Tom Baker

Photo: Tom Baker

When Tom Baker took over as The Doctor in Doctor Who, television gained a new icon. But there is, of course, a lot more to Tom Baker's talents than one role, as his appearances in The Life and Loves of a She Devil, Medics and many more programmes testify.

He was interviewed on 29 September 2001 by The League of Gentlemen's Mark Gatiss, a long-time admirer of his work.

Interview © BFI 2001

Introduction

Mark Gatiss: Ladies and gentlemen, Tom Baker...

[Applause]

I think they like you. Tom, you've become an institution, a bit like Bedlam. Did you ever imagine, back in Liverpool, that this might have happened?

Tom Baker: Well, I didn't believe that exactly this would happen, but I was brought up being able to believe in anything that was preposterous or unbelievable - like God, for example, or that Jews were the best comedians. I was brought up believing all sorts of improbable things in Liverpool because this passed for Irish Roman Catholic wisdom. I was brought up not to question anything, if you put your hand up they'd say, 'Not now, Baker.' Or my mother would strike me. Quite affectionately, but although she was affectionate, she was quite well built.

[Laughter]

So, no, I can't. I just wanted to please people and... I'm very glad to be here, even if I couldn't imagine it. Ha! Ha! Oh, God...

[Laughter]

MG: You describe your ambition in your book, Who on Earth is Tom Baker? as wanting to be an orphan. Is that because you had a good War?

TB: No. I wanted to be an orphan because I was ordinary, like any other child, though I was rather taller. In fact, I've only grown about two inches since I was seven. I wanted to be an orphan simply because, in Liverpool at that time, if you were an orphan the American President sent you presents. It was just incredible. All in the same bad taste: baseball hats, silly shorts, all with cartoon characters on. So I used to think, 'Why has he got a funny sweater on from America and that baseball cap? It's because his mam got blown up.'

So I thought, 'Jesus. Blow me mam up on the way back from the Sefton Arms.' Children are very impressionable.

I did try to read that book - or re-read it - recently. Because somebody left me a copy...

[Laughter]

And I was quite shocked at what I'd wrote. I thought, 'Did I write this?' I'm a sort of Buddhist, like all actors are, you know, that nonsense about not bathing in the same river twice - you're not even the same person bathing in the same river. So actors, it seems to me - I don't know much about them, I avoid them like the plague, especially the ones at my age, but inevitably I do meet them - and they do seem to me to be a bit like me in that they are not really certain who they are. Of course, lots of people...you must be the same. The idea that there are a lot of Tom Bakers in there, and depending on whom I'm with - did you like that, whom: the accusative case...

[Laughter]

MG: Very rare.

TB: Yes, yes.

MG: Did you have a grindingly poor background, then?

TB: Oh, well I was as inadequate as the next braggart.

[Laughter]

Poverty was really wonderful. The Roman Catholic Church should still be running the comedy department at the BBC. The minute they let Anglicans and Jews in, everything got very predictable. The Roman Catholic Church can make 'murder' sound like 'charity', you know?

The great religious texts - I read them all the time because I live in the country and it's so boring - are to justify the function of religion. I'll be quick about this, because it's a slight subject...

[Laughter]

The whole function of religion is simply to comfort us in our misunderstanding, to justify why we suffer. In the Christian religion especially, there are the great paradoxes: 'Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.' Mark Twain remarked, rather sardonically, 'It will be very interesting to see how long they can hold onto it for.'

[Laughter]

'Blessed are the poor, for they shall see God.' We had to go to bed early, because the lights had gone out, and my mother used to say to her sister, 'Cor, thank God we're not rich. The poor were grateful for being poor, it made us feel holy. In the 19th century a lot of writers, Russian writers too, attributed all sorts of mysticism to the poor, as if the poor had special insights. Of course, they don't know anything. I know what it's like being poor - all you think about is being rich. I so wanted to have some money. Not an enormous amount of money, but, you know, a bundle.

When I was a young man, it was terrible. I couldn't, err... Well, because I'll probably never be invited back here again, I've never been invited to the same place twice... I couldn't do the deed with poor girls. It was terrible. But if they had a few shillings... My God! Absolutely! I had a member like a skittle.

MG: Is it true now?

TB: No, no. It's not true now. Ah-ha!

MG: Did the church draw you because of its theatricality?

TB: Well, the church drew me because of the theatricality, because I had a natural impulse to wear women's clothes. So the only way you could do it without being beaten up - because in those days if you were a nancy-boy or a transvestite they hanged you in the name of Jesus, the poor that is, I'm not talking about the rich, they didn't care -

[Laughter]

So this impulse to get dressed up, and this desire to have women's clothes on and sniff incense... And, of course, it meant that I was hallucinating from a very early age. Because the incense in those days is not like it is now. Now, it's so politically correct that you could let a baby sniff it and nothing would happen. But the sweet, suffocating smell of incense... And the beautiful idea - I love scams - the beautiful idea that no-one understood what the priest was saying. This was absolutely brilliant! It's the way you say it. If a priest says, 'This is my body,' you might think, 'Oh, really? S'not much.' But if he says, 'Hoc est enim corpus meum,' you think, 'Wow.'

[Laughter]

So with some of these rich girls that I used to go for - who often of course were thick, or they wouldn't have gone for my chat - I used to do it in latin. 'Hoc est enim corpus meum...' And the silly cows used to fall for it! They used to take the fall, like that, legs straight in the air, and I used to think, 'Boy, will they never learn...'

[Laughter]

Ohh. Ask me another one.

[Laughter]

Ghost Detectives

MG: I will. Are you strangely drawn to death?

TB: I am ineluctably drawn to death, because I am old. I remember, rather sadly, the days when I wasn't afraid of it. But now I am. It makes me uneasy. The idea of dying on a trolley with no cameras there. I live near a graveyard, there's one at the side of my gothic house. Sometimes I'm good to the dead - well, they're harmless enough. Though some of them haunt us. And when you come to a place like this, lots of them entertain us, because when you're a member of the bfi">bfi... Is this the bfi">bfi?

MG: Yes...

TB: When you're a member of the bfi, you the living - and I can feel you're alive - are largely entertained by the dead. This is the glorious achievement of moving pictures. Sometimes I look out over the dead, and no matter how bad I feel - and occasionally I feel bad - I think, it could be worse. And I think about Mr Cheeseman, and I go over his tummy with my Honda mower.

I was feeling rather irascible, and I looked out over the dead and shouted, 'Wankers!' Which was an appalling thing to say. But I feel that this is a confessional night. Then suddenly my wife, who I didn't know was there, said, 'Are you sick or something?' I said, 'Oh, no. Go away. What would you know about the dead?' And she just shrugged. Most of the women who have lived with me are finally reduced to just shrugging.

[Laughter]

MG: Do you believe in ghosts?

TB: Yes. And more importantly, ghosts believe in me! Actually, one of my girlfriends was a ghost once. It wasn't quite satisfactory, because we couldn't consummate it. But she was mysterious. Actually, I'm doing a series on ghosts called The Ghost Detectives for the BBC, so naturally it's not at all funny. Some people might think it's not at all interesting.

So when the man asked me to do this job - he was awfully nice, they always send nice men to ask me because they know that otherwise I'll just say, 'Oh, piss off. I don't need you'... What's the point of having a rich wife and then having to work for the BBC? That's not the only reason I stay with her, I promise you. I think she may be here tonight. If you see a woman next to you, shrugging, that may be my wife.

[Laughter]

But the man said to me, 'Listen, Tom, we want you to present this show. You will be 'the watcher'. Do you know anything about ghosts?'

So naturally, like all actors do, I said, 'Oh yes. I do. I know a lot about ghosts.'

He said, 'Really?' And as soon as he said 'really' like that, I knew he knew nothing about them at all. 'What do you know about ghosts?'

'Well, they're everywhere. I believe in them, and they believe in me. But the amazing thing is, although they are everywhere, the moment you bring a camera in they all bugger off.'

And his head went down and he said, 'I know, I know.'

'So what are we going to do?'

He said, 'Perhaps you can mask that?'

So we spent the whole six hours with infra-red cameras and thermometers all over the place... One theatre we were at, Margate - a very haunted place - they actually put a thermometer up the cat's arse, in case during the night it spotted a ghost and became all jagged with static.

[Laughter]

But I can tell you know, there's no point in watching it. We didn't see a ghost.

[Laughter]

If anyone asks you who told you not to watch it, say it was Tom.

A monk's life

MG: How did you become a monk?

TB: I became a monk because I failed my eleven-plus. You may giggle, but I've never forgiven the Liverpool education system for failing me. It was a terrible disaster. So, the only way out of the pattern in Liverpool of working in factories, or on the docks, or joining the Merchant Navy, was through education, you see. If you couldn't get out through education - leave home, find new skills - then you were absolutely knackered. However, there was an alternative dramatic outlet for the poor, which was to join a religious order.

Historically, the church has always drawn its servants from the poor. Now, of course, and I was delighted to read this, they didn't have one single boy in Liverpool who wanted to be a priest! The poor know better now, they really know better. We didn't. It gave kudos to the family - people said, 'Oooh, she's got a son who's a priest,' or, 'She's got two daughters who are nuns.' So that's the way out, you see. So when somebody said that they were looking for heroes, you see, that was it. I joined up and became a monk.

It was terribly sad, really, because it wasn't where I wanted to be, and, looking back, as far as I remember... Because you must mistrust you memories, because memories really are how I imagine it was. Once something is a few weeks away, 'I think it was like that...' We can't be sure, because it's been refracted. So when I look back, I don't know if any of them were happy. We were not allowed to talk very much - that's why I haven't stopped talking since I got out.

[Laughter]

We were obsessed with all this poverty, and 'Blessed are the poor' and being meek and turning the other cheek, and all that sort of thing. You were never allowed to read St Matthew, Chapter 10, Verse 36, 'I come not to bring peace, but the sword.' That was excised. Just as Shakespeare was excised - in Othello, Brabantio cries out, 'Even now, some great black ram is tupping your lily-white ewe.' That was all wiped out. I only found out the other day because I hadn't read Othello for a long time.

So it was a desperate time, you see. And the chastity. Pwor! I nearly said I can't tell you, but I can tell you, and I will. The men amongst you - and the women too, even the shruggers - will understand. There is nothing so debilitating... or there are few things so debilitating, as an old erection. To have a stalk-on, for a year, is very debilitating. To have a stalk-on for five years induces - I don't know if you go to monasteries, I suppose it still goes on, there are still daft people who take these vows... Before I joined up, they let me have a look at them... Could a woman lend me a long dress? Sorry, suddenly I wanted to put a frock on again...They used to walk like this, you see, and I used to think that it was because of piety.

It wasn't so. They all had stalks-on, and they had to go like that so that their robe came out and masked the fact that they all had stalks-on. Now in my intake - when it dawned on me, because it did dawn on me, even though I'd failed my eleven-plus I knew a stalk from a handsaw - the forty of us have all got stalks-on! Forty fellows with stalks-on. It was terrifying.

Some people would say to you, 'How's your vow of chastity, brother?' And you'd say, 'Well... It's a dog's life, Father.' And if it wouldn't go away, which it wouldn't, they used to send you along to Brother Richard, a dreadful man. He had a hair-lip and teeth on only one side - that wasn't the main reason why I hated him, though - and he, and this is an appalling admission, I hope there's no-one from the press here, he used to actually bite your dick.

[Laughter]

I am appalled! I cannot understand why you are not weeping. I wept! Well, that would lower your boom for a while, you know? But once the wounds had healed, it would be up again... The anxiety was, you see, that you might give in to an impure thought. If that happened... Well, it didn't happen. There were gothic windows - it was a fairly clichéd place - and one old boy, who'd been there about thirty years, he suddenly let the devil into his head and gave way to an impure thought. He ejaculated with, because he'd been there thirty years, with such force that he was thrown backwards through the window and fell head-first into the moat.

[Laughter]

They knew what the cause of his death was because he had ejaculated so hard, they found the residue on a picture of The Sacred Heart twenty feet away across the room. And the Brother Superior came into the room and knew exactly what had happened, and for that reason, we never said a word.

Eventually, his sandals - you could just see his sandals sticking out of the moat - eventually they rotted away and no-one said a word.

[Laughter and applause]

MG: You bloody liar...

TB: No faith, you see, no faith...

MG: Tell me about lying. You're very keen on lying, you're a great fan.

TB: Well, I think, actually, that the whole point of communicating rhetoric when you're an actor - or a waiter, it's very like that, because a waiter takes the credit for the chef - the actor takes the credit for the writer, and somehow the director takes the credit for the lot. Most of the time you are asked to be different people. There is nothing special about actors, the difference between any of you who are not actors and me is that it's my profession. It is because it is only when the lie is absolutely beautiful and perfect that the truth is realised.

Now, that's not a paradox at all, it's a very simple truth of acting. When Versheinin, the actor playing Vershenin, dupes himself entirely that he is feeling moved about his wife threatening to commit suicide, or no-one loves him, and he's telling this to Masha, who's lonely, and he's seducing Masha. This is a ghastly thing to do, simply because he's raising her expectations, and he leaves her weeping at the end. When I saw Robert Stephens and Maggie Smith do that, I was overpowered by the power of the lie. The pretence was so perfect that I believed him entirely. So naturally I'm interested in telling lies.

Not the malicious lies that damn someone's character - unless it would get a big laugh...

[Laughter]

Or unless it's someone very powerful, I wouldn't tell a mean story about someone who was ordinary, because it's a waste of a good joke. But if it's someone who is famous and powerful, who people might be afraid of, then I might have a go. So I am interested in that distortion. But there's nothing so boring as people who keep going around telling you the truth! They're so dull. If they say, 'Well, if you want my opinion...' say, 'No, not today. Don't bother.'

We need to look at each other sideways and caressed and pinched. We need little signals to mask the fact that a lot of the time we don't really know what's going on.

Dickens

MG: Is that what drew you to Dickens, with its preponderance of hypocrites?

TB: Well, the hypocrites in Dickens, of course... All of those leading parts in Dickens are very boring, but actors love playing those subordinate parts because they're fantastic, and you love them. I suppose the biggest mystery of all literature focuses on Jack Falstaff, in Henry IV Parts One and Two, where you have this monster, but somehow or other we love him. In spite of the fact that he has no moral grandeur at all, somehow or other, compared to the people around him, we always respond to Falstaff.

In Dickens people like Pecksniff are so wonderful compared to the other characters simply because there is this difference between us as people... in real life, it seems to me - mind you, I could have it wrong, you can judge in a minute - in real life we want to be surrounded by good, nice, amusing people. We want our children to be healthy and loyal to us. We want our lovers to be faithful and we want to be secured and not threatened. Some peace. But in our imaginations we want crime and fornication and adultery and appalling violence. It is extremely interesting that it is the middle classes who read crime novels. There would be no film industry without criminals, and the criminals know this. We wouldn't have a Humphrey Bogart of James Cagney, so in fiction the more turbulence there is, the happier we are.

So we live on two levels. One is the real level, and then the other is the private level. So when we're walking along the street we have no idea of what seething, violent thoughts someone is having as they look at people.

I had a letter from a girl I knew in the biblical sense many years ago, and she said how now she was terribly sad that she had become a matron and was no longer a sex object. So I wrote back a very sweet letter reassuring her that she'd never be a matron to me. That's because I'll never see her again...

[Laughter]

Actors love the Dickens' characters because you can really give it the gun, whereas the leading characters are dull.

MG: Why don't we see you in more Dickens?

TB: I don't work as often as I should. I'm a very amiable sort of chap, as you can see... I met a little boy the other day, I'm famous in my district, and I said to him very conspiratorially, 'Do you want a pound?'

'Yeah, OK.'

So I gave him the pound, and we had a look round, and then he said, 'You couldn't make it two, could you?'

I adore that boy. That would go in Dickens all over the place. Now, the reason I don't work as often as I think I should is because... Quite recently I did a film, and I met this director, and he was very small and he was disgusting to look at. He had an awful voice, and it's very difficult - I don't mind, because if I see a leper in the street and enough people are watching, I'll rush over, especially if there's a camera, and give him a kiss...

[Laughter]

That's because when I see a leper, I immediately become St Francis of Assisi. But this director said, 'Hi, I'm your director.'

'You can't be.' And he was surrounded by the high brass of the production and he said, 'I am.'

'You can't be. You can't possibly be a director, you're pulling my leg. You just want an autograph.' He was appalled by this. Several people reassured him - because he was quite powerful, this director. So I said, 'Look. I'm so sorry that I didn't think that you were the director, it's just that when you welcomed me like this I wanted to really tell you how much I admired you for your courage. I mean your moral courage, as well as your physical courage.'

Now, this made him very uneasy. He was a Canadian. He said, 'What do you mean?' I knew he was going to say that, I was ready with it. I said, 'You must have heard?'

'Heard what?'

'It's just that after working with me, several directors have died afterwards. Some of them in mysterious circumstances, and all of them in agony.'

[Laughter]

And this little fellow wet himself straight away, which didn't reassure me. He shouldn't have wet himself because he was about 27. And he was backing away, I could hear him whining, and everyone was patting him on the back saying, 'It's a joke, Corey, it's a joke. He's British. That's the way they talk over there.'

That's why I don't get all this work in Dickens, you see. People say, 'What about Tom Baker to play Pecksniff?' And the director says, 'What? Are you joking? I've got a wife and four kids!'

[Laughter]

'He might be alright to buy you a drink, but give him a job and you die four weeks later!'

So the word has gone out, amongst the cowards. So the only ones who will employ me are the manic depressives or the suicidal. That's the reason I don't work very often.

MG: I suggested you as Mr Dick in David Copperfield, so I was going to ask, how would your Dick would have been? But I think I know the answer...

TB: Oh, well I would have been alright as Mr Dick, yes. The great paradox about Dickens is that Mr Dick was supposed to be this saintly figure. Dickens was a great Christian writer, he often made references to the New Testament and, indeed, wrote a story of the life of Christ for his own children. The wonderful paradox was that he was a terrible father and a very unkind husband. This is very noticeable because he was the one who defended children against abuse and suffering, and talked about fidelity and happiness. All those dangerous romantic notions that we know hardly ever work. Except amongst the demented.

But a prodigious writer, eh? Sometimes we expect people who have marvellous insights as artists to be wonderful people. But it's not like that, you see. God is so funny, he's quite droll - if there is such a fella. He and I used to be an item, didn't we, God? Yeah, I was mad about him, I really was. Next question.

A misunderstanding

[section of transcript removed]

MG: You perked up and went to the National Theatre. What was that transition like?

TB: Well, the transition was that Laurence Olivier was vastly amused by me. This gave me no end of a jolt - I really felt that I was getting on a bit. I played animals at first. I was a very successful dog called Clint. Then I was a very successful horse in the Travails of Sancho Panza. Eventually they gave me a human being to play - that wasn't so successful really.

First of all, I was tempted to play the Prince of Morocco on all fours. This was because I thought that it would please Laurence Olivier, it wasn't because I thought that that's what he would do. Gradually I got to know him and was invited to parties at Stag Place, where he lived in Victoria. Gradually I got to know everyone and I just advanced, and it was Laurence Olivier who got me the part of Rasputin in Nicholas and Alexandra. He helped me on, and gave me a lot of confidence. I thought if Larry likes me then...

MG: Did you find him to be insincere?

TB: Well I wouldn't expect him, as an actor, to be sincere. He was a showman, he didn't care what happened because he wanted to amaze the audience. I was with him there. If it meant treading on some boring actor's lines because he didn't have any timing, well that was hard luck, you know. As long as you were in there quick, and didn't threaten him too much, he was OK. He encouraged me, it's because of my bad taste, he knew that to be successful as actor the first thing is to never break faith with bad taste. You've got to be sly about it sometimes, sometimes you have to be up-front, but people adore bad taste. It makes them feel slightly superior.

MG: So was it nice, after all this sadness, to have friends like Derek Jacobi?

TB: Yes, it was great to be away from that reality, to always be in the theatre, 12 hours a day, living just up the road from here on Blackfriars road. I did like that a lot. Hopkins was very funny, you know, he used to drink in those days and he was very funny - he used to play the piano and do wonderful impressions of everyone. When he was bored of the play he would sometimes come on, and we would be watching because we were understudies, and he would come on doing the part as his dresser. He had an emphasemic dresser called Lesley, and we'd be howling with laughter while the audience didn't know what was going on. Sometimes he'd do it as Larry, and sometimes he'd do it as Kenneth Williams and sometimes he'd do it as Tommy Cooper.

But now he's given it up - or it's given him up, I forget which way round. Now he's very serious and says very serious things now, as if he's going to live forever. Sometimes I've seen him do some lovely things - he's a wonderful actor - but when I see him do that cannibal he plays... Well, that didn't take much out of Hopkins - a piece of cake.

[Laughter]

Do they ever ring you up and taunt you because you don't have a knighthood as well?

TB: ...

[Laughter]

I saw him once in the street, and naturally - well, I don't really have friends because I'm a proper actor, I don't have those weaknesses - but I saw him, and he saw me at the same time and we crossed the street and I shouted, 'Have they made you a royal duke, Hopkins?' He didn't like that.

[Laughter]

I do find it odd that people like Michael Gambon, who's so anarchic and so funny, prodigiously funny - people used to have hernias listening to Michael Gambon - I think, 'Sir Michael Gambon? Really? Sir Derek Jacobi?' But actors and honours... Well, it's up to them really. Paul Schofield rather charmingly said he didn't want to be a knight, so they said, 'Will you be a CH?' And he said, 'I don't want to be a knight, so I'll have the CH.' He never knew what it was. He was wonderful.

Sin and Degradation

MG: When you played Rasputin, was it odd playing a mad monk having been one?

TB: No! Rasputin was a different kind of monk, a sort of self-styled monk. A self-invented guru. He had these new forms. In those days, at the end of the nineteenth century, decadent Russia was dominated by a French language court and everything was falling apart. Then the amazing drama of the haemophiliac child who the mother felt guilty because it comes down the mother's line, from Queen Victoria, I suppose. So all this drama was ready for this wonderful confidence trickster who came in with an amazing offer. He said, 'I've got this wonderful way of making you feel warm and close to God.'

What is it?'

'First of all you must steep yourself in sin and degradation.'

'Really?'

'Yes. So if you'll just take your clothes off, I'll steep you in sin and degradation, then afterwards I'll hear your confession and then I'll forgive you and you'll feel close to God.' Instead of lynching him, they fell for it! In their thousands. There were officers of the Tsarist corps who boasted that their wives were being shafted by Rasputin - who didn't even wash. They liked rough trade I suppose. Mind you, they didn't put this in the film.

So I read a lot about Rasputin and for a while it went to my head. Ha ha.

[Laughter]

MG: So did that have any Lawrence of Arabia effect for you?

TB: Yes it did. After a while I was walking around being Rasputin. I went to America with a beard, and they bought me wonderful clothes and I was appearing everywhere, firing off one-liners. Girls were rushing at me because I was on the Johnny Carson Show. I was on all the major shows in all the major cities. So naturally the girls flocked to that celebrity and I started digging out my 'Hoc est enim corpus meum' nonsense. Not knowing Russian from Latin, they all fell from it, yeah. It was quite incredible. That does happen to actors, they become those characters for a while. For a while I thought I was messianic, which was a perversion of Rasputin.

Then, at the end of the film, I was dropped off in Pimlico and there I was. It was all over. For quite a long time, until I did Macbeth at the Shaw theatre - got lots of laughs...

[Laughter]

It was appalling. The children used to howl with laughter. On the first night they all booed. I was used to being booed at home, but Christ - in the theatre? So being the leading man I waved the actors off imperiously as if to say that this was a disgraceful way to treat the cast, and the booing redoubled, and I realised, 'Oh. It's for me.' But they were booing me affectionately, you know.

Some of the people came back again and again and they used to throw soft marshmallows that would land on the stage, and because I was playing him with a peculiar walk - because I had no other ideas - there would be a marshmallow near me. I'd tread on it and the place would erupt, and the people in the wings would be scratching their heads wondering what was going on out there. But it was just me stepping on marshmallows, you know.

[Laughter]

When they stopped throwing marshmallows, which they sometimes did because they ran out, people were more successful.

MG: You were tempted to release a version of Goodness Gracious Me with Maggie Smith...

TB: I think it was towards the end of Maggie's marriage, and I blacked up as the Indian doctor, and they got someone from India House, or wherever it was to teach me an accent. Did you show any of it tonight?

MG: Just a little.

TB: Cor, phew. With the Tommy Cooper fez... Maggie was very formidable, because she is such an exquisite artist, she inhabits a world where she creates new timings. Maggie can get laughs or break people's hearts and you wonder how she does it. She came on in The Interpreters, set in Russia, not very interesting play except for Maggie Smith, and she sat there looking incredibly plain. And she told a story, quite a short story, and it wasn't very interesting and the audience were quite bored, and she looked at them and said, 'That was a Russian joke.' And the house came down! So she could retrieve a disaster, like great comedians.

I was in National Health at the National and at the end of the play before, Maggie finishes the play with a sonnet, and she held out her elegant hand and someone gave the wrong technical queue and it snowed! It snowed from the National Health show. And the audience thought it was odd, but they didn't realise. She just pulled this face and everyone backstage trembled. I think two of the stage management hanged themselves. No, there were four of them. Unfortunately they were found in time.

Dr Who

MG: You did Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Vault of Horror. How did you get those?

TB: The Vault of Horror was nice because it was a doddle and they were all nice people - Terry Thomas and Denham Elliot and Curd Jürgens, who was incredibly dull. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad was fantastic, because it gave me the chance to work with Ray Harryhausen, and I like his animation a lot more than the optical effects that they do now with monsters. They're charming, they're great works of art, and they're also very funny. I think of some of the ones I wasn't in, the fighting skeletons - the one I wasn't in wasn't one of the very successful ones... The one I was in got me Dr Who, that's right. That got me Dr Who.

MG: Ah. Now, you were working on a building site just before the great event.

TB: I was.

MG: When you did This Is Your Life you seemed genuinely more thrilled to see those three builders than any of your old friends.

[Laughter]

TB: Well, at the time... I was not much good at working on a building site, but I was great at making tea and keeping the cups clean, and the surfaces un-sticky. And that's important. But they liked me, and they used to bring me sandwiches - I was desperately poor and I was sleeping on the floor of a very kind actor's called Paul Angelis. I was in a terrible state. And these guys fed me. And finally I got Dr Who. I wrote to the right man. There was this amazing conflation of little events.

I wrote to the man who directed the Millionairess who was about to become the head of serials. The night he received my letter he had been to a meeting to cast Dr Who, because John Pertwee had resigned. And somebody said to this marvellous Bill Slater, 'Do you have any ideas, Bill? And he said, 'No. I don't'. And when he got home he read my letter, his wife was called Mary Webster, and he told her, he said, 'I've just come from a casting for Dr Who, and Tom Baker's just phoned me.'

She said, 'Well, ring him up now.' And he rang me at eleven o'clock at night and told me that he wanted to see me. So I said, 'What? Now?' I was quite willing, you see. But it was the next day, and one thing led to another, and there I was.

MG: What was your awareness of Dr Who beforehand?

TB: Not much. I remember watching Patrick Troughton and thinking that it was quite a waggish part. But I didn't think about that, I was just glad to have a job. They were nice at the BBC.

Then I became a children's hero, and that was the best, absolutely terrific. To have this instant intimacy. I had an instant intimacy with adults as well, because they loved me for different reasons. When the little children were frightened by the monsters - or bored by the plot, which was often rather tedious - they used to bury their heads in their grannies's bosoms, and grannies adored this. Well, you know, I've known a few grannies in my time - well they weren't grannies then, but they're grannies now. And tingling bosoms are apparently a wonderful pleasure.

So what would happen was I would be walking through Sloane Square, on the cruise, and I'd pass a granny coming out of Peter Jones, and she'd see me and her titties would begin to tingle. And she'd think, 'Why are my titties tingling at the sight of this man?' And then she'd recognise me and say, 'Hello, dear.'

Some people say, 'Do you miss not being Dr Who?' and, of course, I've never stopped being Dr Who, and we're all here because of the amazing power of nostalgia. So when people see me they are really being knocked back into their childhood. A man in the street said to me the other day, 'When I was a kid, I was in care, in Staffordshire, and on Saturday nights, phew, you were terrific.' And then he'd gone. And I thought that that was a wonderful thing. A quick beggar story: a young man in Manchester, and I normally don't believe that most beggars are beggars - they probably work for Channel 4 of else they're high-powered directors thinking that this is a real thing to do - so naturally I like to hedge my bets and give them a pound. If they look revolting, then I'm absolutely certain they work for Channel 4 and I give them two pounds.

Anyway, I was passing, and they all say the same thing - I could be a beggar's script-writer, I could write them good scripts, but the buggers won't listen, they all copy each other - 'Have you got any change?' I hate that. When I was young beggars were different. They used to tell you marvellous lies like:

'You're a great, handsome fella!'

'What?'

'You're a great, handsome fella.'

'I'm sorry, I can't hear.'

'I was just saying what a great, handsome fella you are.' And then I'd give him two shillings. You bought the performance. You bought the lie, and then we are equals, and that's charming. It's not going to go far, maybe... Anyway, a voice said to me, 'Have you got any small change?' in that pathetic way, so I said, 'Yup.' I got my money out and he looked up and said, 'Christ! Dr Who.'

I said, 'Yes. Have two pounds.'

'Ah, man,' he said, 'You're my hero. You were my hero.'

'Look, have three pounds.' Then there was a sudden change, and I looked at him in the terrible light of Deansgate in Manchester and I saw rushing through his face, as we was jolted back to sitting on the sofa with the smell of fish fingers and chips when he was secure and washed. And then you jump on twenty years and he's begging in Deansgate, and who comes along to offer him three pounds, but The Doctor.

Three pounds is not much after the things I did at the BBC - saving the whole bloody universe every week. But he said, 'No. I don't want the money.' Incredible. Then came the request. 'Can't you get us out of here?' I could imagine... I should have said to him, 'Eight o'clock, outside the bookshop. Be there.' And at eight o'clock the place would be full of the magazine sellers and the beggars and they'd all pile into the Tardis, and I'd be saying, 'Come on! Quick! Quick!' They'd all pile in, thousands of them, and then I'd close the door and you'd hear a panting - 'cos there's always got to be someone late in order to tell the press afterwards. And then woo-woo and away we'd go to somewhere happy. There'd just be me and these people, and K9 and it would be great.

Then the next day, in the Manchester Evening News it would say, 'Where Have All Our Beggars Gone?' The special branch would be out misunderstanding everything. Walking round with pictures of beggars. 'Have you seen this beggar?' It would be fantastic, wouldn't it?

Anyway. I persuaded him to have the three pounds.

After the Doctor

TB: Those were marvellous times. That's why I stayed so long - too long perhaps - because work was funny. The girls were all nice to be with, I think. Yes. I married one. Great days. I couldn't stop going to work. It was better than being at the RSC, and the kickback was that we were getting millions of people. When I went abroad, I could be famous in a country I'd never been to. In Holland trams would stop and people would all jump off the trams and I'd sign autographs. Gradually I became this benevolent figure, completely mad but harmless. I'd go around laying hands on people and I would never have bad language spoken or cigarettes or drink near the children.

Sometimes it got completely serious. On many occasions I would be visiting hospitals, and suddenly I would be asked - and the doctors would play along, they'd call me Doctor... The great thing about being in children's hospitals, being a nurse, is that you win most of the time. The reason why no-one wants to look after my age group is because you lose them all! So at the other end it's great fun. So there would be a child dying or in a coma somewhere in the hospital and it turned out that they watched Dr Who, and they would ask me to go down. This was terrifying, and it used to jolt me into reality. The parents were distraught - I won't harrow you with that, you can imagine - and I would say, 'This is The Doctor. I was talking to K9 earlier today.' And they would be listening, you know? And they would be comforted by my efforts. Of course I would like to be able to say that the boy suddenly opened his eyes and said, 'Dr Who!' But it was never like that. I was never successful. But the wonderful thing was that no-one ever reproached me. They were kind to me in their terrible grief, and they would thank me.

So those are the memories I have, mixed up with the mad ones. They made my life worthwhile there. It taught me something - to be a bit more resigned and a bit more tolerant of misfortune. Now I don't much care really. Ha! Now they've got lots of chloroform around, I don't care. Though I must say that it's the cold trolley that bothers me...

MG: You seem very proprietal about...

TB: I am! Someone said the other day, 'Out of all the Dr Whos...' I said, 'What?'

[Laughter]

Apparently there were others doing it. I didn't know that! So now I'm more tolerant and I say, 'Yes, yes. I've heard about that. What were they called?'

MG: On BBC 2's film night you said, 'Ah, yes. I'm played by Paul McGann in this one.'

[Laughter]

TB: Did I say that? Well, if I'd seen the film, I would have said something sharper than that.

[Laughter and applause]

MG: Would you ever consider playing the part again?

TB: No. I don't think it would be offered to me. Perhaps I could play the Master or the villain. The idea being that Moriarty and Holmes are the same person. But I don't think that the Americans would agree to that, and they dominate it. They would say that you'd confuse the audience. I did 178 episodes. Phew.

MG: Who would be good nowadays to play the part?

TB: Ahhh. Yes. I can see it.

MG: I've been anointed!

TB: I was walking the other day through Longacre heading for that map shop. I go in there because it looks mysterious and I hope that someone might see me and think I might be going somewhere. Maybe Maidstone. The biggest cause of death in Maidstone is boredom. I believe there was an outbreak of dandruff there in 1971. But anyway, I'm going down Longacre and a truck roared past and this fella sticks his head out and shouts, 'I'm not worthy, Doctor, I'm not worthy!' And he jumped out all agile - I hated him, all lithe - and he shook my hand and wouldn't let me go. And all these boring Earthlings were walking about saying, 'What's going on?'

MG: When it all stopped was a pane of your life shattered?

TB: No. I had my haircut and nobody recognised me. I then went to the RSC and did something there. I kept low for a while. Then suddenly I realised they wouldn't let me go, and the BBC thought that they could exploit the old stuff. I got invited to America, where they hadn't heard my terrible jokes, and sometimes I used to come unstuck because they're very serious. I said about me and God being an item, 'I loved God, I adored him. And then I realised I wasn't gay.'

[Laughter]

They didn't like that. Apparently they all became Buddhists that very afternoon.

MG: Did you think that power to influence people in a nice way had been withdrawn all of a sudden?

TB: Yeah. I did the first tour of Educating Rita for the RSC. They must have thought I was a marvellous actor, famous on the telly - they never watched the telly though, except on Saturday when they would watch the football and pretend to be proles. Laurence Olivier used to do that: 'Tottenham were beaten this afternoon, 26-4.' He'd mix it up with the rugby.

So when we were touring people weren't coming to see a shagged-out old academic, they were coming to see Dr Who pretending to be a shagged-out old academic. They adored it. There were huge turn-outs. We earnt bundles. At the end of the play the girl says to the bloke - who's been sacked and has to go to Australia - and he says, 'Come with me to Australia.' One night in Eire Kate Fitzgerald is having champagne and I'm having quadruple gins, and two women are hovering and Kate says, 'Hello?'

'Could we ask you a question?'

'Yes, sit down. Do you want champagne?' they'd never had champagne. So they had some champagne.

'Me and my friend Mildred, we've never been to the theatre before and I just wanted to ask you. Did you go to Australia with him?'

And Kate, of course, burst into tears. Amazing. The power of the imagination. That still happens - those of you that went to see AI, that wouldn't happen then.

[Laughter]

But there are plenty of other times we see movies that breaks us to pieces.

Actor or Icon?

MG: Do you see yourself as an actor or an icon?

TB: I'd rather be an icon, because then people act irrationally around you and give you the benefit of the doubt. We played softball when I was a young monk, and I struck a ball, and all these French chaps were very pacific and shy. I don't know - we weren't allowed to speak. And they would hit it very gently, because that's what they thought Jesus would do.

[Laughter]

They wouldn't laugh. I wanted to laugh. They wouldn't because there's no record of Jesus laughing. Look at the first miracle of the New Testament. Big Jewish wedding and Mary says, 'Son, they've run out of wine.' He looks at her as if to say, 'What's that to me? I'm not going to buy the wine.' But he had a very influential father. So Mary says to the parents, 'Whatever he says, do it.'

So he looks out of the window at these vats outside holding about 940 gallons, and he says to bring them in. Filled with hope they brought these vats in, and he says, 'Serve it out.' And they tasted the wine and it was Chateaux Lafitte. 33AD. Well these young monks I was with... I thought Matthew should have said, 'They tasted the wine and thought it marvellous. What kind of wedding was this when they kept the best wine until last. And they looked over, and Jesus was laughing his head off.' No-one ever said that. No-one said, 'Ooo, nice one Jesus.'

Trusthouse Forte would have made him a catering manager. Anyway, so I'm still trying to hit this ball, you see... This is about icons, isn't it?

MG: Yes.

TB: So I caught it a beauty and the ball went sailing across this sandy court and there in the flower bed was a statue of Jesus, The Sacred Heart, with his heart on the outside. And it struck him on the forehead. I'd like to say it knocked his head off, but that would spoil the story, because it wouldn't be true...

[Laughter]

Oh! The French novices were appalled, they all hid their heads as if I'd hit them. I was longing to laugh, and trying to suppress this laugh - this is a terrible thing to say, forgive me - I farted like a Buffalo. This was gross disrespect. So he was an icon. And I'm an icon, and people don't want me to be too rational.

It might improve me as an actor. I often feel I'm getting it right, even when I see the director with his head in his hands.

Audience Questions

MG: Question time.

Q: What's your relationship with God at the moment?

TB: Well, it's useless to affirm what your heart doesn't believe in, unless you're an actor. I can't get away from what I was steeped in, so it fills me with fear. And, I daresay, full of hope. And when I'm lying in my bed awake, full of guilt, which is about four nights a week, I might think about those days when I had faith.

Deep faith banishes fear. When people believe in something they are unafraid. Now I am uncertain - and 68 - I try to imagine what it was like to feel that. But perhaps it hasn't gone away. Perhaps I never had it. Perhaps it was, in the Buddhist sense, another Tom Baker. But when I laugh at daft monks, I in no way want to mock people's faith. But I can mock what once believed in.

Q: What's your unfulfilled ambition?

TB: I don't think I'll do much more theatre, because I don't get offered many new things that get hold of my imagination. I'm very happy at home, doing bits of writing and corporate sketches. But I do have a feeling that I could do a wonderful, riotous perversion of the Importance of Being Earnest with an all-black cast. All black chaps. Very smart gear. In a kind of rap style. Instead of firing off stuff in a posh voice as epigrams, they'd sort of flick them up. I would be a colossal Mae West. Whenever someone got on my nerves I'd produce a pearl-handled colt.

MG: How would you say 'handbag'?

TB: I would seize the boy and disappear over the back of the sofa with him and then he's out of sight, safe. And there's an old bolster there - or a stage-manager, doesn't make a difference - and am beating him with my handbag in a terrible rage, and then I stand up, wipe my mouth and say [in a gruff voice], 'A handbag?' And the audience would think, 'It's about time, I thought he'd dried.'

I think some bits of it are too long. I'd set it in New Orleans with palm trees and cool sexy jazz.

Q: Do you have any memories of Pasolini's Canterbury Tales?

TB: Vic Reeves gave me a copy of it on DVD. Paulo was so mysterious and gentle, and the wonderful thing was that he couldn't speak English, which made him the perfect director for me. It was all so wonderfully coarse and up in the air. They didn't shoot sound. No-one knew what the second camera was doing, which he operated as well as playing Chaucer. He was so calm, and they were all so mad. We had these cheap costumes that ran in the rain and made you look as though you were bleeding all over.

He loved using snaggle-toothed guttersnipes, especially if they were thick. He had one Glasgow lad who had paint-stripping halitosis. Paulo used to look at him - I don't much care for people with bad breath, unless I'm walking in profile with them - as if he was Dorian Gray. He was absolutely in there. People would look in amazement, and lean in and the boy would exhale and four people would faint. We had a happy time.

Q: Would you like to be a film critic?

TB: Are you offering me a job? You can't be a film critic if you're over 19. I like to talk about movies, I watched AI with my wife the other day - otherwise they won't let me in - and she's watching it intently and I'm wondering, 'Why is she watching this whippet-shit?' I asked her afterwards and she said, 'I thought you'd seen something in this whippet shit and were being clever.' So she concentrated harder and I concentrated harder... There were only four of us in the cinema. I had no idea it was so popular.

Q: Which role has been most like you and which role would be hardest to play?

TB: They've all been very like me. The hardest one was Dr Who, because I didn't know how to be an alien. If you play a hero then you know he's got to win. So I worried if I was alien enough, then someone told me, 'Listen, Tom. You are an alien. You don't have to bare your teeth. You give people the impression that you come from somewhere else. Like you're on day release.'

I am terribly limited in that sense. As I get near to death I find everything is funny. That's probably because I'm afraid of it. The biggest laugh I got when playing Macbeth was this magnificent double-take. If I'd had a glass eye it would have fallen out. The director said it was very funny, but he said that the point was that it wasn't a funny moment. That's where we parted company. I said, 'You don't find it funny, I don't find it funny, it's their bloody fault they found it funny.' So I turned very slowly instead. And that brought the house down.

MG: That's all we have time for.

TB: Thanks very much for listening to me. I have such confidence that people have listened to me. I always feel that they know something and that they're sensitive. You've been very kind, goodnight and thank-you.

Page not found | British Film Institute

Page not found

Sorry, but the page or file you requested can't be found.

The reasons for this are:

  • The page has moved
  • The page no longer exists
  • You typed the address incorrectly

Useful places to go now:

Last Updated: 10 Oct 2007