Who On Earth Is Tom Baker?
Excerpt from chapter 13
© Tom Baker 1997
It was approaching the time of the York Festival, a heavily cultural affair in the I960s. In between our broad comedy at the Theatre Royal I had been seeing a good deal of Laurie Taylor, my old friend from my student days. He and I had started out as actors and he got off to a fine start at Stratford East in a new play by Alan Owen. But he soon got tired of acting and, by a terrific effort of teaching during the day and studying at London University in the evenings, he got a first-class degree and changed careers. By the time I met him in York, he was a professor and becoming very well known. Seeing me revived old interests and we decided to write and present a fringe comedy show. And so it was that Professor Laurie Taylor and I put on Late Night Lowther starring Laurie Taylor and Tom Baker with Jazz Quintessence. All the good ideas came from Laurie, and most of the jokes, too. He encouraged the musicians and persuaded a technician from the university to rig a light for us. But the real big idea was this: York was a bit dull in those days after hours so Laurie, with his standing as a professor, got us a late-night drinking licence for the Lowther and, here's the sweet bit, you could only drink late at the Lowther if you had a ticket for our show! We were a sell-out. There was no opposition. And with two lamps and a hundred candles we set about preparing the material. We needn't have worried, the audience was so drunk and so grateful to us for the late drinks, they simply adored us. But Laurie left nothing to chance, cod reviews were written up in which we gave ourselves stupendous notices and were distributed by students eager to break the monotony of being honest. What a scam. We made a fortune. And Laurie was clever enough to make sure we had a fair number of awful jokes. We did sketches about the Pope's underwear and talking dogs and jokes about the Theatre Royal and crazy appeals on behalf of the daft in our society.
The talking-dog sketch in which I played the dog Clint and Laurie my brutal Bill-Sykes-type trainer, caused a great stir. Behind my back Laurie would hold up three fingers and ask me how many he was showing the audience. He would then kick me three times and elicit three very pathetic yelps from me which was, of course, the answer. People wept when Laurie kicked me and some threatened him. I went along with the audience, of course, and overdid the beaten-dog stuff. People offered me saucers of Guinness and drags at their fags and yelled abuse at cruel Laurie. Laurie later retrieved the affection of the audience by a great impression of Malcolm Muggeridge demonstrating the existence of God.
I remember all this because in the audience one night there was someone from the National Theatre. He thought my dog was a masterpiece and on the assumption that Laurence Olivier needed a dog down at the Waterloo Road, he quickly arranged for me to come down and audition for the National Theatre at the Old Vic. About ten days later, it being the time of the year when the National collected down and outs to walk on and understudy I arrived at the head office of the National Theatre in Aquinas Street in Waterloo. I was all revved up at the thought of spinning a line to Laurence Olivier and it so happened (isn’t the theatre wonderful?) that Lord Olivier was working late at some studio or other, Pinewood, I think, where he was dubbing some film and the auditions had been cancelled. As I was travelling overnight from York, the message missed me. And so when I turned up everybody was dumbfounded. Gillian Diamond, the casting director, and Ann Robinson, her assistant, could not have been kinder. But what to do? The great man wasn't there. And then came a small miracle. Olivier happened to telephone the office and somebody told him that a poor shagged-out dreamer had come all the way from York by mistake. And Sir Laurence said chat if I could wait till he got back to the office he would see me. If I could wait! And I did wait and other people on the staff gathered around: Kate Fleming, the voice coach, and Michael Halifax, the head of planning, and Donald McIntyre and Donald McKechnie, too. And I was presented to the Lord. And he was great. He was just marvellous. He thought I was funny and strange and hopeless he invited me to join the National Theatre. And I said yes. And he said he was pleased. And I was pleased. And there you are. It's not so simple nowadays. Peter Crouch, my agent, thought I'd do well there so he was pleased, too.