Monday, 21 April 2014
Doctor Who on Horror Channel: Tom Baker Interview
The reason I was anxious was because I had been invited to my first press launch – and it was a big one! Horror Channel was holding an event in West London to promote its repeat season of classic Doctor Who, airing thirty stories featuring the first seven Doctors from between 1963 and 1989. There was to be a very special guest: Tom Baker.
The venue was The Ivy, a restaurant and private members’ club in Leicester Square, and I arrived early enough to spend some time talking with fellow journalists and bloggers outside. Some of their work I was familiar with, some of it was new to me. But we were all fans, and we were all somewhat overwhelmed by what the day was about to bring.
I was considerably more at ease by the time we actually walked in through the doors of The Ivy. It’s almost like a TARDIS in itself, feeling somewhat bigger on the inside than you might expect. Before we knew it, we were four floors up, in what they refer to as ‘The Loft’. It looked incredible, because it had been dressed with an impressive range of costumes and props from the show.
We mingled for a while – until we noticed something. Something which occurred to the entire room at pretty much the same instant. A man had walked in, a man with white hair and a walking stick...
What follows is Doctor Who, in Tom Baker’s own words. The questions were posed by a variety of people, but the answers are those of one man. The best place to start is at the beginning…
Tom, now that Doctor Who has found a home on Horror Channel, which of your stories do you think is the most horror-filled and why?
Ah, I never thought of it. I thought they were all great comedy when I was doing it! But I suppose they’re very obvious, aren’t they? You know, you expect it to be Talons of Weng-Chiang and things like that, all the spooky stories. But they’ve taken their time to show them, haven’t they? I mean, it’s only thirty-two years since I finished it! It seems like only yesterday.
Do you think Doctor Who should be horrific? Is that a key part of it?
I think 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! But we like to be frightened don’t we, we like to suspend ourselves, and imagine. That’s what reading crime is about, for example. I had a woman the other day in Waitrose- no, not Waitrose… it began with a W, it was a book shop. Er, Waterstones. ‘Have you got anything… murder? Gruesome? Have you got anything like that?’ She said, ‘Yeah, I think 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. To enter another world. When in reality of course, we want nice neighbours and no crime, don’t we! It’s that lovely area of our imagination that says ‘Let’s get out of here.’
What’s it like to see the fans show enthusiasm towards Doctor Who to this day?
I dare say you’re alluding to ExCeL, aren’t you [last year's anniversary celebration event]? Seeing the fans’ enthusiasm donkey’s years after I’ve left is really quite extraordinary, you know, and also the intensity of their emotion, and I get lots of mail, still… I mean, when I say lots, probably ten a day or something like that, and they’re all emotional. People are thanking me, being reminded of when they were children and how happy they were. In those days, television was so… it allowed us to cohere more, didn’t it. Without video, you had to watch in real time and talk about it the next day, otherwise you were out of the loop. So people stop me… a man stopped me in Oxford Street. He said ‘Tom Baker… I can’t believe it!’ I caught a glimpse of myself in a shop window and I thought, ‘I can’t believe it either.’
But he kept saying ‘unbelievable’. He said ‘Look, when I was a boy, I was in care’… in Wales or somewhere, in a home. He said, ‘Nobody wanted us, nobody wanted me.’ Then his eyes filled with tears, and he said ‘…and you made a difference.’ I was terribly touched by that, I’d made a difference, and I went to speak to him but he couldn’t speak. He just gave that little eloquent punch that sometimes people do. You know, a little bang like that… and he was gone. I couldn’t pursue it. And so those little encounters… the other day, a man wrote to me. He was getting married, because he’d met his girlfriend in a queue where I was signing books. The queue was so long, he was introduced to this girl and 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! That does happen in America. So this fellow now, wants me – he doesn’t understand the law – he wants me to actually conduct the wedding service. I had to write and tell him, listen… you know, I checked the laws up on the internet – I Googled it up. I thought it might be a fun photo-shoot. But it’s not allowed, I have to do a course. I’m not in the mood for becoming a registrar.
This season on Horror Channel won’t just feature your Doctor, it will be the other Doctors as well. Is it something you’re reconciled about, that there are other actors who also played the role, or is that always an uncomfortable truth for you?
Well, it’s only recently that it dawned on me that there were other Doctors! I don’t know them, you know, and I’ve got no desire to know them! Of course, I’d 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. You see, the thing is, saying that – 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 me so happy when I did get it. I didn’t watch myself because a little bit of me… I didn’t watch it because I was so opinionated about which shots they used. I thought, ‘we did a better take’… and so, I just celebrated being, you know… coming out of obscurity into being a children’s hero. And not to be soppy about it, it really gave me an enormous pleasure, and I did a lot to promote the programme. And still do!
When you came back and appeared with Matt last year, was that funny? Did you feel proprietorial then?
Well I mean, going to Cardiff on a winter’s 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 with unease, you know? But Matt Smith was a charming young man, and we did this little scene, which people liked a lot. There was thousands of people there! Absolutely thousands and thousands of people. I have to tell you also, I have a very poor background in Liverpool, so I wanted to be… everybody wants to be loved. Admired, and everything. And I always wanted to be adored. And then, like lots of people… you would like to be adored, wouldn’t you? Don’t be smug! So when it happened, suddenly I was adored… and I was ready for it. I really was ready for it. I thought I’d never recover from it! Also, of course, I’m still playing the part for Big Finish Productions. I think I’ve got sixteen or eighteen 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. It was a happy time. It was odd being happy. But listen… are you interested in happiness? I mean, if you want misery, I can change.
How does it feel when you’re approached by young fans, who probably weren’t born when the classic series of Doctor Who aired?
I’m not approached now by young fans, I’m approached by early-middle age fans. Sometimes they 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! They like a little scene, so I give them… I say ‘Are you all right for money?’ I’ll give him a pound and a 20p, and then I say, ‘Look, if you meet a beggar, give them the 20p. Keep the pound.’ He looks at his father and thinks I’m mad, you know, but fortunately my wife is not very poor, so I will pocket all the change! I remember those days of being poor. It’s a bit like earache, in the sense that you can’t stop thinking about it. When you’re poor, you go to bed thinking ‘Christ…’ and then you wake up in the night for a pee and you think, I’m still poor! And of course, when it comes to passion and love-making, being poor kind of gets in the way! ‘Darling, this was marvellous, absolutely marvellous…’ ‘What did you say? What do you mean, you’re still poor?’
Speaking about the other Doctors, do you have any advice for Peter Capaldi?
No. No, I don’t have any advice for anybody. Not for anybody, and certainly not someone taking over Doctor Who. He’s a very accomplished actor. I’ve seen him do those mean things, you know… swearing into his mobile. But nobody has ever failed in it. Nobody has ever failed, so there you are. Going to be all right. 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 fiftieth anniversary special, do you have a clear idea or an opinion as to who your character was? Was he an older Fourth Doctor? He was a bit of an enigmatic character.
Well, typical of the BBC, nobody knows! It could be anything… could have been the next Director-General for all we know! I mean, in the BBC you’ve really got to be able to suspend your disbelief. Anything can happen in the BBC. I mean, the monsters on Doctor Who were never as amazing as the monsters on the Sixth Floor. There were some very improbable looking people up there!
Which were the scariest Doctor Who villains and monsters?
Well, I liked them all. I liked the villains. I think somehow or other, I have always wanted to be more friendly towards them. You know, but… I liked them all, I think. The Daleks, of course, were always shouting, and always being beaten. They never learned anything! It was such fun to do. I used to like the ones, actually, which were grizzly. You know, and sticky. I like stickiness.
If you could play any villain, who would you like to play?
I was in Frankenstein, and I was going to be the monster. But Christopher Isherwood, who wrote it, didn’t think I was pretty enough. It’s true! It was a big Universal production, and they gave it to a very good looking actor, and then they gave me the part of the ship’s captain. But I’ve never really had the chance to play monsters, I don’t think. Except, of course, in my private life!
How does it feel to still be the longest running Doctor?
Well it’s a bit daunting, actually. I am now 29,200 days old. It’s a pretty daunting thing, that. I can’t believe it that all that time has passed. Isn’t it amazing that it almost makes me immortal. People are still stopping me in the street and saying ‘You were really influential in my life’. I like that a lot, and if they say it nicely I offer them money. Not advice but money! People are more interested in 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 [producer of Doctor Who from 1980-89], how you wanted to play the role and where he wanted to take the series…
Yes, there certainly was. I didn’t like his taste in anything at all! He knew that, and he didn’t like what I was doing because he wanted to make his mark on the programme, quite understandably. When I offered my resignation, he absolutely… he was very demonstrative. He embraced me with tears in his eyes, saying ‘Thank you very much’. I was shocked at that! I thought he might have said ‘Are you sure?’ He was so relieved! After that, I think he sent me some flowers or something, and we became quite good friends when all the tensions had gone and it didn’t matter anymore. But yes, there was… there were arguments 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 agree all the time about that. But that’s all in the past now. And then he died, you see. I think one of the reasons my career kind of stalled a bit after Doctor Who, except for the audio ones, is that the word got around that after working with me, quite a lot of directors, you know… died unexpectedly. Some of them, I believe, in terrible agony. The word got around, and so naturally… I noticed that once I saw Trevor Nunn near Bow Street, and he crossed the road to avoid me, and I said ‘Trevor!’ I thought, why’s he cutting me like that? But people are nervous of actors who make them die. Which I thought was a bit wimpy.
Can you remember how you felt the first time you got a fan letter?
It was a good feeling, yeah. But now it wears me out, because fans often are very demanding, and when I open the letters, there are lots of instructions. Where to sign, what to do. Also, I can tell when people are anxious writing the letters, because I can’t get the letters open. You know those people who put 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? 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 designers I got on very well with. Especially June Hudson. Now, the more flamboyant… The last one I had, it was almost operatic wasn’t it, you know, the purple coat. The big hat and scarf, and everything. I’d like to have worn it in real life, but I can’t at my age be walking around with a big scarf and a walking stick! It just wouldn’t look sexy.
One of your most popular stories is Genesis of the Daleks, which deals a lot with politics and warfare. How important is that kind of subject matter to you?
Well, any character that I’ve played… You know, the Doctor is actually rather priggish, I think. He was terribly politically correct, and I noticed that in the scripts, he’s always a bit soppy really. So I tried to hide that. All that stuff about whether I was going to blow up the Daleks, and then I had to say that lovely line, ‘Have I the right?’ Which was a queue for a song really, but… The reason why I didn’t have the right was [Dalek creator] Terry Nation would have absolutely had me murdered! It was his living, wasn’t it.
Should he have blown up the Daleks, then?
I just tried to play the way I was. I’ve always felt myself to be a kind of benevolent alien, really. Ha ha!
The Doctor Who world still mourns Elisabeth Sladen, who died a few years ago. Of course, she was in the show when you joined. What particular memories do you have of working with Elisabeth?
Well, Elisabeth Sladen… It was a terrible blow to me when she left, because she mistakenly thought a new producer would, at the end of her first year of contract, want to choose his own girl. Apparently that’s very common. 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. People who admire me really can be quite influential with me. I can be quite persuaded if I get enough admiration! And then she was replaced by Louise [Jameson]. We’re good friends now, we’re often working together. But I was very cold towards her, because I was shocked that Elisabeth had gone. It also, of course, changed our physical relationship a lot, because with Elisabeth, I used to be able to throw her into the tunnel and scramble after her. It 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 scramble in afterwards, without raising at least eyebrows! But eventually, we became friendly.
Talking of Elisabeth Sladen, there were rumours that you were going to be appearing in The Sarah Jane Adventures. Was that something that you were going to do?
I think that it was being mooted, at the time when Elisabeth began to be ill. I’d never seen it, you see, but she was so thrilled… But I never got round to doing that. I don’t accept many jobs now, because the thing is… I can’t be bothered! What’s the point in having a rich wife and chasing cheap jobs in the BBC?
Do you know what it was that they were going to ask you to do? Were you going to be playing the Doctor?
Well, I mean, of course I would have been playing the Doctor! [Following the end of The Sarah Jane Adventures, Doctor Who Magazine published details of an unused storyline for the show, featuring Tom as a ghostly, enigmatic figure] After I left Doctor Who… When I played Macbeth after that, of course I did it in the style of Doctor Who. I felt that I had to do it, because the audience were all Doctor Who fans. The other actors didn’t like that! Afterwards some of the people said, ‘I had no idea that Macbeth was such a nice fellow!’ And exactly the same when I played An Inspector Called, you know, a rather dreary old servant. Some American fans used to come. They’d walk for a fortnight! They sat in the front row and in two days, they got to know the play, and so they used to hang around in the corner. When I came on, they used to rush in, [panting] like that. The other actors, again, had no sense of humour at all! They said, look, what’s going on? I said, I’m being adored, that’s what’s going on! What do you want me to do, tell them to go away? They’ve bought the tickets! They didn’t buy the tickets to see you! And it’s true… they didn’t buy the 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 the Doctor?
Only because I was in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Ray Harryhausen, and it was on next door to the BBC. The Odeon there, only about fifty yards from the BBC. 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 when they saw it, they liked my… I was playing a wizard or something, and that got me doing interviews, and one thing led to another. Then I was Doctor Who. In the BBC, the cruelty… when I got it they said ‘Right, you’re on’. And I said, well, 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’ when you get good news, isn’t there! He said, ‘You can’t tell anyone for a fortnight’. I thought, Christ! I hadn’t worked for twenty weeks! You know, I’m working on a building site, and I had to keep my mouth shut for two whole weeks. When I was going to play a big part, you know. It was very painful. But I was happy to do it, that’s why I stayed so long. Why would I walk away from that?
Your last line in Doctor Who is very celebrated. Are you happy with it? ‘It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…’
Well, the fans like lines like that. They like those lines, yeah. I wanted to put in more lines, you know, I wanted to say things like ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ Or things like that, but the BBC didn’t find that funny at all. They didn’t find my ideas… I might have met Shakespeare, you know. I’d go off and get lost somewhere, and then discover that I was a famous Elizabethan actor, or whatever. But 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 supposedly being too scary. What were your thoughts on that, both at the time and now, and do you perhaps think it was something that the adults were worried about more 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, he had three children and 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 count to fifty. Then I’d creep about. It was marvellous, the way these children… sometimes I could hear them squeaking with terror! When I was creeping into cloakrooms and wherever. That idea of being frightened, children like being frightened, don’t they. The other thing is that in television they can go much further than the cinema, because in television you’re watching in a domestic context – that’s why it’s so powerful, I suppose – and when they look away from what’s frightening them, they can see fish fingers, or whatever it is their mother’s giving them, or muesli nowadays… So I never heard anyone complain that I frightened them. I mean, just look at me, and try to imagine me forty years ago if you can… No, I wasn’t at all frightening. Even now, as an old man, I can’t do fright. Ha ha ha! Is there anyone else that wants to know something?
Did you find K9 a blessing or a nuisance?
Well, I found K9… Curiously enough, you know, I’ve got rather bad arthritis now, I’m on some very powerful anti-inflammatories. The doctor said there might be some side-effects, and two side-effects I’ve had recently, are… I’ve started calling my dog, Poppy, K9. And the other thing, I’ve been calling my wife Dorothy. Her real name’s Sue! So I’ve knocked off those pills and I’m just on patches now, so my memory’s coming back a bit. I didn’t like K9 at all, because it meant that every time we had a two-shot, I had to get on my knees, to remind me of the days when I was a Catholic. It was pretty bloody boring being reminded of those days! 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, of course, the BBC had calculated that they were marketing K9, and they didn’t want any discussion about that. But finally I got used to it.
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. Just… no, that’s right. That’s why I’m so delighted to be still playing it! In Waitrose and places like that, I’m still called the Doctor. Lots of old ladies – who weren’t always old ladies – recognise me and say charming things. An old lady said to me recently, after she’d crashed into my trolley three times… I knew something was afoot! She said, ‘It’s so lovely to see you again, Mr Baker. You know, I’ve been a widow for many years and I live quite close by…’ [laughter] Yes, that’s what I thought! And I thought, well, that’s good, you know. Come on now, let’s get to it!
Do you regret never making the Doctor Who film that you planned on making?
There was talk of a… I wrote a film called Scratchman with Ian Marter, but nothing came of it. It’s still in existence, circulating. People look at it and think they can make it into an audio or something like that. But I was out of my depth when it came to how we could 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 this have something to do with your disagreements with John Nathan-Turner, as mentioned earlier?
Yeah, I turned down The Five Doctors because it wasn’t long since I’d left, and also I’d left Doctor Who because I thought I had run my course, but also I wasn’t getting on very well with John. Later we became friends. So when I realised he was going to produce something, I thought… no. Anyway, I didn’t want to play twenty percent of the film, you know… No, I didn’t fancy being just a kind of 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, I think… if they let me tamper with the script…
Have you still got any Doctor Who mementos?
No! I have 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, er, when you’re a hero, all the charities… You know, the thing about charities, and I used to explain that… Do you remember on the street when people used to stop you to sign a banking thing? I used to try to explain to them how terrifying it was. I said, listen, I’m not going to give you any address- I said, well, I’ll give you some money now. But they said, ‘Well, we can’t have money, we want your particulars.’ I said, listen… The minute you give anything to charity, your whole life changes, doesn’t it? Bang goes piece of mind, you’re terrified of the phone going, a knock on the door… That’s what charities do, you know, they’re not interested in your piece 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 at the local hospice, you know, I often go down there because people who are dying are always glad to see me. I remember one old lady. They take me round, you know, and they take the photographers. But one darling old lady who already had about, I suppose thirty 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!’ 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 there! So, I don’t mind doing it down there because who could resist the hospice?
When you were approached to appear in the fiftieth anniversary episode, did you ever contemplate not doing it?
Yeah, I did contemplate not doing it. I was persuaded by a girl called Caroline Skinner, who was the executive producer, and she came to meet me in Rye, at the Mermaid Hotel – the antique place – and she begged me to do it, you see. She’s a very assertive girl, and she was very charming about it, and said I could tamper with the script or whatever. So I said yes to her. Anyway, then the script arrived three months later, and I didn’t much care for the script-
At this point, Tom suddenly notices the glass full of jelly babies that has been sitting on the table in front of him.
Are they jelly babies?
Then, for a few brief seconds, he slips completely back into character, offering one of the sweets to the member of staff sat next to him.
Would you like a jelly baby?
Now, where were we…?
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 ‘Yes’. I said, and you’re asking me who Caroline Skinner is? The producer! ‘Oh, er…’ Tom imitates a kerfuffle on the other end of the phone line. ‘Hello? Er, I’m so sorry, she’s not with us anymore.’ It was only later I found out she’d been murdered by someone else at the BBC, who I suppose was after her job. [Tom is joking!] I never heard of her again, but by that time, you see, I’d agreed to do it! And I tell you, I’m not sorry now. I miss meeting Caroline, she was very sweet.
Are you aware that your appearance upset some of the other Doctors?
Oh I hope so, yes! Thank you very much for reminding me of that. Yes, that really pleased me! Were any of you at ExCeL? Do you remember… Nick Briggs, who’s a charming man who does those lovely, friendly interviews… Well, there were about three thousand people in there. What he really should have done, was the curtain should have gone up… Well, it wasn’t a curtain. He should have called us all on stage, and then introduced us, but he didn’t. He quite reasonably thought ‘I’ll start with the old man’, which means he’s dead by the time I get to him, and he said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Tom Baker.’ I walked on into the light… which was ecstasy. The applause was tumultuous! Absolutely amazing. ‘I hope this never stops!’ Anyway, it went on and on and on, and I was messing around to extend it, and that was a terrible mistake. Because I know as an old actor that in a room, there’s only so much laughter. There’s only so much energy… and I’d taken up about thirty percent of it! 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 show business!
As such an iconic star, how much does Doctor Who affect your everyday life?
Well, it informs my life almost entirely, you know, outside of my home. Because people… I am a famous fiction… and everybody in the shops, 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 wherever – it impinges on me all the time. It’s, in a very benevolent way, as though someone’s saying darling- I mean, Doctor. Sometimes they say darling!
At this point, with beautiful timing, a phone was heard. Whoever’s phone it was, it meant that Tom’s answer had to remain incomplete, as our time had run out. But for around half an hour, Tom had enchanted his audience, making us laugh, gasp and cheer. What a fantastic ambassador for the show he is, and I must congratulate the Horror Channel team for organising such an unforgettable launch event for the world’s longest-running science fiction TV series. How appropriate, though, that our Q&A session ended on a cliffhanger all of its own.
“Who knows, eh?”
Catch Doctor Who on Horror Channel (Sky 319 / Virgin 149 / Freesat 138).