Interview: Tom Baker

TomThe longest-running Doctor on television is creating new fans with his work for Big Finish in a second series of Fourth Doctor audios, appearing alongside Mary Tamm and John Leeson. As well as recording further adventures with Louise Jameson’s Leela, Tom Baker has also starred in the second Big Finish Classic, Barnaby Edwards’ version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. In a wide-ranging chat with Paul Simpson (which also covered everything from 19th century social history to the relative merits of different Doctor Watsons on screen), he talked about returning to roles that he first played four decades ago…



Have you listened to the new version of Treasure Island, which I thoroughly enjoyed?

No I haven’t. I don’t listen or watch things I’ve done. When you do lots of takes of something, for vision or sound, obviously you have an opinion about which was the best take. So if you listen to something, and think, why didn’t they use the other take, It makes you uneasy because you wonder why they didn’t.

Do you consciously try to do it differently each time?

If the director is asking for another take, and it’s not for a technical reason such as an aberration in the sound, then obviously he wants a variety. No one would say, “Do it again, exactly the same…” I don’t think they would – well, I would ask. I’m quite cheeky about that sort of thing! I’d ask why we were redoing it, and then they’d say something flattering like, “You know how it is, Tom, you’ll have another idea, or another slant, or inflect it differently.” It’s quite a jolly relationship: I know the directors… although curiously enough, I didn’t know Barnaby [Edwards] who did this but I know all his colleagues, and they all know me. To hear that you think it’s very good is excellent news and fills me with joy.

I’ve done it on the stage before, a few years back in 1980 at the Mermaid Theatre, directed by a lovely man called Ron Pember.

Tom Treasure IslandDid you approach the part differently this time?

Yes, because thirty odd years later, you’re a different person. Lots of things have been renewed in you, or have declined, and you see things slightly differently or very differently.

I was very well aware that the extraordinary paradox of this adventure story is that a consummate villain, who’s greedy and ruthless and a murderer, still, by the alchemy of fine writing and plotting, remains absolutely adorable, in spite of the fact that everyone like the doctor calls him a blackguard. He’s absolutely bulletproof: they can’t wound him. He’s much more intelligent than them.

That’s the extraordinary paradox of fiction: you can love a murderer. When you’re doing it, you can only do it from his point of view; I don’t want to impose on the character. Having played the part before, I realise that when you enter that world, which you do when you read a novel or go to a play, you’re in that world. It’s not this world, the real world, it’s the world of adventure and greed. The grandees – the doctor and the squire – are just as greedy as the pirates, which I hope comes over.

When I did it before, I had them chop Black Dog’s arm off. Ron Pember didn’t like the idea, and thought it was gross – which it was – but when Black Dog ran away clutching the stump, the captain threw the arm after him.

Another thing was when Blind Pugh is killed. He goes off and the coconut shells go, and then someone says he’s been run down by the customs men. I didn’t want to do that. Because I had a certain amount of influence, when the doctor and the squire told Blind Pugh to go off, he turned round to go, and they shot him in the back. The children in the theatre howled. Then the Squire came back and kicked him. Unfortunately, we couldn’t leave it in.

I also wanted one of the children – obviously it would have to be an actor – to be shouting, and I’d go into the audience and apparently capture him and make him into a pirate. You can do anything you like to start the story off.

I was asked to do it another time, and the script started with a boy watching television. There’s no one way of doing these things because they’re open to all sorts. There’s no universal standard of goodness, no universal standard of health – there’s lots of ways – as long as they are illuminating.

Treasure Island castOf course, since I played Doctor Who, I think – I’ve been told and it doesn’t wound me too much – it has never gone away from me. Even when I played Macbeth, people say I was playing it like Doctor Who. The first time I did the scene with “Is this a dagger I see before me?” where it’s an hallucination, the audience were in fits of laughter. That was a measure of how successful I was in Macbeth, people afterwards said that they had no idea he was such a nice man! That was rather the most crushing thing imaginable…

But do they say you were playing it like the Doctor because you were drawing on yourself?

Well, of course it was because I was drawing on myself! There’s only one Tom Baker! But I was profoundly influenced by the expectations of the audience, who when they come to see me in a play – Educating Rita, or Hedda Gabler – they’ve come to see Tom Baker, the old Doctor Who.

Which gets them through the door… People are perhaps buying Treasure Island because it’s Tom Baker playing Silver – is it a way to get them to experience better literature?

I think that’s a good point. Television is so potent, because it’s mostly watched in a domestic context. It catches people with their critical faculties quite low. If people are watching you again and again, their critical faculties are low, because they’re charmed by what you do. So therefore, they like that.

Television was more potent a few years ago than it is now: what changed it was the video recorder. In those days it was more heavily cultural: you watched television in real time or you were dumb the next day when you discussed it at school. If you hadn’t seen a programme, you had nothing to say and were out of it. Children still insist on watching it in real time because they want to be in on what’s preoccupying everybody.

When I think back over the actors I greatly admired, whether film stars or television actors, I look forward to that kind of quality that they bring to the acting. There’s a kind of eloquence, and a wonderful quality that good actors have of making you believe it at the time of its happening, even when they’re doing something absolutely preposterous. I remember watching Mark Rylance doing a snippet of the play Jerusalem, then glancing at another snippet of him doing Richard II. My view is that over the past few years I’ve never seen anyone quite like him. An amazingly talented actor, who has that very elusive quality.

When I was doing An Inspector Calls, some American fans, all women, came and booked for two weeks, sixteen performances. When they came to know the play, as they would after three or four performances, they used to stand just outside the entrance to the stalls. They knew when I was coming on, so they’d nip in and sit in the front row, and then when I went off, they’d go out again. Of course, you can do whatever you like if you’ve bought the tickets, but it meant their movement in and out of the theatre was an utter rejection of the rest of the cast. That naturally produced certain tensions: “I see your fans are in”. But there was nothing I could do about that!

There’s often quite a lot of tension among actors, particularly in comedy, but one often has to be very, very tactful with one’s fellows – and tact, apparently, is not my strong suit.

Stormcrow 4You’re getting another lease of life with the audio work: is it something you enjoy doing?

When you say it’s another lease of life coming back to Doctor Who, I never really left Doctor Who, or it never left me. That was the only massive success I ever had in my life. It never went away from me.

Fan love is superior to human love – somebody once said that nostalgia, which fandom is, is the mother of loyalty. It’s a huge debt we actors owe the fans. The loyalty of the fans springs from their nostalgia – that’s a funny word which I think means a kind of ache. In French there’s an expression “mal du pays”, that aching for the past. We’re all nostalgic for something, for the long days that have gone by.

Fans remained loyal. They kept writing to me, the series was repeated here and there, the merchandising reminded people, I went aboard to promote it, to Australia, New Zealand and America, so it was never far from me. That’s what people remembered. This wasn’t a new lease of life, but an opportunity to carry on doing it.

When you’re playing a hero, whether it’s James Bond or Sherlock Holmes or Doctor Who, you can vary it. There are many Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Whos, but there is a predictability about them. Within that predictability, when there can’t be a fundamental change – it would be betraying Holmes for the dedicated fans if he wasn’t rude to Watson or became a womaniser– you’re allowed the variety, and that variety is called the performance. No one has failed as Doctor Who, absolutely no one, and there’s been eleven of us now. But they have made changes – not to subvert it, but to make it more modern. Romance is in the air now! I haven’t seen it: I didn’t watch it when I was in it, so I wasn’t about to watch it with someone else in it.

People asked why I stayed so long. I’d had a mild flirtation with movies and been at the National Theatre. I was very down when I got Doctor Who – there was no work about – so when Doctor Who happened to me, my whole life was transformed. It wasn’t just a job, it became a total 24 hour experience day after day after day. I was so euphoric with the success of ti and the affection of the fans and the children, to be their hero…

My private life was rather rackety at the time, so I was sometimes going from my private misery to the joy of being Doctor Who. I’d go to work so full of energy and so enthusiastic – I loved Elisabeth, it was all terrifically emotional. When I was on a tube train, or walking down Oxford Street, I adored that warmth, because I’d never experienced it. It’s a great pleasure and honour. Going to work with new actors every few weeks, I like being with actors – we’d exchange stories, and I would try to influence certain scenes.

People asked if I ever got tired. Why would I get tired of being happy? Jeremy Brett used to say there were some people who were actors, and others who were “becomers” – in the way he became Sherlock Holmes. You always got the impression he was in a different world. You really felt that he had secrets as Holmes: the intensity and his features were so strong. I don’t think he ever did anything else on television or stage after that…

Tom RasputinWhen I first did Doctor Who, I knew I was following a very, very powerful performance from Jon Pertwee who had been in it for a long time. He was terrific at the publicity for it. But in no time at all, the fans had accepted me – I don’t mean they had forgotten Jon. He had a hard core of fans – he still does, although they’re getting on a bit now. After me came Peter Davison…

Now, there’s an interesting point about audience acceptance. When I got Doctor Who, no one had ever heard of me even though there was a film on, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. But when Peter took over from me, he already had a fictional identity, and a huge one at that. He’s a marvellous actor, Peter, in the same way that Alec Guinness was marvellous: he hasn’t got this great outgoing powerful personality, so he’s able to stick his performances on himself.

When he became Doctor Who, I thought he’d have problems because the children were being asked to suspend their disbelief twice: that’s not the Doctor, that’s the vet. And some of them must have done that. But he overcame it. And David Tennant is the most charismatic and amazing actor. He was not only a great success in Doctor Who, but the five or six things he’s done since, including Broadchurch now, is absolutely star-studded. He hasn’t put a foot wrong.

Someone asked me if I found it difficult accepting the dottiness of Doctor Who. No, I didn’t, but I’m dotty myself: I was brought up so religiously, and to believe in miracles. The miracles of the Christian religion are absolutely in line with Doctor Who: people are being transmuted and flying and coming back to life with physics playing no part in it, like walking on water, or feeding 5,000 people, or maybe the best of them, first of all, turning water into wine.

Who Daleks TomI am so at home doing the plays now. Do you know the story about when Big Finish asked me to do it? They made little movements towards me, and I’d ignored them, and then I met somebody who told me they were wonderful to work with… So Nick [Briggs] and David [Richardson] came to my house and they offered me a whole series of jobs. I said, “Where do we record?” They said somewhere in north London. I said I couldn’t do that, schlep up and down especially with overnights for long scripts. There was a terrible pause.

The next thing was they rang me up and said they’d found a studio in Wadhurst. That’s where we do it. I think at first the actors were a bit shocked, but now they love it. We have lovely lunches down there and they come down on an empty train because we don’t start till 10, then we wrap about 4 so they go back on empty trains. The ones who live south of the river coming by car find it even easier. It’s all worked out really well..

It was a terrible blow that we never did get Elisabeth, and then losing Mary Tamm… Then there was the amazing irony – like a scene out of a Hardy novel: Jude the Obscure or Tess – when Marcus died the night of the funeral, sending his thanks emails for people’s affection for Mary. That was incredible.

It was clever of David to put that tribute on the first one; because I don’t listen to them but I think it’s good to put those snippets and impressions. She was so glamorous and so lovely.

treasureislandcover_cover_largeTreasure Island is now available from Big Finish, and the second series of Fourth Doctor Adventures continues with The Justice of Jalxar (guest-starring Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter as Jago and Litefoot). For more details click here



Thanks to David Richardson for help setting up this interview, and for the photos



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