Published on April 17th, 2014 | by Andrew Reynolds
Tom Baker Launches The Horror Channel’s Classic Doctor Who With Typical Humour
It’s a pivotal moment: crouched down at the Fourth Doctor’s side, Harry and Sarah, eyes fixed on their time-traveling companion, where, clasped between his fingers, two wires, held just inches away from each other and, ultimately, the total annihilation of the Daleks.
Those familiar blue eyes, made all the more striking by the six LCD monitors showing perhaps the Doctors greatest, and most horrifying adventure, Genesis of the Daleks, betray a man caught in two minds: Does he do what no time traveller should ever do? Does he irrecoverable alter the history not only of this race, but the hundreds of others, crushed under the weight of Dalek oppression?
It’s enough to make anyone gulp on their Prosecco.
[pullquote align="right"]I was persuaded by a girl called Caroline Skinner… she came to meet me in Rye, in some little hotel, The Mermaid Hotel, a lovely antique place, and she begged me to be in it, you see… she was a very persuasive girl, very charming, and said I could tamper with the script and whatever; so I said yes to her. Then the script arrived two months later and I didn’t much care for it…”[/pullquote]
Canapes held to lips, the audience, gathered in front of the screens inside the Loft at the Ivy, are momentarily transported back to a time when all their nightmares were kept at bay by a man who could carry this kind of weight as freely as one might carry a bag of Jelly Babies.
Those gathered in the crowd who are not as familiar with why all this matters so much, are too caught up in the drama to really question why he has such a long scarf and just what exactly is a Dalek because that’s what has always been. As long as Doctor Who has existed somewhere; there’s always been a man in an improbable scarf and there will always be Daleks to torment him.
Or will there?
The Doctor hovers the wires perilously close to doomsday; Sarah, caught up in the horrors of both this and of past encounters, screams for him to do it; wipe out the Daleks once and for all. With sweat forming on his brow; those blue eyes take in the enormity of the wires before him; his hands steady, the words tumble from his lips as though he were thinking aloud:
“Do I have the right?” Booms out of the sound system. A hush pervades the expectant crowd.
“AH! HA! HAAAHA!”
From inside the room, a laugh as infectious, rambunctious and familiar as it’s always been echoes from a small stain glass alcove.
Leaning on his walking stick, Tom Baker, watching his younger self wrestle with the mother of all ethical debates, can’t help but laugh.
He laughs. Then you laugh (it’s that kind of laughter)
Then his younger self, momentarily caught in two minds, fades back into the time vortex; a familiar theme rings out and the great man rises; taking stock of the warm introduction and rapturous applause, before seating himself comfortably next to Horror Channel queen Emily Booth; to tell us a little about the past, his past, your past and why this all has something to do with making your Easter a truly terrifying one…
It’s earlier that day; rows of empty tea cups sit turned over on saucers awaiting the command of ‘when’ from thirty journalists – jagged cubes of sugar are pressed to the sides of their glass bowls. The bar is mostly just for leaning on. For someone who devoted several paragraphs of his own autobiography Who on Earth is Tom Baker? to just how an actor should cross a threshold; it’s almost disappointing that no one sees him enter the Loft at The Ivy.
First, there’s a low hum of electricity as excitement and nerves oscillate; Tom Baker is before us. Simple commands like: ‘gather round, take a seat’ seem complex and beyond reason: how can a man move in a coherent fashion when the Fourth Doctor just happens to be in front of you?
Seats catch us and a Question and Answer session quickly forms; the stories that unfold are familiar to anyone with a passing interest in Tom Baker but they are also different; with small embellishes here and there as though they were tailored specifically for, what is, a very accommodating crowd.
You quickly get the feeling that if he were talking to you alone; the story would expand and contract; alter and change, based solely on how you react to what’s before you – you almost want to dump great chucks of memory just to react anew to old stories. Just to see where this born performer might take them.
Take, for instance, the familiar tale of an out of work jobbing actor; working on a building site to make a little extra scratch, who writes a letter to the BBC’s Head of Serials Bill Slater, which somehow, after a long, circuitous route through the bowels of the Beeb results in his name ending up on the list of actors to replace the departing Jon Pertwee in Doctor Who.
These are the stories that defy repetition:
“And, 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’ when you get good news – he said: ‘you can’t tell anyone for a fortnight’ I thought: ‘Christ, I haven’t worked for twenty weeks’ you know, I’m working on a building site, and I had to keep my mouth shut for two weeks that 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.
His enthusiasm for the part is matched in intensity of his die hard fans; now grown up and with children of their own – they still thank him on a daily basis, be it in person or via handwritten mail, for the way he shaped their formative years:
“A man stopped me at Oxford Street and said: ‘Tom Baker, I can’t believe it’ and I caught a glimpse of myself in the shop window and I couldn’t believe it either.
He kept saying: ‘I can’t believe it’ and so he said: ‘Look when I was a boy, I was in care, in Wales somewhere, in a home’ and he said: ‘Nobody wanted us, nobody wanted me’, he said and then his eyes filled with tears, he said: ‘And you made a difference.’ And I was terribly touched by that and I went to speak to him and he couldn’t speak; he just gave that little eloquent punch that sometimes people do. A little bang like that and he was gone – I couldn’t pursue it.”
However, firstly, there’s the grisly business of Horror. Namely, the Horror Channels fantastic season of classic Doctor Who episodes, Who on Horror – seven episodes, one from each of the classic Doctors starting on Good Friday (18th April) – designed to add a little bit of the horrific to your hot crossed buns.
For a Doctor who was so steeped in Gothic overtones; which serials truly terrified the great man himself?
“Ah, I thought they were all great comedy when I was doing them but I suppose but they’re going to talk about; they are very obvious aren’t they? It’s going to be The Talons of Weng-Chiang and things like that. They’ve taken their time to discover them. I mean it’s only been 32 years since I finished it. It seems like only yesterday.
Now the elder statesman of Doctor Who; have the encroaching years made him any less aware of the daily horrors that pervade our existence?
“I’m mean I’m very interested in Horror. I mean not so much now because horror is an actuality with me now. We like to be frightened and we like to suspend our thoughts…We all want to get away from sanity and chastity and virtue and be frightened into another world. When in reality, of course, we want nice neighbours and no crime.”
But what of the man himself? With his wide eyes; maniacal grin and quicksilver mind – did he ever feel frightening? Could the hero to all those children occasional scare them too?
“I mean that idea of being frightened; children like playing at being frightened don’t they? And the other thing is, in television, you can go much further than in the cinema because in television they are watching in a domestic context – that’s why it’s so powerful, I suppose and when they look from what’s frightening them, they can see Fish Fingers or whatever it is that their mother is giving them. Or Muesli nowadays.
So I never heard anyone complain that I frightened them; I mean just look at me and try and imagine me forty years ago if you can; I wasn’t at all frightening. Even now as an old man I can’t do frightened.”
He isn’t wrong. There’s something, to use a Fourth Doctor phrase, indomitable about Tom Baker – he has taken on all comers and has outlived them all; which is why his opinion is so highly sort after – take for instance, his most recent successor, Peter Capaldi – what does he make of the new man and what advice does he have to share?
“Ah, no. No, I don’t have any advice for anyone. Not for anyone; certainly not someone who’s going to be playing Doctor Who. He’s a very accomplished actor; I’ve seen him do those mean things, you know, swearing into his mobile.
Nobody has ever failed have they? Nobody has ever failed, so there you are. He’s going to be alright.
I mean, we nod to each other, you know at conventions, we nod but we don’t really….no we don’t.”
Later on that day, there’s something of a scrum – it was always bound to happen – if you put the iconic hat and scarf in the same room as Tom Baker, someone will always ask him to try it on; and who is he to refuse a request from his adoring crowd?
Now, before a gaggle of onlookers; with phones held high, images shake in and out of focus as first the hat, and then the scarf are placed upon him – he stands, impossibly tall, even with the slight stoop to accommodate the cane; the Doctor and the actor, reborn.
What makes it all the more fascinating is, standing either side of a man completely in his element are the costumes of his predecessors, the Fifth and Sixth Doctors – you get the feeling that even if his flesh and blood counterparts were filling those other iconic threads, all eyes would still be on Tom Baker.
It’s no disrespect to his fellow Doctors; but this professional, if slightly telling, relationship with his counterparts was a topic Tom kept coming back to; with obvious delight:
“It’s only recently dawned on me that there were other Doctors! I don’t know them, I’ve got no desire to know them. I’ve 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.”
For Tom, the humdrum day to day trudge paled into insignificance when compared to the wonders that Doctor Who could create for an actor who was always felt a bit ‘alien’:
“You see, the thing is, I can say it now because it doesn’t matter what I say now; I was playing Doctor Who before I got the part and that’s why it made me so happy when I did get it. And I didn’t watch myself because, I was so opinionated about which shots we used: ‘we did a better take than that’ and so I just celebrated coming out of obscurity and into being a children’s hero. Not to get soppy about it, it really gave me enormous pleasure and I did a lot to promote the programme, and still do.”
With this sense of, not ownership, but actual inhabitancy of the Doctor; it begs the question; did he feel any sense of propriety when he briefly worked with the then current Doctor Matt Smith while filming for the 50th anniversary?
“I mean going to Cardiff, on a winter’s morning, at four o’ clock, couldn’t possibly be fun. He was nice, and I didn’t understand the cameras anymore, because of the HD and I didn’t understand that. I was a bit uneasy, you know. But Matt Smith was a charming young man, and we did this little scene, which people liked a lot.
But there were thousands of people there, thousands of thousands of people. It’s, I have to tell you, and also I have a big, poor background in Liverpool, so, I wanted to be, everybody wants to be loved and admired and everything; and I always wanted to be adored. Like lots of people who like to be adored.
So when it happened, and suddenly I was adored, I was ready for it… 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 sixteen or eighteen adventures; so it’s still going on.”
But even that devotion to the part of the Doctor comes with a price; there was, for a brief dark period, a time when Tom Baker contemplated not appearing in the celebration of that character’s legacy; The Day of the Doctor:
“I was persuaded by a girl called Caroline Skinner [former Executive Producer]…she came to meet me in Rye, in some little hotel, The Mermaid Hotel, a lovely antique place, and she begged me to be in it, you see.
And she was a very persuasive girl, and she was very charming about it, and said I could tamper with the script and whatever; so I said yes to her.
Anyway, then the script arrived two months later and I didn’t much care for the script, so I rang the BBC, and said: ‘Listen, get me Caroline Skinner’ and they said: ‘Who?’ and I said: ‘Is that the Doctor Who Production Office?’ and they said: ‘yeah’ and I said: ‘You are asking me who Caroline Skinner is? The Producer’ ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, she’s not with us anymore.’ And it was only later that I found out she had been murdered by someone else at the BBC, who was after her job but I never heard of her again and at that time you see, I’d agreed to do it.
So, I’m not sorry now. I missed meeting with Caroline, she was very sweet.”
So what did Tom make of the enigmatic Curator? Was he an elderly Fourth Doctor or something else entirely?
“Well, typical of the BBC, nobody knows. I mean he could be anything; the next Director General for all we know…you’ve really got to be able to suspend your disbelief; I mean anything can happen at the BBC. I mean the monster on Doctor Who are never so amazing as the monsters on the sixth floor.”
Ever the tease, his casting undoubtable caused friction with some of the other Doctors; a fact that again brings forth that recognisable, puckish grin:
“Oh, I hope so, yes! Thanks a lot for reminding me of that! Yeah, that really pleased me!
This playful, barbed sense of entitlement is suffused in his recollections of that last time the Doctors were to united together at ExCeL for the Saturday of the 50th anniversary celebration weekend:
And the other thing that was a terrible mistake made was actually they introduced us all at ExCeL, Nick Briggs, who is a charming man who does those lovely friendly interviews, well, there were about 3,000 people in there, and what he really should have done was, the curtain should have gone up, he should have called us all on the stage and then introduced us but he didn’t.
He quite reasonably start with the old man in case he’s dead by the time he gets to him, and he said: ‘ladies and gentlemen, Doctor number four, Tom Baker’ now, I walked on into the light, and it was ecstasy; the applause was tumultuous, absolutely amazing; I hope this never stops…
…I kept thinking, if this goes on, the other boys are going to come out in silence. So naturally I went on.”
It wasn’t just older Doctors that Tom was offered the chance to appear with again. Before the untimely passing of Elisabeth Sladen, there were rumours that this much-loved pairing would reunite in The Sarah Jane Adventures – and like most of the Doctor Who community, Tom still bears her loss:
“Well, Elisabeth Sladen was a terrible blow to me when she left because she mistakenly thought, a new producer would, at the end of her first year 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 and people who admire me, really, you know, can be quite influential with me. I can really be quite persuaded by giving up admiration. She was so good about it.”
So shocked was he by her departure, it initially soured his burgeoning relationship with new companion Louise Jameson:
“It also, of course, changed our physical relationship, because with Elisabeth Sladen, I used to be able to throw her into a tunnel and scramble after her and it would be absolutely great. But when Louise arrived, playing the character Leela, wearing very few clothes, I couldn’t throw her into a tunnel and scramble in afterwards without at least raising, at least, eyebrows.”
But which role would Tom have played if this reunion had gone ahead?
“I think it was being mooted, at a time when Elisabeth began to be ill, I’d never seen it you see. She was so thrilled; I always had a terrific, tenuous thing for her, you know.I never met her out of the studio except around the time she was doing that but I never got around to doing that; but I don’t accept many jobs now because the thing is, I can’t be bothered and what’s the point of having a rich wife and chasing cheap jobs at the BBC?
Of course I’ll be playing the Doctor, Christ man; after I left Doctor Who, when I played Macbeth, of course I did it in the style of Doctor Who because I felt I had to do it because all the audience were Doctor Who fans. The other actors didn’t like that. Afterwards, one of the reviewers said: ‘I had no idea that Macbeth was such a nice fellow?’”
So let’s end where we began with genesis – namely the Genesis of the Daleks – which now plays out behind the mingling crowds as music drowns out Terry Nations horrifying account of perversions of spirit and of will that moments ago kept lips from wine glasses.
Early, at the Q & A, Tom considered the political and social ramifications of his larking about in very analogous waters:
“I mean, the character that I played, the Doctor is rather priggish I think. So my job was often to hide that. He was always terribly politically correct and I notice still in scripts that it was there… So I tried to hide that all the time.
But all that stuff about whether I was going to blow up the Daleks and then I had to say that lovely line: ‘do I have the right?’ which was a cue for a song really.
The reason why I didn’t have the right was that Terry Nation would have absolutely had me murdered! It was his living!
Again, Tom seems happier just occupying the world of the Doctor; the jester who crashed the party – the ramifications were for those who took the responsibility on; the writers, the directors, the crew – Tom was just visiting, a friendly traveller:
“I just tried to play the way I was really. I’ve always felt myself a kind of a benevolent alien really.”
My word, don’t you just love him?