The Universe According to TOM BAKER
DWM confronts the iconic Doctor Who and notorious fibber in a valiant if ultimately vain attempt to uncover the person behind the performance...
Interview by BENJAMIN COOK
Has anyone seen the real Tom Baker? Tall, white man; mid-70s. Hair: ashen, and less abundant than it was when he played Doctor Who on television. Eyes: the brightest, boldest, most mesmerizing blue. No? Well, do let me know if you see him, because I want to sit him down and find out what makes him tick.
“Tom Baker is probably the definitive Doctor,” the current incumbent, Matt Smith, tells me when I corner him during filming of the 2010 Christmas Special. “I go to America, and that’s who everyone dresses up as. It’s Baker. It’s the scarf, and the hat, and that long personality that matches his coat. It reminds you of what a wonderful history you’re part of. Once you’re in this show, it really latches on to you. It’s incredible. His Doctor is absolutely the same man as mine.”
When I read Tom his successor’s kind words, the elder statesman of Doctor Who chuckles, leans in and explains, “The difference between Matt Smith and me is that he’s an actor and I’m… well, I’m just Tom Baker. When I realised they liked Tom Baker, that’s what they got. It was entirely me. Tom Baker in space. Shovelfuls of Tom Baker, like you’re getting now – this performance that I’m doing for you.”
The real Tom Baker is – to paraphrase Winston Churchill – a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma under a brown tweed jacket. He’s a self-styled eccentric, and his own spin-doctor, which makes him a compelling interviewee, but also tricky to decipher. Some incongruity between a former Time Lord’s professional persona and private self is to be expected, but it often seems like Tom is only interested in perpetuating his own mystification, his own fiction. What if this “performance” is all we get today?
I’ve met this character called Tom Baker in Soho early one Wednesday morning. He’s clutching a Sainsbury’s carrier bag, inside of which is a challah bun. It’s a gift. He’s autographed it. I don’t know what to say. (No. Really. I don’t.) We head to a Pret A Manger. If you read the interview with Tom and costume designer June Hudson in DWM 427, you’ll know that Tom is unwavering in his adoration of Pret. It’s his Mecca. He orders an espresso.
Settled at a window seat, steaming hot beverages in front of us, I broach the issue of Tom’s successors. He doesn’t often talk about them in interviews. We’ve mentioned Matt already, but what does Tom make of the others? Any favourites?
Tom has played Sherlock Holmes twice himself – in a BBC mini-series in 1982, and in the theatre. “I cocked it up both times,” he admits. In fact, Tom claims to have messed up pretty much every role in his 42-year career, except, of course, the one that made him a household name. Is he really – as Matt Smith suggests – the definitive Doctor? Is Tom comfortable bearing that accolade?
Is that how Tom felt taking over from Jon Pertwee in 1974?
“He liked the idea of big sums of money for voiceovers, so I would say to somebody, but in Jon’s earshot, ‘Somebody offered me £15,000 for a voiceover the other day. But I turned it down, because it was going to take a whole hour!’ This wasn’t true, but I could hear Jon’s heart pounding. In fact, he died from a heart attack shortly after that. I think that’s why.
“One of the difficulties,” says Tom, returning to the original question, “was that Jon had jumped on the part so hard that all the writers were still writing for him [when Tom took over]. My first scripts arrived, and they were whippets***. There was something terribly substandard about them, and insufferably middle class. Men putting women down, that kind of s***. It still goes on a lot, doesn’t it? It’s okay if it’s the Brigadier behaving like that, because no-one could do pompous like Nick Courtney. He was the most pompous man that’s ever appeared on television. That was his genius. His very pomposity made him adorable. But I couldn’t be pompous. I was only experienced in preposterous science-fantasy.
“I was reading these scripts – hearing, such as it was, the rhythms of the speech – and it didn’t please me at all. But I had to swallow it. I was just glad to have a job. Gradually, I began to change bits, and I realised that they liked what I was doing – my big eyes, my double takes, my silly hair – as long as I was sincerely silly. I was utterly convinced by my own silliness and my own sincerity. Yeah.
“You see, Ian [Marter, who played Harry Sullivan] shouldn’t have been in it. Ian was only in it because the BBC had originally offered the part – or were considering offering it – to Richard Hearne [famous for his stage and TV character Mr Pastry – Ed], who was an old man then. If they’d given it to him, he wouldn’t have been able to run about like I could, so they got in powerful Ian. When I was cast, Ian was already under contract.”
When Tom started on Doctor Who, he was, he says, “terribly flattered” by the attention of Elisabeth Sladen, who played Sarah Jane Smith. “She adored me. She found me funny. I loved her. She used to say, ‘Listen to Tom. Tom will know how to do this,’ which filled me with confidence – because, underneath that sweetness, Lis is deadly precise. But she didn’t stay long. She got out while the going was good.”
Of his other companions: “I got on terrifically well with Mary Tamm [the first Romana]. In reality, the TARDIS is smaller on the inside, and it was always pleasurable when I was stuck in there with Mary. I didn’t get on so well with Louise [Jameson, who played Leela], especially to begin with. She said I was cold, which is an amazing word, and aloof. I don’t know what it was, really. She didn’t stay all that long either. But now I’m very friendly with Louise.
“At the time, I thought we could have done more with Leela. We could have developed it. I’m not talking about sex, but I wanted, sometimes, the girls to kiss me. Imagine the publicity! Leela kisses the Doctor! Moments like that would have amused the children. I used to suggest these things, but they’d say, ‘No thanks, Tom.’ They’d fob me off. The BBC is good at that. I was used to rejection.”
By the end of his tenure, Tom had grown even less impressed with the TARDIS crew. “As I recall, we had at least three companions, which was too many. One of the girls [Tegan, played by Janet Fielding] was an airhostess. I’m not interested in airhostesses! It was dull. Sweet children, they were – what could be sweeter than Sarah Sutton [Nyssa]? ----– but they were standing around with nothing to do or say. I don’t mean that John [Nathan-Turner, who produced Tom’s final season] did that deliberately, but he must have known it wasn’t interesting to me.
“John and I,” continues Tom, “simply did not get on. When I said that I wanted to leave, he accepted with alacrity. He must have been very relieved, and I was glad to be gone. I wasn’t getting on at all well with John, or with his boyfriend Gary [Downie, production manager on various 1980s episodes] – because obviously Gary was sympathetic to John. John had waited a long time to be producer, and suddenly he had the power, and he wanted to make his mark on it. We had some ferocious disagreements about scripts and scenes. Management would say, ‘But Tom is the star of the show, and we’ve got ten million viewers,’ and John would say, ‘Yeah, but I’m the f***ing producer!’
“One time, I actually resigned,” remembers Tom. This was in the late 70s, after a falling out with then-producer Graham Williams. “It caused absolute murder. Bill Cotton, the Controller of BBC One, rang Graham in a panic: ‘What do you mean Tom’s resigned? He can’t! This is our big Saturday-night show!’ In the end, they talked me round, and told Graham to stand back. He was the dearest chap who ever drew breath, but he was used to dealing with people who were saner than I was.”
I imagine Tom to be quite a formidable opponent in a quarrel.
However, many of Tom’s co-stars have admitted they found him difficult to work with. For every instance – and there are plenty – of someone raving about Tom’s professionalism, his imagination, his vitality, and his commitment to the show, you can find another, contradictory remark along the lines of: “It was very hard to establish a rapport with Tom” (Louise Jameson); “I liked him, but I don’t think a lot people were that keen on him” (Mary Tamm); “I just felt that I was walking on eggshells the whole time” (Sarah Sutton); “He was in a bad mood permanently” (Janet Fielding). The late Douglas Adams [script editor, 1979-80] might have summed up Tom best when he said, “Tom is one of those people who oscillated between being one of the most wonderful, awesome, engaging people you have ever met, to someone you would gladly shove off a cliff.”
“Ahh, Douglas used to encourage me and my excesses,” smiles Tom. “I’m interested to hear how people found me. Somebody read me a snippet from an interview recently where some actor was talking about how difficult I was to work with. Matthew someone…?”
I’d wager that Tom knows full well that this is Matthew Waterhouse, who played Adric for the majority of Tom’s final season. In DWM 424, Matthew said: “You want to work with actors who are fun to be around and generous, and Tom was not by nature a generous actor… He could be pretty unpleasant at times.”
Apparently, on Matthew’s first day of rehearsals, Tom only spoke to him once, to tell him to “Piss off!” Might Tom have behaved a little harshly towards his inexperienced, adolescent co-star? After all, Matthew was only 18 when he started on Doctor Who.
“I’m bound to have appeared unfair to some people,” reasons Tom, “but I was the one who was always out front with the children. I was in schools and on the road. I was insatiable in my desire to be near the audience. I signed thousands of birthday cards. I was a hero. That was a wonderful thing – so agreeable to one’s ego. I had never felt so real at a time of my life when I was so utterly fictional.”
In which case, it must have been hard not to be consumed by the part?
“Well, I don’t know. What happened was, other people were changing – directors would retire or go to other jobs, and so would producers – and I was still there, so the incoming people had ideas about how the programme should be, but it was hard to get past me. I was extremely demanding. I was an obstacle.”
Did anyone on Doctor Who intimidate Tom? Lalla Ward, who played the second Romana, once told DWM: “I think Tom actually admits that he feels intimidated by me, in the nicest possible way.”
“I wasn’t intimidated by Lalla,” counters Tom, “although I have such a regard for her. I don’t think I was intimidated by anyone, but I was very impressed by the standard of visiting actors. I remember the bliss of working with Graham Crowden [Soldeed in The Horns of Nimon, 1979-80]. He got the laughs. He was wonderful. There was no-one quite like him. Wonderful man. He was considered for Doctor Who at one time.”
This was when Jon Pertwee left. Crowden was offered the role, but he wasn’t prepared to commit to a long-running series, so it was offered to Tom instead. Eleven years ago, I interviewed Crowden – who passed away this October – and he explained: “I seriously considered accepting [the part]. In the end, I decided not to do it, because I didn’t want to be typecast… Perhaps it sounds rather pompous, but I really didn’t want to be on television purely as a commercial product.”
I tell Tom this, and he says: “It never occurred to me that I’d be typecast, although I was. And I never thought of the role as a commercial product, because I was… well, I was playing this slightly messianic alien. He isn’t violent, he doesn’t get his leg over the girl, he doesn’t steal, and he’s rather wry, and adorable, and mysterious. He’s lived for 900 years or something. He lives the life of the old patriarchs of the Old Testament. That’s not commercial. He’s special.”
Even so, Tom recognises that Doctor Who was hugely profitable for the BBC’s commercial arm. He cites the Doctor’s robot dog, K9, as an example: “technically terribly difficult to work with, because it wasn’t very powerful – it would topple if it ran over a cigarette end – but an enormous amount of money was made out of marketing K9, so we couldn’t get rid of it. That’s why I’ve got bad knees now, what with being a monk in my youth, praying to God, and then on my knees in front of bloody K9. Every two-shot, I was on my knees, or you couldn’t do two-shots. My idea was that John [Leeson, who voiced K9] should play him on his hind legs, in a dog suit. They didn’t like that idea either.”
This seems to be a running theme. Were any of Tom’s ideas ever taken up?
He returns to the commerciality question: “It was rather like, in the earlier days, I had that wonderful line [in Genesis of the Daleks, 1975], ‘Have I the right?’ I was about to connect those wires and destroy all the Daleks. David Maloney [the director] joked, ‘Don’t connect those wires, Tom, or Terry Nation [the writer who created the Daleks] will sue us!’ Because Terry made a fortune out of the Daleks.
As we established in DWM 427, Tom is a serial exaggerator. I ask Tom how much of what he says is, basically, complete cobblers.
“The thing about being a Christian is, you’re never alone, because God is everywhere, so you have no privacy. Insane Christians, like the Roman Catholics, believe in angels as well. They walk in a special way – I won’t do it now, it might embarrass you – because they’re dying to go to the lavatory. They’re plucking up the courage, because not only is God in there, but also they’ve got a f***ing angel on their shoulder. It’s difficult to have a spontaneous, Rabelaisian bowel movement with God and an angel watching.”
I’m not sure quite how we got onto this, but I stick with it, and ask Tom how he looks upon his younger, religious self?
Playing the Doctor got Tom plenty of attention from the opposite sex – from women who, presumably, prefer their men somewhat unhinged and with murderous impulses. “I’ve had amazing offers. Ooh, the temptations! The girls were lining up. On programmes like Top of the Pops, where there would be, sometimes, 300 girls in the BBC bar, it would have been very easy to risk catastrophe, because you didn’t know how old they were.”
If the girls were of a legal age, though…?
“I remember one girl… where did she live now? California, I think. She was going to pay my airfare to come over and impregnate her. She said it would take two-and-a-half days – not the impregnation, the flight there and back – if she picked me up at the airport, and took me to a motel where I could, er, ejaculate. ‘It may not be a great pleasure for you,’ she wrote, ‘because I am 57, and a drug addict, but I’m desperate. Be a father again.’ That’s a line! All because I was playing Doctor Who.
“I was just doing something that appealed to the imagination – the benevolent stranger, who has secrets. We always want that. You look at a girl sitting there, her face still, and you think, dear God, isn’t that fantastic? Then you hear her speak, and you think, oh no, on your bike! She’s drained of all mystery. She needs someone to say to her, ‘Listen, love, if you want to get on in life, don’t ever speak, until you’re about 30 and your bottom starts to sag. Don’t even smile.’”
That’s not very nice.
There’s a silence. “Look,” he says, trying a different tack, “if there are two girls weeping on Charing Cross Station, and one is beautiful and the other is plain, the plain girl can sit there and grow old, but it takes about 15 minutes before Tom Baker comes along and says to the pretty one, ‘Where are you going?’ She says, ‘Folkstone, but I’ve got no money,’ and I say, ‘Listen,’ and give her a £20 note. Physical beauty transcends everything. It is the ultimate currency.” He leans forward to catch my eye, and asks rhetorically, but rather menacingly: “If you, Ben, were alone on a station platform late at night, something would happen to you, wouldn’t it? It may not be nice, but something would happen to you. Someone would want to steal you, steal what you’ve got, because to be young and beautiful is to be touched with the divine.”
I suddenly wonder, an hour into our interview, whether Tom Baker is flirting with me.
But do we? How can we know that it’s not the real Tom Baker talking if we never get to know the real Tom Baker?
For a moment, Tom seems stumped. “Obviously, I wouldn’t say anything brutally offensive to someone publicly,” he says. There’s another silence. “All I meant is, to be touched with the divine is deeply moving, because everybody knows it won’t last. Of course, you can’t conceive of that, even though you know it. You can’t conceive of being old. You weren’t even born when I finished Doctor Who, were you? That’s incredible.”
Tom is 76 now. His steps – if not his tongue – are a bit tentative, but otherwise he seems in rude health. He’s unstoppable. “I walk every day, three or four times, deliberately,” he says, “although this morning I was limping slightly. I’ve arthritis in my knees.”
Is he afraid of growing old?
“When I was Doctor Who, I visited my fair share of hospitals. They’d ask me to go down to some ward where a child was in a coma, dying. When people are in comas, they often have troupes of people going in, trying to rouse them. I’d go through my terrible routine of saying, ‘Hiya, Jacob, it’s the Doctor here. I’ve been told by K9 that you’re not very well.’ I’d like to tell you that one day a boy opened his eyes and said, ‘Doctor…?’ But he never did.” Tom bows his head. “That’s how pathetic I was at raising the dead.
“The fans used to say, ‘Tell me something to live by, Doctor.’ They’re always saying that. I used to say really dumb things like, ‘Remember, the living are just the dead on holiday,’ and they’d go, ‘Ohh man, did you hear that? The living are just the dead on holiday!’ They used to quote things like ‘It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for.’ They like that. I was a big icon for the gay boys, in Chicago particularly, and I remember some gay boys surrounding me, and I held the hand of one of them, and suddenly he said to his friend, ‘Roy, I can walk! It’s a miracle!’ His friend Roy said, ‘What? Of course you can walk, you’re a f***ing athlete!’ He thought he was a pilgrim. It was terribly funny. He said, ‘It must be nerves.’”
“I don’t know quite what it means to be happy. I know that it’s difficult to be happy when you’re poor. When you’re very poor, it’s difficult to even get a hard-on. You’re stuck looking at pictures of old hard-ons. Happiness, sometimes, is having power over people – for example, in a relationship. Those are happy moments. Or when people offer me parts. I’m constantly offered work. Not big movies, but I’m offered panto – the Demon King. Well, it isn’t the Demon King nowadays; I don’t have the power in my knees. When I was younger, the Demon King always got the girl with the biggest tits. They were happy days.
“They were reckless and feckless days, too, in the clubs and pubs around Soho with some very talented people. I remember Jeffrey Bernard, the great piss artist of his time. He was dying when I knew him. Sally Smirnoff, his Cockney slang for vodka, had killed his dick stone dead. He was dying of Sally Smirnoff, but he couldn’t stop loving her.”
In such bacchanalian company, how close did Tom come to alcohol addiction, I ask?
“Since the late 80s, I’ve been happier and steadier. I set up home, married [TV producer] Sue Jerrard, we had cats, and a lovely house, and I renewed my interest in gardening. I was able to walk past these places, glance in, and see the smoke, the anxiety that drinking a lot brings. But I don’t mean it was easy.”
The bright lights and dark shadows of Soho were, at one time, a refuge for Tom – for instance, during his second marriage, to Lalla Ward. Tom and Lalla wed in December 1980, three months before Tom’s final episode of Doctor Who was broadcast. The marriage lasted only 16 months. In his autobiography, Who on Earth is Tom Baker?, he devotes less than four lines to the break-up. Would he prefer to forget they’d ever been husband and wife?
“No,” he says, “because we were happy for a few months. We got married after a tremendous romance, thinking that it was a good idea, and then it wasn’t a good idea, and we separated and divorced. It was all quite amicable, at a distance.”
Espresso cups drained, our interview almost over, but I have one final question for Tom – and it concerns Lalla. I wonder whether, after seven years in the role, the only way that Tom could bear to give up the key to the TARDIS was to take a crucial piece of the show with him: that is, by marrying his companion.
Somewhere in there, I think, was an answer – although possibly not to the question I asked. And contained within this interview are, I hope, flashes of the real Tom Baker. Just don’t ask me where. Maybe, in the end, we aren’t supposed to know for certain which is which – the man, the myth, or the “monster”. Perhaps it’s all just Tom Baker.