INTERVIEW: Doctor Who – Tom Baker
The original series of Doctor Who has a new home on The Horror Channel, starting this Easter weekend. GT went to the launch at The Ivy in London earlier this week to meet the legend that is the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker.
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Now that Doctor Who has found a home on the Horror Channel, which of your stories do you think is the most horror filled and why?
I never thought…I thought they were all great comedy when I was doing it. But I suppose they’re going to talk about…they’re very obvious aren’t they, it’s going to be Talons Of Weng Chiang and things like that, all that rather spooky stuff. I suppose that’s the reason…my god, they’ve taken their time to discover, haven’t they? I mean, it’s only 32 years since I finished it. Seems like only yesterday. So I don’t really know much about that. But…and there was one about pyramids…Pyramids Of Mars. All that sort of stuff really.
Do you think Doctor Who should be horrific, is that the key?
Well yes. I think yes. It should be whatever people want it to be. I mean, I’m very interested in horror, not so much now because horror is an actuality with me now [laughs]. I mean, we like to be frightened, we like to suspend our things…I imagine that’s what reading crime is about. For example, I had a woman the other day in Waitrose, not Waitrose, began with a W, it was a bookshop, Waterstones, say “have you got anything….murder…gruesome? Have you got anything like that?” And he says “yeah, we have”. And when you look, that’s the biggest selling thing isn’t it? We all want to get away from sanity and chastity and virtue and be frightened or enter another world, when in reality of course, we want nice neighbours and no crime. It’s that lovely area of our imagination which says “let’s get out of here and into our imaginations”, I think.
What’s it like to see the fan’s enthusiasm for your version of the character still to this day?
I dare say you’re alluding to EXCEL, aren’t you? Seeing the fan’s enthusiasm, donkey’s years after I left, is really quite extraordinary. And also the intensity of their emotion. I get lots of mail still. When I say lots, probably ten a day or something like that, and they’re all emotional. People are thanking me and being reminded of when they were children and how happy they were. In those days, television was so…allowed us to cohere more, didn’t it, without video recorder. You had to watch it in real time and talk about it the next day, otherwise you were out of the loop. And so people stop me and say sweet…a man stopped me on Oxford street and said, he couldn’t believe it, he said “Tom Baker, I can’t believe it”. And I caught a glimpse of myself in a shop window and thought “I can’t believe it either.” He kept saying “I can’t believe it”. So he said “look, when I was a boy, I was in care in Wales somewhere, in a home, and nobody wanted us, nobody wanted me,” he said. And then his eyes filled with tears and he said “And you made a difference.” I was terribly touched by that; I made a difference. And I went to speak to him and he couldn’t speak. He made that little eloquent punch that sometimes people do, that little bang like that [does hand bump] and then he was gone. Couldn’t pursue it. So those little encounters…the other day a man wrote to me. He’s getting married because he met his girlfriend in a queue where I was signing books and so the queue was so long, he was introduced to this girl. By the time he got to me he was engaged. In America of course, in the long queues some people met in the queue and by the time they got to me they were married!
This fellow now wants me, he doesn’t understand the law, he want’s me to actually conduct the wedding service, which he said would complete his happiness.
He didn’t mention the costume actually but I had to write and tell him “listen, I’ve checked the laws on that”, I’ve googled it up, I thought it might be a fun photo shoot, but it’s not allowed. I’d have to do a course and I’m not in the mood for becoming a registrar.
This season on Horror Channel won’t just be your Doctor, it’ll be other Doctors as well. Is it something you reconciled about, that there are other actors who played the role?
It only recently dawned on me that there were other Doctors. I don’t know them and I’ve got no desire to know them. And of course I never watched them. I thought it was only fair never to watch them because I didn’t watch myself. All I wanted to do was do it. The thing is, I can say it now because it doesn’t really matter what I say, I was playing Doctor Who before I got the part and that’s why it made so happy when I got it. I didn’t watch myself because, a little bit at the beginning I did, I didn’t watch it because I was so opinionated about which shots they used. I thought, “we did a better take than that”. So I just celebrated coming out of obscurity into being a children’s hero and not to be soppy about it but it really gave me enormous pleasure and I did a lot to promote the programme and still do.
But when you came back and appeared with Matt Smith last year, is that funny?
Going to Cardiff on a winters morning at four o’clock couldn’t possibly be fun but he was nice and I didn’t understand the cameras anymore because of the HD, I didn’t understand that, so I was a bit uneasy. But Matt Smith was a charming young man and we did this little scene which people liked a lot, that little scene. But those thousands of people there, absolutely thousands and thousands of people.
I have to tell you also that I had a very poor background in Liverpool so I wanted to be – everybody wants to be loved and admired and everything – I always wanted to be adored, like lots of people. I bet you’d like to be adored, wouldn’t you? Don’t be smug... And so when it happened and suddenly I was adored, I was ready for. I really was ready for it and of course I’ve never recovered from it. And also of course I’m still playing the part for Big Finish, Big Finish Productions. I think I’ve got 16 or 18 adventures so it’s still going on. It doesn’t matter that I can’t walk very well now because that’s the lovely thing about audio. So it was a happy time and it goes on being happy. But listen, are you interested in happiness? I mean, if you want misery I can change tack...
How does it feel when you are approached by young fans who probably weren’t even born when the classic series of Doctor Who aired?
I’m not approached now by young fans, I’m approached by early middle aged fans who sometimes have their children with them, and then something charming happens. I usually pass over a jelly baby and I have lots of small coins, because children adore money nearly as much as adults do. I say “are you alright for money?” to a little boy and he said “well, no”. So I give him a pound and 20p and then I say, “look if you meet a beggar, give him the 20p and you keep the pound”. And he said “right”. And he looks at his father and thinks I’m mad, you know. But fortunately my wife is not very poor, so I have a pocket full of change. I can’t bear poor women, they make me feel so insecure. Even when I was younger, I couldn’t…The thing about poverty, I remember those days accutely, is it’s a bit like earache in the sense that you can’t stop thinking about it. When you’re poor and you go to bed thinking “Christ I’m poor”, when you wake in the night for a pee and you think “I’m still poor” and so it…and of course when it comes to passion and lovemaking being poor kind of gets in the way, I think anyway. You say “darling, this is marvellous, absolutely marvellous. What did you say? What do you mean you’re still poor?” And all passion flies.
Speaking about all the other Doctors, do you have any advice for Peter Capaldi?
No, no. I don’t have any advice for anybody, not to anybody, and certainly not someone taking over Doctor Who, but he’s a very accomplished actor. I’ve seen him do those mean things, you know swearing into his mobile, but I’m sure he’ll be…nobody has ever failed, have they? Nobody has ever failed, so there you are, they’ll be alright. I mean, we nod to each other, you know, at conventions, we nod but we don’t really... No, we don’t.
Going back to the 50th anniversary special, do you have a clear idea or opinion as to who your character was? Was he an older Fourth Doctor or a curator?
No, typical of the BBC…nobody knows! I mean, it could be anything. Could be the next director general for all we know. With the BBC. You’ve really got to be able to suspend your disbelief. I mean anything can happen at the BBC. I mean, the monsters on Doctor Who were never so amazing as the monsters on the sixth floor, as I remember, some very improbable looking people up there, who made signs and nudged you and things. I was glad that place… [tails off]
Which were the best Doctor Who villains and monsters in the series with you?
I like them all. I liked the villains. I think somehow or other I always wanted to be more friendly towards them, you know. I liked them all I think. The Dalek’s of course were always shouting and always being beaten, they never learnt anything, did they? It was such fun. I used to like the one’s actually that were grizzly and sticky. I like stickiness…
If you could play a monster, which one?
I was in Frankenstein – The True Story and I was going to be the monster but Christopher Isherwood, who wrote it, didn’t think I was really pretty enough. It’s true. It was a big Universal production. And they gave it to a very good looking actor and they gave me the part of the ships captain. But I’ve never really had the chance to play monsters I don’t think. Don’t think so. Except of course in my private life.
How does it feel to still be the longest running Doctor to this day?
The longest? Well it’s a bit daunting actually. I’m now 29,200 days old. It’s a pretty daunting thing now. I can’t believe it, that all that time has passed. But isn’t that amazing? It almost makes me immortal that people are still stopping me on the street and saying “you know you were really influential in my life”. I like that a lot. And if they say it nicely enough, I offer them money. Not advice, but money. People are more interested in money. Bugger the advice, give us the money!
In your last year of playing the Doctor in the original series, there was much made of the alleged conflict between you and John Nathan Turner; how you wanted to do the role.
Yes, there certainly was. I didn’t like his taste in anything at all and he knew that and he didn’t like what I was doing because he wanted to get his mark on the programme, quite understandably, and when I offered my resignation, he absolutely…he was very demonstrative, he embraced me with tears in his eyes and thanked me very much. I was a bit shocked at that. I thought he might have said “are you sure?” He was so relieved and after that I think he sent me some flowers or something, because he was quite outrageous, and then we became quite good friends when all the tensions had gone, you know, it didn’t matter anymore. But oh yeah there was a lot of argument about how things should be done, because it’s often a matter of opinion about what’s funny, isn’t it, or what’s dramatic and no two or three people will agree all the time about that. So yes, that’s all in the past now. And then he died, you see. I think one of the reasons my career stalled a bit after Doctor Who, except for the audio things, is that word got round that after working with me, quite a lot of directors died unexpectedly, some of them, I believe, in terrible agony. And the word got round and so naturally…I noticed once I saw Trevor Nunn in Bow Street and he crossed the road to avoid and I said “Trevor!” and thought “why’s he cutting me like that”. People are nervous of actors who make them die, which I think is a bit wimpish.
Can you remember how you felt the first time you got a fan letter for playing the Doctor?
Yeah, it was a good feeling but now it wears me out because the fans are very demanding. When I open the letters there are lots of instructions; telling me where to sign, what to do. Also I can tell if people are anxious by their letters because I can’t get the letters open. You know those people who put on lots of sellotape... Fortunately I have a man who helps me in the garden, so he opens the bad ones. But there are lots of instructions about where it should be and they ask the same questions; you know, which girl did I love the most… That brings back memories.
You wore a fair amount of costumes during your tenure. Were there any that you didn’t like wearing or were you simply not fussed?
No no, I wasn’t fussed because the costume directors I got on very well with, especially June Hudson. They’re all flamboyant; I mean the last one I had was almost operatic, wasn’t it. That kind of purple coat. I liked all that, and the big hats, and the scarf and everything. I’d like to have worn it in real life but I can’t at my age be walking down the street with a big scarf and a walking stick. It just wouldn’t look sexy.
Genesis Of The Daleks was one of several stories that addressed politics. How important is to you to have politics and meaning in the episodes that you did in the past?
In the character that I play, the Doctor is actually rather priggish, I think. And so my job was often to hide that. He was always terribly politically correct and I notice still in the scripts that are there he’s always a bit soppy really and so I tried to hide that all the time. But all that stuff about when I was going to blow up the Daleks and then I had to say that lovely line, “have I the right?” which is a cue for a song really. The reason I didn’t have the right was Terry Mason who have absolutely had me murdered. You know, it was his living, the monsters. So I just tried to play the way I was really. I’ve always felt myself to be a kind of benevolent alien really.
Mentioning the girls you were with, the Doctor Who world still mourns Elisabeth Sladen who died a couple of years ago. She was in the show when you joined, what particular memories do you have of working with her?
Well, Elisabeth Sladen, it was a terrible blow to me when she left because she mistakenly thought that a new producer at the end of her first year contract want to choose his own girl. Apparently that’s very common. And she anticipated that by resigning and it was a terrible shock to me because we got on so well and she admired me so much and people who admire me really can be quite influential with me. I can be really quite persuaded if I get enough admiration and she was so good about that. She was replaced by Louise [Jameson], and Louise tells me – we’re good friends now, often working together – I was very cold towards her and when I tell her that I was shocked because Elisabeth was gone, it also of course changed our physical relationship a lot because with Elisabeth Sladen, I used to be able to throw her into the tunnel and scramble after her and that was absolutely great but when Louise arrived playing the character of Leela, wearing very few clothes, I couldn’t throw her into a pipe and then scrabble in afterwards without raising at least eyebrows. If you know what I mean… But gradually we became friendly.
Talking of Elisabeth Sladen, there were rumours that you were going to appear in The Sarah Jane Adventures. Was that something you were going to do?
I think it was being mooted at a time when Elisabeth began to be ill. I’d never seen it, you see, but she was so thrilled. I always had a terrific tender thing for her, you know. I never met her out of the studio except by the time she was doing that but I never got round to doing that. I don’t accept many jobs now because I think I can’t be bothered... I mean, what’s the point of having a rich wife and chasing cheap jobs at the BBC? It just doesn’t figure, does it? Just does not figure.
Do you know what it was they were going to ask you to do? Were you going to be playing the Doctor or…?
Well I mean of course I would have been playing the Doctor. Christ man, after I left Doctor Who and went…I mean when I played Macbeth, of course I did it in the style of Doctor Who because I felt I had to do it because the audience were all Doctor Who fans. The other actors didn’t like that and afterwards some of the people said… one of the reviewers said “I had no idea that Macbeth was such a nice fellow” and exactly the same when I played in An Inspector Calls that rather dreary old sermon, some American fans used to come, they booked for a fortnight, and sat in the front row and in two days, they had got to know the play. And so they used to hang around in the corner, and then when I used to come on, they’d rush in and sort of look at me like [makes panting noise] like that. And the other actors, again had no sense of humour at all, they said “what’s going on?” I said “I’m being adored, that’s what’s going on! What do you want to do, tell them to go away? They’ve bought the tickets. Didn’t buy the tickets to see you”, I said. And it’s true. They didn’t buy tickets to see him. He was big in Coronation Street but in the Doctor Who world he was nobody.
How did you actually land the part of Doctor Who?
It’s only because I was in The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad – Ray Harryhausen – and it was on next door to the BBC, the Odeon there, maybe about 50 yards from the BBC and when my name came up, they said “Tom’s in a film next door”, so they all piled into a taxi, because that’s what they do at the BBC, and went next door. And they liked my playing a wizard or something and that got me the interviews and one thing led to another and then I was Doctor Who. As in the BBC, the cruelty when I got it, they said “right, you’re on” and I said “oh that’s marvellous”. I was working on a building site making tea, that’s all I was good for, and the guy said “however Tom…” - there’s always a chilling ‘but’ isn’t there? – he said “you can’t tell anyone for a fortnight”. I thought “Christ, I haven’t worked for 20 weeks. You know, I’m working on a building site and I had to keep my mouth shut for two weeks” – whole weeks – when I was going to play a big part. It was very painful but I was happy to do it. That’s why I stayed so long. Why would I walk away from happiness?
Your last line in Doctor Who is very celebrated; “It’s the end but the moment has been prepared for”...
Well, the fans liked lines like that. They like those lines, yeah. I wanted to put in more lines. I wanted to say things like “shall I compare thee to a summers day?” or things like that but the BBC didn’t find that funny at all. They didn’t find my ideas that I might have met Shakespeare, that in the TARDIS - which was bigger on the inside - it could be infinitely bigger, you know the girl could get lost somewhere and discover that I was a famous Elizabethan actor or whatever. They didn’t like my ideas at all and I can’t say I blame them. I do have some terrible ideas.
Throughout the 1970s there were numerous occasions when Doctor Who came under fire from some quarters for being too scary. What are you thoughts on that, at the time and now, and do you think it was something adults were worried more about than the younger viewers?
Well I don’t know about now because I don’t watch much television and things have changed. But I used to like the idea of children being scared. I used to live with an actor and he had three children in a big house in Muswell Hill, and sometimes we used to play games, it really was a big house and we put the lights out all over the place and I’d get them to count to 50 and then I’d creep about and it was marvellous the way these children would…and sometimes I could hear them squeaking with terror when I was creeping into cloakrooms or whatever. I mean, that idea of being frightened, children like playing at being frightened, don’t they? And the other thing is in television they can go much further than the cinema because in television they’re watching in a domestic context – that’s why it’s so powerful I suppose – and when they look from what’s frightening they can see fish fingers or whatever it is there mother is giving them – muesli nowadays I suppose. So I never heard anyone complain that I frightened them. I mean, just look at me and try and imagine me 40 years ago, if you can. No, I wasn’t at all frightening really. Even now as an old man, I can’t do fright.
Did you find K-9 a blessing or a nuisance?
Curiously enough, I’ve got rather bad arthritis now and I’m on some very powerful anti-inflammatory’s and the doctor said there might be some side effects. And one of the side effects, two of the side effects I’ve had recently, is I’ve started calling my dog, Poppy, K-9 and the other thing is that I’ve been calling my wife Dorothy when really her name is Sue. So we’ve knocked off those pills and I’m just on patches now. So my memory’s coming back a bit. I didn’t like K-9 at all because it meant that every time we had a shot in those days, I had to get on my knees which reminded me of the days when I was a Catholic and it was pretty bloody boring being reminded of those days. And so that was kind of boring and the dog couldn’t move quickly in the old days. It was retrieved in rehearsal by John Leeson, actually playing the dog, he actually moved around. I said “why don’t we give him another costume, looking like a dog, and why can’t he answer the phone and play chess or something” but by that time the BBC had calculated that they were marketing K-9 and they didn’t want any discussion about that. But finally I got used to it. One can get used to quite a lot.
Obviously Doctor Who’s a huge part of your life and your career...
And you, by the number of questions you’re asking!
Of all the other things you’ve done; stage, TV, film, what are the things you’re particularly proud of?
Well, nothing has approached Doctor Who. Nothing at all. I’ve never recovered from it. That’s why I’m so delighted to be still playing it. And in Waitrose and places like that, I’m still called the Doctor and lots of old ladies, who weren’t always old ladies, recognise me and say charming things. They ignore Donald Sinden, and the other people and they come to me. An old lady said to me recently, after she had crashed into my trolley three times… I knew something was afoot. She said “It’s so lovely to see you here Mr Baker, you know, I’ve been a widow for many years and I live quite close by…”
Yes, that’s what I thought, yes. I thought, yes, that’s good, you know, come on then, let’s get to it.” Then I noticed was that she also was on two sticks, so we postponed the encounter.
Do you regret never making the Doctor Who film that you planned?
There was a talk…I wrote a film called Scratchman [Doctor Who Meets Scratchman] with Ian Marter but nothing came of it. It’s still in existence, circulating; people look at it and think they can make an audio or something like that. But I was out of my depth when it came to how you would market a film of Doctor Who because the BBC, you know, it would be difficult, too difficult.
You were initially going to be in The Five Doctors, which you eventually turned down. Years later you regretted that decision. Did that have something to do as mentioned earlier with your disagreements with producer John Nathan Turner?
I turned down The Five Doctors because it wasn’t long since I’d left and also I didn’t…I’d left Doctor Who because I think I’d run my course but also I wasn’t getting on very well with John – later we became friends – but when I realised he was going to produced something, I thought “no”. Anyway, I didn’t want to play 20% of the film. I wanted to be either – terrible admission, that – no, I didn’t fancy being kind of just a feed for other Doctors. In fact it filled me with horror. Now of course, if somebody asked me to do a scene with some old Doctors, if they let me tamper with the script, it’d probably be quite droll. I’ll think of that.
Have you still got any Doctor Who mementos?
No, I’ve no mementos left at all because it was all begged off me. I had lots and lots of things but when you’re a sex symbol, I mean a hero, when you’re a hero, all the charities…the thing about charities, I used to explain that…you remember those people who stop you for your banks, to stop you to sign up your bank details. I used to try to explain to them how terrifying it was. I said “listen man, I’m not going to give you any addresses” I said “I’ll give you some money now” and they said “we can’t have money, we want your particulars”. I said “listen, the minute you give anything to charity, your whole life changes”. Bang goes peace of mind. You’re terrified of the phone going, a knock on the door. It’s what charities do, you know, they’re not interested in your peace of mind, they want a piece of your money and that’s understandable. I understand that perfectly and avoid them like the plague. That’s the strategy, isn’t it. I mean, I help out the local hospice. I often go down there because people who are dying seem always glad to see me. I remember one old lady – they take me round and they take photographers – one darling old lady who only had about, I suppose, 30 minutes to live. She held my hand so hard and looked at me with such ecstasy and she said “oh fancy seeing you here”. She said “oh! oh! oh!”. Eventually she stopped saying “oh!” just before she died and I realised that she thought she’d died and gone to heaven and I was the greeter. So I don’t mind doing it down there because who could resist the hospice movement?
When you were approached appears in the 50th anniversary special, did you ever contemplate not doing it?
Yeah, I did contemplate not doing it, and I was persuaded by a girl called Caroline Skinner who was a producer. She came to meet me in Rye, some little hotel in Rye, the Mermaid Hotel, the antique place, and she begged me to be in it you see. And she’s a very persuasive girl, and she was very charming about it, she said I could tamper with the script or whatever. So I said yes to her. And then the script arrived a few months later and I didn’t much care for it. [Notices sweets on the table] Are they jelly babies? Would you like a jelly baby?
I didn’t much care for the script, you see, so I rang the BBC and said “listen, get me Caroline Skinner”. They said “Who?” I said “Is that the Doctor Who production office?” They said “yeah”. I said “And you’re asking me who Caroline Skinner is? The producer?” “Oh [makes muffled phone noise], I’m so sorry, she’s not with us anymore”. It was only later I found out she’d been murdered, you know, by someone else at the BBC I suppose who was after her job… [He’s joking, she’s definitely not dead]. But I never heard of her again but by that time you see, I’d agreed to do it. I’m not sorry now. I miss meeting Caroline. She was very sweet.
Are you aware that your appearance upset some of the other former Doctors?
Oh, I hope so yes [laughs]. Thanks a lot for reminding me of that! [laughs]. That really pleased me. The other thing that was a terrible mistake made actually…when they introduced us all…were you at ExCel? Do you remember Nick Briggs who does those lovely friendly interviews? Well, there were about 3000 people in there and what he really should have done was the curtain should…there wasn’t a curtain…should have called us all on stage and introduced us. But he didn’t. He quite reasonably thought “I’ll start with the old man in case he’s dead by the time I get to him: and he said “Ladies and Gentleman, Doctor Who the fourth, Tom Baker”. I walked on into the light there and it was ecstasy. The applause was tumultuous, and I thought I hope this never stops. It went on and on and on, and I was messing around to extend it and everything. And that was a terrible mistake because I know as an old actor that in a room there is only such much laughter, only so much energy, and I’d taken about 30% of it in the first 40 seconds. I kept thinking “if this goes on, the other boys are going to come on in silence”. So naturally, I went on. And they came on to less energy in the room. There you are, that’s showbusiness!
As such an iconic star, how much does Doctor Who affect your life?
It informs my life almost entirely outside my home because I’m a famous fiction. People, everybody in the shops around, they all call me Doctor. And I respond as the Doctor and they present babies to me and say lovely things. So once I’m out in public, especially locally in Tunbridge Wells or Rye or whatever, it impinges on me all the time but in a very benevolent way, as if some one saying “darling”, I mean “Doctor” – sometimes they say “darling” – and I say hello or bless their children or something like that…
Doctor Who starts on The Horror Channel (Sky 319, Virgin 149, Freesat 138) from 18 April with a special WHO ON HORROR weekend. Details here.