' is perhaps a misleading word to use here. Tom is very fond of talking and he doesn't especially mind who is listening. Nor does he seem he too keen on stopping to let anyone else say anything. For every word someone says to him, Tom replies with at least a hundred of his own. On set, the director was listened to, but in the informal atmosphere of the lunchroom, it was almost comical to see John Toon struggling to get a word in edgeways as Tom rambled on, apparently oblivious to the opinions of those around him. That said he was never boring to listen to!
Early in the day I had been introduced to Tom. Once he became aware that I was organising the club event for the following Saturday afternoon at which he would be speaking, he sought me out to discuss arrangements. Tom told me that he much preferred talking to adult fans, as a lot of what he liked to talk about in his view was simply not suitable for young children.
During the set up for the last shot of the day, Tom's energy was visibly lagging. Although he turned down the offer of a chair in which to rest between takes, as soon as one was provided he sank into it straight away. As soon as Tom was given the all-clear he wasted no time in leaving the set. Within minutes he had changed into his street clothes and was heading for the car waiting to take him back to his hotel. 'See you Saturday', he said to me as he departed.
Photos: Paul Scoones
This item appeared in TSV 50 (February 1997).