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Designing for Tom Baker in Doctor Who

A STILL CENTRE IN THE SPINNING UNIVERSE

by June Hudson

I designed my first Doctor Who in 1978, having begged and pestered my head of department to let me work on the show. A lot of other designers thought I was mad, I know, because Doctor Who was generally dismissed as kids’ stuff or ‘only science fiction.’ Most people wanted to do Play for Today or big period pieces – the kind of thing which might be nominated for a BAFTA award. But I loved science fiction because it is really the only area of work for a television costume designer that allows total freedom, and challenges you to use your imagination to the full.

In 1979, after I’d done two other big science fiction programs for the BBC, Survivors and Blake’s 7, I was assigned to be principal costume designer for Doctor Who. The producer for Blake’s 7, David Maloney, had encouraged me to be daring with my designs, and I think that’s what really caught the attention of the Doctor Who producer, Graham Williams. He gave me three of the six episodes for the 1979 season, and I loved every minute of working on them. So when Graham left, and his unit manager, John Nathan-Turner, took over as producer and asked me to design all the episodes for the next series, I jumped at the chance. In the end, my department head nixed it, because the workload was thought to be just too big, and it was agreed that I would alternate with another designer.

It was understood that I, as principal designer, would do four of the seven shows and any special assignments. The biggest of these assignments was redesigning the costume for Tom. By this time, in 1980, Tom was an international star. He’d been playing the Doctor for six years, and any change in his clothing was really unthinkable; but it was my assignment to think the unthinkable. So what I decided was that the new design really had to be an apotheosis of the old image, not a break with it. I’d always loved Doctor Who and some of what I’d seen in the series had really left an impression on me. I particularly loved the work of Jimmy [James] Acheson, John Bloomfield and Roly [L. Rowland] Warne, and I thought that Barbara Kidd did some wonderful things on the show.

Jimmy and Barbara were really the people who had defined Tom Baker’s image. Jimmy worked on Tom’s very first Doctor Who and was responsible for introducing his ‘trademarks,’ the Herbert Johnson fedora hat and the thirteen-foot knitted scarf. Those big-brimmed hats were very popular around 1970; I remember Roy Strong making quite a stir by wearing one when he was director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Late ’60s and ’70s London was really the first period where nostalgia, or what we’d now call ‘retro,’ was a big part of contemporary fashion, and it’s now well known that Jimmy was thinking of Toulouse-Lautrec’s poster of Aristide Bruant when he decided to try a hat and scarf for Tom.

Tom’s very fond of telling the story of how his scarf accidentally got to be so long – that the little old lady to whom Jimmy gave the coloured balls of wool just kept going until she used them up. I think the rest of his costume really came together in fittings at the costumier’s, Berman’s. Often with a leading man or woman in a series, especially a fantasy series, that’s the best approach – you just rummage until you find things that feel right to the actor. So Tom’s hat and scarf ended up being complemented with a cardigan, a bright red narrow-wale corduroy shooting jacket with leather elbow patches, sagging tweed trousers, a crumpled scarf tie and scuffed oxfords, Tom looked very much like the eternal student, which is, of course, what his Doctor in many ways represented: he had boundless curiosity and an unquenchable sense of wonder about the universe, and I think that’s what children love about the character. Tom also had very much the manic, anarchic humour of Harpo Marx, and his clothes, as well as his wide eyes and his great mane of curls, gave him something of Harpo’s scarecrow quality.

However, in the following two years Jimmy, with Barbara Kidd, worked very hard gradually to create a more ‘Romantic’ image, and Tom grew into this. For Tom’s second Doctor Who, Barbara Kidd, picking up on the echoes of that Toulouse Lautrec poster, designed him a loose, ample overcoat with a box-pleated back, and the next year, in an episode called “Pyramids of Mars,” she put Tom in a very regal garnet-coloured velvet frock coat. Tom almost immediately dumped the shooting jacket, and wore a frock coat for most of the rest of his time in Doctor Who. Rather than Harpo Marx, he was now beginning to look rather Byronic, which I loved.

Although John Bloomfield only worked on two Doctor Whos, he did do some wonderful work for Tom. Now John is a designer who will be the first to say that he loves rich textures and the use of layered fabrics or appliqué. John’s design drawings would often be less sketches than collages made from swatches of fabric. In Doctor Who, John’s imagination took off into the stratosphere.

John introduced the coat and trousers that were obviously Tom’s favourites when I first joined the show in 1978. The coat was a lovely chestnut brown velvet, very full skirted and long – it looked fabulous on Tom – and the trousers were soft oatmeal brown rather than gray. It was the coat that really confirmed Tom as a kind of Romantic wanderer figure. People used to describe Tom’s voice as “dark brown,” and I think that John, in building a wardrobe around shades of brown, picked up in a wonderful way on the richness and beguiling depth of Tom’s voice and his whole personality, really.

Tom loved visual jokes, provided they weren’t too obvious. He was always wanting the scarf to be made longer and longer, so that he could use it for comic business. When I first joined I think he was onto about his fourth scarf, the longest yet, but he wanted one that was longer still. He suggested to me that the original scarf and the duplicate which was used by stuntmen should be sewn together, which made a scarf that was over twenty feet. From this point on, Tom had to wear it looped around his shoulders several times, making it look a bit more like a shawl.

In 1980 the new producer of Doctor Who, John Nathan Turner, decided that he wanted a ‘new look’ for Tom Baker’s Doctor and I, as principal costume designer for the season, was assigned to provide this. It was a huge, terrifying responsibility, and I approached the task with great trepidation. I decided very quickly that it would be wrong to go for a wholesale ‘make-over’: it would have been damaging to the series as a whole. The Doctor had always been the still centre in a spinning universe of aliens and monsters, and Tom’s costume had become internationally famous. Viewers would have been bewildered by a radical change, and the integrity of the program would have been lost.

There were other reasons for not giving way to the temptation to make a radical change. Tom had developed very clear ideas of what he liked, and what worked for him, and as the lynch-pin of the whole series, I think he quite understandably found it difficult to see the sense in the producer’s making change for change’s sake. Although he said, with his usual generosity, that he would wear anything I designed – “even if it’s a tent, darling” – I desperately wanted to be true to Tom’s vision. Besides, I don’t think it would have rung true for the character of the Doctor to make too great a change.

At first I made a few experiments with Tom’s old colours, the browns and buffs and greys; I think I had a couple of Sargent portraits, Graham Robertson and Lord Ribblesdale, at the back of my mind. But as I’d been asked to come up with something distinctive and new, I eventually had to abandon that line of thought. That left me with the problem of finding an alternative which suited Tom.

I knew I wanted to choose something with nobility and a certain lightness. It couldn’t be too jazzy; it had to be comfortable and down-to-earth, but at the same time, the Doctor had to stand out amidst all the bizarre creatures he met, with their outlandish clothes, so the colour had to be powerful. White and black were out: they were too stark, and I anyway tend to reserve them for aliens, because they give you great silhouettes. Green would not have worked as it was used so often in jungle backgrounds, and so on, and also as there is the association of ‘little green men.’ Yellow would not have been right for Tom, because like pillar-box red or royal purple it would have been too garish, whereas navy blue seemed to me too dull.

In the end I decided on a blue-red compromise, plum, which had both majesty and warmth. It is definitely a patrician hue: it was popular in England among ‘bloods’ during the Regency, and later in last century it was often the colour for gentlemen’s smoking jackets. The Doctor is at one level an honorary English gentleman, and Tom’s version of the character had always suggested an adventurer of the Romantic age, so when I came to rationalize my choice of colour, it seemed wholly justifiable. However, I felt also that plum was not so upper-crust as to be aloof and off-putting: it is a comfortable shade, and it also has a certain quality of mystery and magic.

When it came to defining exactly what Tom’s garments were going to be, I knew at once that the scarf would have to stay. To take it away would have given the actor problems, not only because Tom often used it as a prop but also, more importantly, because it was really his trademark: change the trademark and you change the product. Yet, having lighted on the idea of plum as the basic colour of the costume, a multi-coloured scarf didn’t really work any more, so I asked my principal maker, Roger Oldhamstead, to knit a twenty-foot long scarf in plum, rust and aubergine chenille. There was also a practical consideration here: the old scarf had been rather uncomfortable in the studio because it was so warm, whereas chenille, though bulky-looking, is actually much lighter to wear. I came up with the pattern for the new scarf, organizing the haphazard stripes of the original into sets of graded bands. As the hat had originally been a key part of Tom’s image, I also provided a plum-coloured fedora, from Herbert Johnson again. But Tom, who had been wearing a hat less and less often in the previous couple of years, abandoned it quite quickly.

Although I was determined at least to give Tom the option to hold on to his ‘trademarks,’ the scarf and hat, with the rest of the costume I allowed myself much more freedom. In making my earliest sketch for a plum-coloured outfit, I had already decided on giving Tom a long coat. This eventually turned out as a calf-length, double-breasted plum overcoat with a half-belt and a big velvet collar, based mainly on a Russian cavalry coat from the time of the First World War, though with Regency overtones. Given Tom’s sense of fun, I felt I couldn’t have just a plain plum lining, so I found a lovely piece of green and black fabric in a shop in Oxford Street.

The coat was manly, swashbuckling, heroic: to wear such a commanding outfit you’ve got to be a commanding person, and Tom was one of the few actors I know who has the necessary presence. It is important that a leading man’s clothes, however subtly, do a great deal for him, and the best thing is to find garments that other people can’t wear – to use the qualities which he has and others haven’t. Tom was marvellous to design clothes for, because he had such a strong, vibrant personality. He was never challenged by his clothes, so you could hit him hard without fear of him being swamped.

People often ask me if I think my new costume affected Tom Baker’s performance. Some fans have certainly commented to me over the years that he played the part rather differently in his last season – that he was a more brooding presence. This may, of course, have been partly due to other things, such as the fact that he was unwell during the latter part of 1980, and that there was tension between him and the new producer, John Nathan Turner. On the other hand, the aspects of the character which Tom brought to the fore that year—authority, wisdom, mage-like mystery—match with the qualities I aimed for in my design. Tom can always silently dominate any dramatic situation, and throughout that last year he really became more and more sombre and enigmatic. I like to think that the colour scheme of the new costume helped to enhance his powerful and mysterious presence, that it provided a proper foil to that mobile face, those eloquent hands. I suppose the effect I wanted is best summed up in a rather wonderful line I still remember from the episode “Meglos” – that the Doctor is a being who “sees the threads that hold the universe together, and mends them when they break.”

 

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