An Interview with Tom Baker
Transcribed by Paul Scoones
On the afternoon of Saturday 25 January 1997, Tom Baker was the guest speaker at an event organised by the New Zealand Doctor Who Fan Club. Tom spoke for just over an hour, answering questions put to him by members of the audience. The following interview is an edited transcript of this talk.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, this is very agreeable. It is always very pleasant to be received by a full house, and in a moment or two, I'll just invite you to ask me questions, which will be the quickest way to get to know me. I don't really mind what sort of questions you ask me, as long as you're not surprised by my answers.
‘It's an amazing thing for me to come so far, right across the world, and be known, and be received, by fans. The fans who, I'm very aware, after all these years (you weren't born when I started out), have actually not only created me as a kind of professional entertainer, since Doctor Who was my only great, great worldwide success, but - I insist that you take the credit for this - have actually sustained my success. As the years have ravaged me, and as producers have died or turned away from me and everything, fans have remained loyal.
‘I'm very interested in love. When I was young, I wanted to be loved, and as I grew older, I wanted to be loved a lot more, and at my age now, I need to be adored! It's fans that provide that, because of all love - which is the only important thing in our lives - fan love, the affection of fans and the loyalty of fans, seems to me to be the most enduring. It's an amazing thing. I suppose it's something to do with when we look at old fictional heroes, like me, very old fictional heroes, we are reminded of the safety of our youth, or of our childhood or whatever it is, and the fun that it gave us, and there, by association, the affection is reinforced and grows, or at least if it doesn't grow, does not die. And for that I'm very grateful indeed. So to come right across the world and be received like this is very nice.
‘I'd better tell you quite quickly that I'm here just to do some kind of jolly commercials about securing peoples' future. I don't quite know the meaning of that, since I'm entirely past. But that's why I came down here. I'm here for only a few days and have to return to work on Wednesday. So I think someone should ask me some questions, and then something might emerge - who knows?’
Why has it taken Tom so long to visit New Zealand?
‘It's taken me a long time to come to New Zealand because there really isn't anything obviously in terms of work for kind of ageing actors to do, and so that's kept me away. I have been invited, but it just didn't work out, that's all. And it is such a long way.‘
Tom mentioned returning to work on Wednesday; what was he currently working on?
‘I'm fronting a science fantasy/science fact series of programmes, 12 one hours, I think, for BBC Radio, and then I'm on stand-by to go to India for a four hour television thing called The Rising, because this is the anniversary year of the Black Hole of Calcutta, and so naturally we've got this windy old imperialistic nonsense, and I'm supposed to play some irascible old boy, which of course I can do without batting an eyelid; I just roll my eyes, and growl a bit. Actually, the part isn't completely written up. I've already suspended it, because I've said, "Look, it isn't enough; it isn't large enough, nor irascible enough, to go all the way to India for four weeks or whatever it is," but the Indian director promised that they would rev it up a bit. So that's why I've got to go back. Otherwise, it would be nice to stay here.
‘I'm sure that living in a beautiful place like this ... I've only looked at pictures of the rest of New Zealand but, coming from the outside world - I mean, even allowing for my sense of hyperbole - I really thought, the other day, I'd died and gone to heaven. When I was young, I was very keen on getting to heaven. Now, I'm very keen on getting to New Zealand, and I'm very sorry to be leaving it indeed, because it seems to me to be perfect; all this space, and people look generally so well, and you don't have tortured grimaces everywhere. I'm sure you've got them, but you keep them well hidden. It just seems to me to be so gentle, and you all seem to be to me to be generally very friendly and everything, which of course springs out of all this space, and all this temperate climate, and all this fruit. Somebody sent me some plums yesterday, the like of which I have never had, and if it hadn't been for coming to see you today, I just (I'm very impressionable) wanted to die after I'd eaten the plums. I mean, they were perfect! So altogether, it seems to me to be heaven. So maybe you take it for granted and maybe after a few months here I would take it for granted, and it makes me shudder to think that I would, because it seems to me to be perfect, to be paradise.‘
Was Tom thinking of retiring in the near future?
‘I don't think I can possibly retire, because the thing is about being a proper actor - by that, I mean a real actor (I'm not now talking about how good an actor one is) - is that a proper actor is only real when he's fictional. This is one of the delightful paradoxes of being an entertainer. I only feel real when I'm someone else. When I'm reduced to Tom Baker or just with my wife having dinner, I find life harder.
‘Isn't it amazing about the most important people in your life? You take them for granted. I cannot live without my wife. When she goes out of the house, I get nervous and phone her on the mobile. She makes nearly all the positive decisions. She's the only clever thing I ever did, any yet when I'm with her, I frequently can't stand the sight of her. This is one of the paradoxes of her. She's a very healthy girl, and if she eats lots of salad, which makes an awful lot of noise, it makes me very edgy. The sound of people eating celery makes me very agitated indeed, and these kinds of neuroses can grow. I live in an old school, so it's a big house, so that my wife and I often are apart when we're in the same house, which is very handy for our conjugal life, because every now and then we meet, and we're surprised. She's on the other side of the house, and I'm on this side. Anyway, when she eats celery, I leave the room usually - she understands that; she's very flexible. Quite recently, I was in the kitchen, and I could near this terrible crunching like the sound of shale being shovelled into a tin wheelbarrow, so I screeched - she was right up in the other classroom - "You're eating celery!", and her little voice came back, "No I'm not." "You are," I said, and I rushed in, not wanting to be proved wrong, forced her mouth open - because she would do anything for me - and I saw that she wasn't eating celery. And as I peered into her open mouth, and her eyes looking quite surprised, I listened - see how good she was to me; she could have bitten my ear then - and still I could hear crunch, crunch. I looked through the Gothic window, across the churchyard, and I thought, "It can't be anyone in there eating celery - it's a very old churchyard, and most of them were dead by the turn of the century." And still I could hear the crunching, and then I saw this farmhouse in the distance, Jamie Clark is the owner's name is, so I phoned in a frenzy. His wife, Sue, answered the phone. I said, "Sue, it's Tom Baker here." "Yes, Tom, do you want to come over for a drink?" "No," I said. "Is someone eating celery over there?" And she said, "Good God, yes! Jamie's having celery now! How do you know that? You're three hundred yards away!"
‘So one has to be very careful about these kind of neuroses that grow and grow and grow; but on the other hand, creative people - writers and actors and mouth-organ players - thrive, they actually create out of anxiety really; but I suppose it's anxiety that allows you to refract your vision of how you see things. So if you want to be something like an actor or a writer, and you've been brought up absolutely happily and healthily, and not been battered by your parents, and with no poverty, it's actually quite difficult, because you haven't got much to be going on with, have you? Because happiness actually isn't all that commercial as a subject for a novel.’
It is often said of actors that they are constantly learning their craft. Did it ever occur to Tom, in the midst of an acting job, that he had just done or learnt something new?
‘No. Sometimes people come up to me and say, "You just did something new, Tom." And sometimes they say, "And you shouldn't have done. That wasn't the line." That happened several times while trying to do these commercials.
‘Language is often, but not always, expressed in clichés. We talk in popular music titles, we know about sequences of notes that are recognisable, and people exchange clichés. So most communication is in the area of clichés, like "How are you?," "You're looking very well," "What a nice day." I like it also when three people are looking at some penguins, and they all say to each other, "Look, look! Penguins!" We can all see them, but we're reassured by that. When it comes to drama, of course, language then changes, and the great dramas - classical drama or Shakespeare or Johnson or people like that - then you're into another area, as you would move from popular easy listening music into very classical music. So how you do things, how you then express emotions or tell a story - the real fun is in finding how to do it surprisingly.
‘We think that we know the way we behave, and the way people behave on television. Somebody answers the phone on television, for example. If the phone is engaged, have you noticed they pick up the phone, they dial the number and get the engaged signal, and they always look at the phone and put it down, don't they? If the actor just puts the phone down, you say, "Just a minute, he didn't look at it." And if someone walks through a door in television, they don't actually walk out of the door, they always stop at the door and say "And another thing." They always do that, don't they? It's absolutely amazing.
‘The men in television are always sarcastic to women. It's extremely rare that you hear a character on television say something nice to a girl, or if they do say something nice, it's kind of grudging, so there's a kind of school of sarcasm, as if that's the way everyone behaves. But its not; it's just they way they go on television. So you might see a middle-aged lady watching her husband looking at a very beautiful girl, on rollerblades or something, and the husband might say to his wife, "Why didn't you come like that?" and she says, "What? With a figure like mine?" and he says, "No, with a figure like hers!" We laugh at that, but it's kind of cruel, isn't it? It's always that kind of sarcasm. I find that rather dull, myself. I prefer something more mischievous or old fashioned; but then I am old fashioned.’
How easy was it for Tom to step into the role of such a well-established character as the Doctor?
‘I didn't really know what I was doing. At the time, I was very out of work, although I'd had a flirtation with movies that had failed - in fact, I've been very successful at courting failure, and I'm not complaining about that, because it has been quite interesting. But when I took over the part, I didn't know what I was letting myself in for. I had no idea. Everything was an accident. The scarf and all that sort of thing just grew, because we had a fortnight to run around costume places and try getting dressed up, and it was great fun and we had lots of drinks and I was excited about that, but I didn't know what I was doing, and maybe that was why I was successful.
‘I was playing this alien and working on four or six scripts at the same time. I used to say to the script girl, "What do I do in this scene?" Sometimes the lines were written on my hands, because I could never remember. Whenever I was using the coordinates or relatives (I've forgotten now which it is), I always quoted the BBC telephone number, "743 8000 ex 4111" which was the BBC and our extension. No-one ever noticed! All over the TARDIS were bits of tape, with this nonsensical gibberish that we had to speak, and I quickly cottoned on that it was fun; it didn't matter about the nonsense; the real thing was the conviction of the character, you know, to be surprised, within the predictability, and to enjoy the adventures. That's the real thing, isn't it; that is what we all want to do, to enjoy adventures.’
The Fourth Doctor 'seemed to live in a perpetual state of surprise at the universe.’ How much of that attitude was Tom's own input?
‘Ah, wouldn't it be wonderful if I could say that it was entirely me? Some of it was me, because really, in spite of having lived a fairly long life now, I haven't learnt very much.
‘Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote Breakfast of Champions and several other marvellous books, has a character called Kilgore Trout who lives in Tralfamadore - which must be just next to Kasterborous in the constellation of Gallifrey. Kilgore Trout has this kind of "Peter Pan" quality. I was very aware of him, I liked him a lot, and in a way, he was both endearing and horrifying. Every time Kilgore Trout blinked or looked away, it wiped everything, you see, so Kilgore Trout was constantly being surprised.
‘I like the idea of someone who's intelligent never becoming corrupt or knowing how to react - just being spontaneous. If I saw a big monster, I always insisted that we cut the frightened lines until the monster hit me. That was always fun, wasn't it? So I'd say "Hello!" and then he'd go "Bang!", and when I'd recovered I'd say "We've got to look out for him!" It was important that we didn't start by saying, "We've got to look out for him," just because he was ugly or grotesque. The children were on to that very quickly.’
Had Tom seen the new Doctor Who TV movie?
‘No, I haven't seen it. I have to confess that when I was doing Doctor Who I didn't see it very much, either. I had to re-voice bits, or dub it or whatever it is, or sometimes at the editing I had to look at crucial bits if they wanted to tighten something up, but I didn't really much see it, as - I think a lot of actors would say this, so I'll be brief - I always felt, "If we'd had another two takes, we could have got that better." So what was the point of me looking at it if, all the time, I'd be thinking we could have done it better? It was much better to let it go, and if the audience liked it - which fortunately they did - then they would tell me they liked it, and that would satisfy me. But otherwise, if I did see sequences, I'd then be feeling antagonistic towards the director, thinking we could have made that better.
‘So if I didn't watch myself, I'm not likely to see some fellow doing something set in America. I asked my wife to do it - she does lots of things for me - and she said that it was okay, but she said that it wasn't mysterious, you know; she said it was just a kind of adventure story; so I'm very glad I didn't watch it.
‘I was telling fortunes down in the village, or something like that. I have a great time in the village. I'm the kind of celebrity of the village; they're very poor in the village, and I'm comparatively rich, and so what happens is I go down there and I buy all the drinks - which is the only way they'll listen to me, really. So I'm extremely popular at the local pub. I buy the drinks and they gather round and I can sing out of tune and they still say, "That was great, Tom," and wink at each other. It's like I'm a kind of old Tony Lumpkin in She Stoops to Conquer.’
Mention of Tom's local village brought up the perhaps inevitable question of where Tom lived.
‘I live in Kent, towards France, in England. It's called "the Garden of England," and it's really lovely to look at from the air. When you're down on the ground, it's like lots of places in England - extremely dangerous, because it's so densely populated. It really is. You can't go walking in the English countryside easily now. You can't go walking in the lanes, because of the traffic; but it is very pleasant there. On a clear day, you can see France. I can be in Paris two hours later, allowing say a ten minute journey to Ashford station, maybe, with breakfast on the Eurostar train. We have had a big development in that way since we became members of Europe. We go under the Channel on trains now. That's good. So you can get mugged in Ashford before breakfast and mugged in Paris again by lunch. The train comes up right in the middle of Paris, right up in the Gare du Nord.’
From 1991 to 1995, Tom had a regular role as Consultant General Surgeon Professor Geoffrey Hoyt in Seasons 2 to 5 of the ITV hospital drama series Medics. After Doctor Who, this was Tom's longest regular part in a television series. What differences had he noticed between the two shows?
‘Medics was actually about realistic anxieties, wasn't it? It was about the anxieties of health. Hospital politics in England are very, very acute because - you must understand I'm speaking just as Tom Baker here, so largely out of ignorance - there's a great preoccupation about the decline of the National Health Service, which makes people very, very nervous, and so obviously a lot of Medics was about this internecine warfare of people hustling for shares of budget, or whatever it was, because hard questions seem to be asked now. I was reminding one of my colleagues recently that, in the early 1940s, after the war, one of the great founders of National Health in England said that the beauty of the scheme was that every year it would get cheaper as the nation's health got better; which was a marvellous, innocent observation. Of course, it was entirely wrong. Now we're into situations where they have to balance giving a man a new heart, which might cost half a million or a million pounds, with the whole preparation, against 200 or 300 or 500 people having hip replacements. These are hard things, and so Medics was not nearly so much fun as Doctor Who. It really wasn't, because it was about real anxieties. So quite often it depressed me really. But I tried to rev it up. Got a few laughs.’
Before he was cast in Doctor Who, Tom starred in several movies, notably Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973). Seeing him in the latter of these two films convinced producer Barry Letts that Tom was right for the part of the Doctor. What were Tom's memories of working in movies?
‘I don't know that I remember very much about movies at all. I think I've done about, I can't remember, maybe 15 movies. One or two had huge budgets, and so it was a hell of a wheeze, and you were being driven around in big cars! When I became an actor, I wasn't really thinking about the kind of morality of art or truth. I was thinking really about the billing and the big cars! When you're no good at school and you can't earn a living at anything, naturally people say, "Have you thought about becoming an actor, if you can't do anything else?"
‘In Europe, we have a situation with 17 million unemployed in the European Community, so for the first time since the industrial revolution, we have hundreds of thousands or millions of young people who are not wanted by society. I don't mean that they're not loved by society; they're not wanted by society at large, because there is nothing for them to do. That's a depressing thought. So that's why lots of them want to get into show business. During the depression in America, everyone trekked west to get into movies. Here everyone treks to Shortland Street, to try and get in that.’
Had Tom ever had any young actors or scientists tell him that they had been inspired by his Doctor; that by watching him as a child, they had had their eyes had opened to 'a universe of wonders'?
‘I don't think anyone said, "You opened my eyes to the universe," but lots of people have said to me, "I looked at Tom Baker and I thought, 'If he can do it, surely I can do it?'" And they were absolutely right, and so, in a sense, I've inspired thousands and thousands of young people, and they've waved to me as they've shot past me on the way. I don't mind about that.’
Tom has acted alongside John Cleese and Rowan Atkinson. John Cleese had a small part in the Doctor Who story City of Death, and Tom was a guest star in Rowan Atkinson's Blackadder II playing the outrageous Captain Rum in Potato. What were Tom's impressions of working with these two well-known comedians?
‘It was terrific fun working with John Cleese, because he is so staggeringly funny. I found it rather dull working with Rowan, because Rowan is incredibly intelligent. I mean, he's a great scientist. He got a First in Electronics at Oxford, and then he did Sarcasm at Cambridge, and he's got marvellous glossy hair and a wonderful complexion and wonderful teeth; he hasn't got a single filling. Then he went on to Edinburgh University, where he did Wisdom, so he's a right bloody know-all altogether. So when you're working with him, he's very likely to tell you how to do things, and it would be a terrible mistake to listen to him, because while he's terrific at doing his own number, you've got to leave other people to do it. So that was a bit boring, really.
‘With John Cleese, it was a scream. John would have been an amazing Doctor Who, wouldn't he? Because you're always thinking, "He'll fragment at any moment." He was just very, very funny to be with. A dear man, a very, very serious man, very concerned about everything - he worries about everything - and very, very generous.’
Did Tom have any 'dream roles' that he would like to play?
‘Well, it's not as if roles are being thrown at me left, right and centre - unless I'm at a banquet or something like that.
‘When I was young, I was deeply, deeply religious - I think I have to confess these things; we must be free in New Zealand and not be repressed. I think actually what drew me first to religion was that I was living a rather boring life in Liverpool, and I started sniffing very early at Mass, because in those days we used a lot more incense that we use now, and I didn't realise it - and no-one else realised it - but I was absolutely hooked on sniffing incense. So I was hallucinating at an early age, which passed for being pious! They said, "That boy, he really sees things." They didn't know I was using that much charcoal, and holding the thurible very close to my nose, as the priest put the fine incense on.
‘I liked all the clothes, all those long clothes. I liked dressing up in frocks, really, and I realise now that this impulse hasn't entirely left me, because I keep having a real desire - because I'm a great admirer of Oscar Wilde and all that jolly line of wit - to play Lady Bracknell. But absolutely straight. Really, I'd like to play her straight. with a big head-dress and high-heeled shoes so that I was about seven foot four, and quite fierce. It's a most marvellous play [The Importance of Being Earnest]. I read it very often. I love it.’
What had made Tom get into acting?
‘I couldn't earn a living. When I was in the Army, it was easy. This started a long time ago. It really started in the War, when the Germans were bombing Liverpool. I've never stopped being grateful to the Germans. I'm always nice to German people, because they really revved my childhood up and broke the monotony. It was great seeing buildings ablaze and you didn't go to school much, because the schools were on fire. Children like that, don't they? We were going around collecting fragments of bombs, called shrapnel. I just thought it was marvellous, really. In fact, my earliest ambition - I've just been writing about this recently - my earliest ambition was to be an orphan. While that sounds awful now, that was my ambition. Now I look back and could weep at the thought of how much my mother loved me, and how much I loved her; but at the time, I wanted to be an orphan. Little children become corrupted very early. The reason was that if your mother was blown up by a German, then you got presents from America; you got those funny hats, and sweaters and crossword puzzles. The Americans kind of bomb you into accepting aid; they're always great on sending you presents like that, and so instantly, the kids who were orphaned were hated by those of us who still had our mothers. It seemed to me, as it would to a child, that there was an advantage to being an orphan. This is wrong. It is not an advantage to be an orphan, generally speaking. So I was praying away, imploring God and singing to him (because he likes to be serenaded); I was imploring him to make me an orphan. I remember when I told my mother about it, she hit me so hard that I fell against the sideboard, on which there was a kind of carved bowl of fruit. Until quite recently, I had a mark there. [Tom points to his left temple.] It was on my passport; it said a bunch of grapes left a mark. It's only recently gone, since I got married.’
In past interviews, Tom had been outspoken about his disapproval of the violent nature of his Doctor's companion Leela, played by Louise Jameson. Did this apparent animosity extend to the actress herself?
‘Oh no. I'm sure I loved her! Louise Jameson? Sometimes, you know, when you're in a series and you've got talk about it every week, it's quite nice not to make it all sweetness and light - because, as I told you, happiness is death to the ratings. What people thrive on in the trivial area of television is anxiety and double-talk and lies and betrayal, like any soap opera really, and so if you put it about that you don't like Louise, that's going to get you more publicity than if you say, "Oh, she's a sweet girl, and I'm always bouncing her baby on my knee." That's boring to the press. They don't want to know that. No, I was very fond of her. I was obviously fonder of some girls than I was of others. I hope you'll forgive me for that.
‘I actually married one of them, due to a misunderstanding. I mean, I think about her very affectionately now, because it was a very brief thing, like some misunderstandings are. I remember that she said a very witty thing - because she was a bright girl - in America, when she was at some university or something. This is Lalla Ward I'm talking about, of whom I have great memories. Somebody said, "Who was your favourite monster?" and, quick as a flash, she said, "Tom Baker"! Isn't that great? She's married again and is very happy now.’
How did Tom feel about the actors who played the other Doctors? Did he ever associate with them?
‘I never met the other Doctors except by accident, and I avoid them like the plague if I possibly can. I think it's absolutely pathetic to see a kind of clutch of shagged out old Doctor Whos all together! I really do. Also, they're much nicer than me. They're very good mannered, because they're BBC chaps, and in fact, they're worse than good mannered, they're bloody charming, and if there's something I can't stand, it's charm. I really think that charm is a suspect quality. People have a facility for switching charm on, don't they? They say, "Go on, get over there and put the charm on." As soon as someone's charming to me, I get restless.’
Talk of the other Doctors led to mention of the twentieth anniversary special, The Five Doctors, in which Tom declined to appear.
‘I wasn't in The Five Doctors. I refused to be in it, because they had better lines than I had, and so I said, "I'm not being in it unless I have the best lines," and they were all saying, "I want the best lines"; it was really quite grown up! So I refused to be in it, and do you know what? Do you know what they did? The buggers! They went down to Madame Tussauds and they hauled me out of the waxworks and put me in the bloody film! There was another fellow running around in the middle shot dressed up as me, but I wasn't in the film, and yet everyone thinks I was! They had to pay me for that wax performance, but no-one noticed it! No one noticed it at all.’
Tom mentioned earlier that he had been writing about his childhood. His autobiography is due to be published by Harper Collins in the UK in October for the Christmas market, and Tom said it would be out in New Zealand around the same time.
‘I accepted some money to tell my story. I was going to call it All Friends Betrayed, because that about sums it up, really, but that only sprang out of anxiety. Now it's a kind of pun, called Who on Earth is Tom Baker?. I was re-reading it recently, because I've got to deliver the last few words when I get back next week, and it is an appalling story; I mean, it really is a dreadful story. I scarcely believed a word of it. But it might amuse you.’
Did Tom intend to mention his New Zealand visit in his book?
‘I will mention my visit to New Zealand, because extraordinary things happen. Somebody rang up last night who was at school with me. He lives in Wellington, and he told me his story. That was all very nice and heartfelt, and it catapulted him back over so many years. I remembered him quite well, and he was rather touched about that.
‘What else happened all in the space of a day? Oh yes, I had about 500 photographs taken of me yesterday, then I had a conversation with a fellow from half a century ago, and then I went into Cin Cins on the waterfront [Cin Cin on Quay Brasserie & Bar], where I think Sir Anthony Hopkins is at the moment working as a waiter - obviously rehearsing for a film. He is, honestly. I said, "Tony!" He said, "Ssshh!" He's going round slightly stooped, and charming everybody. I said, "You're Tony Hopkins." He said, "Ssshh! They call me Rolf, actually. I'm Austrian." But it was obviously Tony Hopkins. He said to me, "If you don't stop calling me Tony Hopkins, I'll call you Jon Pertwee" - which really wounded me! It wouldn't have wounded me if Jon had been alive; it was the fact that Jon was dead.
‘Anyway, I had this nice, charming dinner with my wife, and we didn't speak much, and then I sent for the bill, and Anthony said, "I'm sorry, your bill's been paid." I said, :What?" He said, "Someone's paid your bill." I said, "Oh, come on, I can't have people paying my bill in restaurants like that. Come on, this is silly. Thank whoever it was, but I'll pay my bill." He said, "No, it's already paid." He said, "It's a friend of yours. He says he knows you very well." So I went over, and there was this terribly good looking, vigorous young fellow in his mid-thirties, with curly hair and nice eyes; he had a lovely, reckless smile. I thought he looked familiar, and I said - because I come from quite a big family - "Are you a Fleming?" He said, "No, I'm a Baker. I'm your son, Piers!" Honestly, I swear to God, that happened last night, in New Zealand! Isn't that amazing? He wasn't at all annoyed that I didn't recognise him. He is actually a very highly accomplished horticulturalist, or whatever you call it, and he can graft trees and shrubs, and especially roses, and they fly him in, and he works here, and then he goes back to the South of France. I knew he works in Europe; that's why I don't see him much. I come from a very fragmented sort of family.
‘Once, I was outside BAFTA, which is the British Academy of Film and Television Arts in Piccadilly. This was not long ago - last year - and there was some sort of do going on there. So they dragged people back, and we were all amazed and said, "Gosh, are you still alive?" and all that sort of thing, and I was desperately hoping to be given the part of the father of Lazarus or something like that, and I'd just had my beer, and suddenly a girl's voice said to me, "Hello, Tom." You know that awful inflection that means, "Aren't you going to be surprised when you turn round?" So I put my beer down and I turned round, and there was this woman, and I said, "Ah! Hi there. How are you?" She said, "You don't recognise me, do you?" I said, "Pah!" - I've played this scene a thousand times, of course - "Of course I do,' I said. "Remember you? National Theatre, 1974." She said, "No it wasn't." I said, "No it wasn't." I had to do what Del Boy does in Only Fools and Horses. [Tom slaps the side of his head.] I said, "Of course not. It was the Royal Shakespeare Company, As You Like It, wasn't it?" She said, "No it wasn't." So anyway - I could tell this story in real time, but you'd grow old - I said, "Of course not. Granada Television, Play for Today." She said, "No it wasn't." If only I had faith, I thought, I could make this girl disappear! She obviously wasn't going to disappear, so I said, "No, I'm so sorry, but it was a play, wasn't it?" and she said, "No. We used to be married." It's extraordinary, isn't it? I reached for my beer and had a pull at it, and when I turned round, she'd gone, so I couldn't be certain whether she had been married to me or not. That's one of the things that happen, as the parts and the memories all kind of intertwine, so that one doesn't really know where one is or indeed who one is. Some people get rattled about not knowing who they are, but I've come to terms with it.’
How often does Tom appear at fan-organised events in England?
‘Not very often. I'm excited to see you, because you've definitely never seen me before, except on television, and I've certainly never seen you before, so it's brand new. But all the old Doctor Whos are always on the motorway - the bloody place is full of old Doctor Whos, thumbing their way to Manchester to go and meet the fans - and the fans give them sandwiches and things like that, and sometimes give them a lift back to the motorway.
‘If I wanted to go to America, where, as you know, science-fantasy and science-fiction is very, very big business, then I could obviously live in America, going on with the Trekkies, who go on Friday, Saturday and Sunday in all the big cities. There are very serious science-fantasy conventions, on a very big scale, with lots of merchandising. The Americans, in such a huge country, are so excited to meet each other, and then they say to each other, " See you next week in Kansas," so you've got to keep notes about the jokes you crack in America. I could do that all the time if I wanted to, but again, I'd be stuck with this British contingent, so I don't do that. The Christmas before last, I went to New York and recited A Christmas Carol, and made then all cry. They like that. I adore them. They all wept and wept! It was amazing.’
Tom's association with Star Trek fans in America brought up the question of whether or not he had ever been offered a role in Star Trek; and if he was, would he accept it?
‘I haven't been offered a role in Star Trek, and the reason why I would never be offered a role in Star Trek ... I mean, you've only got to watch that kind of thing. The style of Star Trek is the absence of emotion, isn't it? Everyone has obviously had a lot of prunes the day before yesterday, and there's absolutely nowhere to go; the nearest lavatory is about four miles down the road. This leads to a very serious sort of acting. They can't move suddenly! I mean, you couldn't, in Star Trek, even cough! You've never seen anyone cough in Star Trek, have you? They just don't do that sort of thing. They nod a lot, don't they, and no-one actually says that's ridiculous. They never say that, do they? It's amazing that they all nod away as if they're all talking like characters in Hamlet.’
If Tom was raised in Liverpool, did he once have a Liverpool accent?
‘I come from Liverpool, and I presume I did once have a Liverpool accent - or a Liverpool Irish accent, which is my background - but I left when I was 14 or 15. By the time I was 15, I was in a monastery, and there were lots of peculiar people in there. There were more peculiar people in there than there were in Doctor Who! But I prefer Doctor Who on balance. Things happened to me along the way. Then I was in the Army, and then briefly in the Navy, and then training in the South of England, and then on tour. Some people can identify my Liverpool accent. Accents are not difficult to lose. It's speech rhythms that remain, and some people notice that I come from the North West.
‘I was born off Stanley Road, right down town in Liverpool. When I say "Liverpool Irish," I mean Liverpool Irish by environment. There's no Irish in my blood, or anything like that, but everything was Irish around me; all the Irish witchcraft - that is, the priests, the teachers, the publicans, they were all Irish, so there was a lot of blarney, and a lot of magical phrases going round. It was quite good. I can remember the tail-end of the old Irish women who came over with their families and who would still be, for some families, the first generation who lived to be 80 or 90, smoking clay pipes, in long black dresses, and of course with no teeth. It used to amaze me as a child, that kind of "time funnel."’
What, if anything, did Tom feel he had in common with the Doctor?
‘I hope I have in common with him that, generally speaking, I'm rather benevolent. I believe in that benevolence. So I have that.’
Doctor Who is infamous for its low budgets. Stories such as Underworld during Tom's era were heavily affected by a lack of money. What did Tom think of these financial constraints?
‘We didn't have any money, but that added to the charm, didn't it? I used to like having rows with them. We'd do something on the studio floor and they'd say, "We're going again," and I'd say, "Why?" and they'd say, "Because the set shook," and I'd say, "Well, look, on Gallifrey, that's the kind of architecture it is; things shake." They don't like that at the BBC. They'd say, "Let's do it again, Tom," and so I would do it again. Once I'd signed a contract, I could get quite difficult. Towards the end of the contract, I became very nice again; and then I signed it again, and so it went on.
‘When I was in America, I went to talk to some people in Chicago, or somewhere like that, and there were a lot of science students there. One fellow was doing a PhD, or something trivial like that, on figures as heroes in science-fantasy. So when he got up, he gave me this great, windy speech about doing his PhD, and how I was his hero, and I thought, "Will he never get on with it?" He said, "I notice, sir, that you are so extraordinary as an actor. I've never seen another actor even come through a door like you." I said "Really?" Suddenly I remembered a very great director called John Dexter; he'd said to me, "Baker, you're so boring, you can't even come through a door sincerely." I do remember that wounding me terribly. I kept thinking to myself, "Why do I have to come through a door sincerely?" I'd have come through a door interestingly - but sincerely? Dexter was a cruel man, although a mighty director. So this fellow said, "The way you come through a door is so amazing." I said, "Well, really, I can't comment on that." He said, "No, look!" and it was a big do, and he ran his bloody stuff, they rolled Silas Marner's bloody thesis, and there's me coming through a door in Doctor Who. He said, "Do you see what I mean?" The Americans all clapped, because they're generous. And I said, "No, no, no, no. That's got nothing to do with subtlety. It's to do with the British sets. If I'd come through the door naturalistically, we would have had to shoot it again, so everyone was creeping around the whole time closing doors like that!"
‘Isn't it funny how, years later, people misinterpret that, as if it was deliberate? It wasn't. I really didn't know what was going on. As long as the series remained funny to do, the only hard work I did was to go out among children and young people in hospitals and schools. I fed off them, and as long as they were liking it, I just left it alone. I didn't want to know what to do. I thought, "Just respond and keep it rolling." I didn't want to tamper with it, or have people examining scenes and saying, "Maybe this is not serious enough."’
Was Tom still mindful when appearing in public of being recognised as Doctor Who?
‘Actually, two people near Kelly Tarlton's [A waterfront aquarium and sea life visitor attraction in Auckland] said "Hi Tom" to me this morning. Somebody said to me yesterday - I think he was being unkind; I haven't found out yet - "Excuse me, are you Jenny Shipley?" I suppose I'd been out for a walk and I was looking a bit tense, or whatever it was, or maybe I was looking terrific; I don't know who Jenny Shipley is. I said, "I'm so sorry, I'm not." I was deeply apologetic. I hate disappointing people, and he was disappointed.’
When Tom is recognised on the street - and isn't mistaken for a female New Zealand Minister of Parliament - do people address him as "Tom Baker" or as "Doctor"?
‘I don't think anybody knows the difference. We don't know the difference, do we? I hope you agree with me - I'm very fond of people who agree with me - that television is much more potent than films in this sense. Television takes place, almost by definition, in a domestic context. We are watching television, or listening to it - or it is watching us - in our own homes, with our guard down. Especially early evening television; our critical faculties are very low after a day's work, so it rolls at us. When you go to the movies, you've got to go out, and drive, and park and get your popcorn - and when you're eating your popcorn, you can't hear what the actors are saying - so there's a formality to it. You sit down and watch it, and although it takes place in the dark, you're actually surrounded by people. So television is more powerful in that way. It's slyer. It impinges on you, because you're not critical of it. It's just there. So when you meet someone from television outside, it's not like meeting a movie star. If you saw a movie star, you wouldn't be certain - is that Jonathan Pryce, or is that George Segal, or whoever? You wouldn't know. But television stars, as soon as you meet them, it's just incredible the way that you think you know them, or hate them, depending on what sort of parts they play.
‘So when they used to see me in the street, grannies used to say, "Hello, dear." I was very, very popular with grannies. I'm still popular. I go to the shopping malls in England, and I bend down to get some salt or something like that, and I keep getting pinched! It's an appalling thing. I jump round, and there's some lecherous old bag of about 87, whistling, or I hear her dentures percussing. But she still adores me, so I never complain, I never complain at all. I sometimes look at them as bit old-fashioned. So there we are, it's strange, isn't it? The power of television.’
Did Tom regret leaving Doctor Who?
‘Yes. I do have regrets. My life is full of regrets. Anything I left that was joyous, I regret, because I wanted it to go on, and it can't go on, can it? One of the beautiful and terrifying things about life is that something can't just stay beautiful, it's got to grow, and sometimes it's got to be pruned, and sometimes it needs more water, and so on. It was changing. Other people came into it, and the writing changed slightly, and I changed.
‘The other day, I saw a clip of myself in a film, running up stairs. My God, I burst into tears! It was incredible. I said to my wife, "Look, I used to be able to run up stairs!" Amazing, all those things I used to be able to do. So I do have regret, but what I'm really regretting is the passing of my vigour, the passing of all those days - because a lot of people are already dead from then.’
Fifteen years after leaving the monastery, Tom was given the part of Rasputin in the film Nicholas and Alexandra. Did Tom observe a certain irony in him playing the famous corrupt peasant monk, in view of his earlier monastic training?
‘Well, no, I didn't, because the history of the church - particularly the history of Christianity - is absolutely littered with amazing paradoxes. I mean, the Roman Catholic Church, if they wanted to - they've got great spin doctors - could make murder sound like charity. They burned you if you didn't actually agree with them in the past. Now they're a bit more subtle, but they still make you feel pretty tense. Rasputin was a kind of grotesque figure from the decadent end of the Russian Empire.
‘I didn't really know what I was doing in that one either. It was just a part, and suddenly I got off the plane and everyone was giving me lavatory rolls of Spanish money. It was an absolutely amazing time, all this dole being thrown at me, and cars, and people taking my photograph and asking my opinion. That's the amazing thing about movies. When you're flirting with movies, people suddenly ask your opinion about something, even though you don't know anything about it. People say, "What do you think of the influence of Schopenhauer on Wagner?" I think, "My God!" I say, "Well, I think sometimes it may be exaggerated," and they say, "Right, Tom," and I think, "What did they ask me for? I know nothing about the influence of Schopenhauer on Wagner, and indeed don't care."’
In 1993, Tom was hired to reprise his role as the Doctor for a one-off BBC Doctor Who special called The Dark Dimension. The story was to have featured all five living Doctors, but Tom's Doctor was to have dominated the action. The special was suddenly cancelled before filming commenced. How had Tom felt when he heard the news?
‘I felt deeply shocked, to begin with, but the next day, they rang me up and said, "We'll pay you anyway," so suddenly the grief evaporated.
‘I've always felt that we spend far too much money in our society on drugs. I think actually, when people go to the doctor, they need attention. I think it would be much better if, when someone said to the doctor, "I'm feeling terrible," the doctor said, "Listen, what about a little holiday in Miami, or some new clothes, or a few days off or something? Why not move into the Hyatt Plaza or something like that for a fortnight?" People need attention, not drugs. They need some variety in their lives. That's where I come from - here, I cannot imagine anyone might be depressed. That's the impression I have. I thought I'd died and come to heaven, so I can't imagine that here. I haven't seen anyone looking depressed.’
Why did Tom consider New Zealand to be so much better than England?
‘I work in London three or four days a week. Our big cities are heavily polluted. People, I suppose, are generally happy, but we don't have this wonderful fresh air, we don't have all this space. You're not huggermugger here; you've stacks of space, because although people gravitate towards cities, people are not meant to be too close together. I think they get anxious. They don't like that; they're trespassed on, and use their elbows a lot. So, when I was walking up your main shopping street yesterday, I couldn't believe it! I said to my wife, "Think about Oxford Street!" I'd rather be dead! Even at eight o'clock in the morning, Oxford Street's a nightmare, never mind three o'clock in the afternoon. So I think you're in heaven.’
Would Tom therefore want to move to New Zealand?
‘Well, I would be happy. I don't know if I could work here, because you don't have much theatre here, do you? I think that the radical theatres that young people start up don't include actors near the end of their life. That kind of theatre commitment is quite different. On the other hand, someone might turn up to see me. I see there's a production of Richard III in the park. I'd certainly like to have a go at Queen Margaret. She was a really aggressive old bag; she really was. It's a good part, that; Maggie Smith did it really well.’
When John Nathan-Turner took over as producer of Doctor Who, he changed the style of the series. Had Tom had any objections to Nathan-Turner, and had the changes wrought by the new producer influenced Tom's decision to leave the following year?
‘No, I don't think I had any objections to him. He seemed a nice chap. I was talking to him the other day. There was always a collision. When you're creating something funny, especially a comedy-thriller, it's always a collision of wills, isn't it? You've got to give way, but I was very opinionated about how it should go, and he was equally opinionated, and sometimes he would win and I would lose, and then he would win and I would lose again, and I began to get rather tired about that. But we're friends now.’
In 1995, Nathan-Turner claimed in Doctor Who Magazine that for six months after he started on Doctor Who as Production Unit Manager, Tom completely ignored him. Was that true?
‘It might be true that I ignored him for six months, yes. I thought it was longer than that! It might have been anxiety. I needed to be "wooed." I felt I was an artist. I couldn't just have someone take over as if I was running an ice-cream thing. I felt a big responsibility to an enormous audience, which they didn't feel. I was the one who was out there. I hope that I didn't bore them about it, but I was out there cultivating the customers. My existence was out there, and I wanted to know what they felt and how we were going, and I was very acutely aware of the ratings. If anyone suggested we tamper with something, I'd want to know why. If someone said they wanted to do something new, I said, "Well, why?" If someone says, "Let's tamper with the beer," when it's absolutely great beer, or someone says, "Let's try some pepper in the champagne," you say, "Well, why? We're getting a bit restless here." When things are happy and rolling along, then it behoves us to be a bit attentive.’
In recent years, many of Tom's jobs have been to provide narrations for business films, advertisements and documentaries. Did he enjoy this line of work?
‘Well, yes. I get lots of narrations to do now; voice-overs and things like that. I'm very good, especially on these bad scripts. They get me in for instant sincerity, and so my job is to transmute trashy, trashy words into rolled gold, or something like that.’
Did Tom have a favourite memory of his time on Doctor Who?
‘Oh, it's impossible, my favourite memory is impossible ... I think probably what was amazing was actually getting it. When I got it, I was very down, and had just had a failure as Macbeth. When I got it, having told me that I'd got it, they asked me if I could hold the news for about eight days or nine days, and it was terrible! That was terrible, to have a great part in television - although I didn't realise it was going to be as big as it was - and then to have to sit on it for eight or nine days. Because - I've often said it - to have once been a young child's hero; for seven years, in the United Kingdom, "Don't talk to strange men" did not apply to me, which raised me. I had this access to young people, which is not allowed any more. Now, if you say to a little boy, "Hello. Would you fancy an ice cream?" he's likely to say, "Bugger off, you dodgy old man!" This is a terribly sad thing. So, for seven years, that didn't happen to me. I had access to the hearts of children everywhere, and to their homes.’
Why did Tom identify his audience as children, when a good proportion of Doctor Who's viewers, even when he was still making it, were adult?
‘I don't actually make the distinction very much between children and adults. I really don't! I mean, of course, you may say that there are children's films and children's literature, and there are adult films and adult literature. But in another sense, and I would defend this hotly, a thing is either well done or it's not well done; and if it is well done in the area of imagination, it will engage anyone.
‘I could have modified what I said, by saying that in a sense it was a participatory programme, in that it engaged children with adults. Nothing in life is so agreeable, it seems to me, as seeing happy children; and if they're your own children, or the children of your neighbourhood, and you sit with them, watching them being captivated by Doctor Who, it is similar to the sensation of watching them open presents. You see those faces and you share in it. So I didn't make the distinction, you see, about what was adult.
‘It wasn't that complicated, was it? It was just an adventure story, where I was a children's hero; and all the monsters were obvious, weren't they? I used to love it when the Daleks were always shrieking about exterminating me; I often wanted to turn to the camera and go, "Look at this! They just don't learn, do they!" But the BBC didn't like that at all, so they never did let me do it - and I've just done it for the first time now.’
How did Tom feel about K9?
‘I didn't much care for that at all, no. I think the K9 thing was dull, actually. It was dull because of the limitations, and it was dull because I used to see the actor who played the voice rehearsing. It was just silly, and also it limited me terribly, because I had to get on my hands and knees for every two-shot. It was terrible, I thought. Really naff.’
The BBC are currently planning to make further Doctor Who audio stories for radio broadcast, and Tom has been mooted as the Doctor most suited to succeed the late Jon Pertwee in this medium. Had he been approached by the BBC as yet?
‘I have been. You wouldn't say "approached"; that's far too direct a word for the English! Feelers have been put out, and so I may very well do it; but I've made it very clear that there's no point in going back to the old stuff, because you can't actually go back to making it just like that. You've got to find a new way of doing it. I did think that perhaps the way of doing it would be to have someone trying to write Doctor Who's biography, and then, after a while, the first adventure is the fellow getting in touch with Doctor Who. When he gets there, he meets the Doctor and says, as know-alls do, "Look, I know all your adventures," and the Doctor says, "Do you? How can you do that?" And then it turns out that, rather like Sherlock Holmes and Watson, there are lots of adventures I've had for which the world is not yet ready; and then we tell other stories. They wouldn't necessarily need to be completed stories, either. Then there could be things like the Doctor had been getting a bit ga-ga, or something like that, or had been in lots of historical battles, or had been a great pal of Copernicus, or someone like that - or Jenny Shipley, for all I know.’
Photographs by Paul Scoones, Jon Preddle, Darrell and Edwin Patterson.
This item appeared in TSV 50 (February 1997).