The Sign Of Fourth
Tom Baker talks to Steve O'Brien about gravestones, sat-navs, meeting David Tennant and playing the Doctor again...
Just a few years ago, it seemed inconceivable that Tom Baker would be at a recording studio speaking Doctor Who lines again. But then Baker's attitude to Doctor Who has thawed considerably in the last decade. All the stories you've read about his fire-breathing temperament on and after Doctor Who, well, that's clearly another life now. The Tom Baker here today is as warm as a log fire, shooting off tall theatrical anecdotes, flirting with his female co-stars and gladly posing for photos with his new employers (and indeed fanboy journalists), who, despite paying his wages, remain swooningly star-struck.
Tom (he's simply not a 'Baker') takes us into a small box room in Big Finish's rurally-located Tunbridge Wells studio and sits us down. "Ah, the dictaphone," he grins, while adjusting his braces. "Now, shall we begin?"
Have you ever been stalked?
Oh yes, quite a lot! Mostly by American fans. But when I say stalked, I don't really mean in a menacing way, but certainly people follow me about. When I was in Dublin, I remember some American fans being there for too many performances, really. And I do remember when I was in London I was in a play called An Inspector Calls and a group of fans came and they booked for every show for a whole week! They weren't even there at the beginning, but as soon as I came on they snuck in. And when I went off they left. That made the other actors hate me.
Do you still get recognised?
Oh yes! I get recognised a lot at the tip where I go every week with the rubbish. That's become one of my day centres, and I help old ladies unload their rubbish, so I've become quite a saintly figure at the tip. I go to the tip as often as I can because it reminds me of my early days when I believed in God and used to go to confession every week, and after I confessed my sins and received absolution I felt so very much better, and that's what I feel like at the tip.
You were a big frequenter of the Coach & Horses pub in the 1970s. Do you still meet up with any of your old Soho boozing buddies?
No, but because I still work in Soho sometimes I pass those pubs and I look in. Occasionally in the morning, of course they're usually empty, and sometimes I go in and look at where I stood and where Jeffrey Bernard stood and Graham Mason and Francis Bacon, and I still pause in Dean Street when I look up at, I think it's number 41, where the Colony Room [a private members' drinking club for artists that closed in 2008] was. But that was another world, when I was very reckless.
I lived in Notting Hill Gate in those days so after work I'd be flying down to Soho. There's something terribly beguiling and thrilling about low-life. These people who are careless and hedonistic, lies and drunkeness and singing stories from the past. Some of them were very distinguished and they held down quite important jobs. I look back on it now and I think, of the group we're talking about, maybe I'm the only survivor. When I look in those old pubs, especially the French House, it's like going to a grave.
I think of all those people I was fond of, or amused me or abused me, sometimes borrowing money and things like that. But the thought now of drinking heavily in pubs, I think it must have been another Tom Baker... Maybe it was... I suppose the amazing thing is that, scientifically, when I say "I was there," well, no I wasn't there because every cell in my body has been renewed, so really it wasn't me. So if it wasn't me, I'd quite like to ask, "Who was it then?" because I seem to remember it very clearly! So what is consciousness?
What souvenirs from Doctor Who do you have?
Well, not many left, because so much was begged off me! Charities are so insatiable! But I've got one thing left - an engraved glass from Elisabeth Sladen from when she left in 1975 or 1976, engraved 'With love from Elisabeth.' I think in the days when I was not so happy, I didn't save much because I couldn't see much point.
I wasn't a boy when I got that job, but I never thought I'd be 78 and in rather good health. I think that's why in those hectic days, in Soho in the 1960s and 70s, no-one thought like that, otherwise no-one would have behaved like that! And we didn't believe in anything except hanging in together and sharing our desperation. We all chose the illusion, that life within the Colony, that life was in the French, and, of course, we all had very tragic domestic situations. There were broken hearts or abandoned partners or betrayals, because that kind of behaviour led to outrageous recklessness. Weird days...
What's been your weirdest fan experience?
To cut a long story short, I bought a gravestone. I gave the Church a hundred pounds for it, so it was now my gravestone. I used to mow the churchyard and one day I heard, chink, chink, chink, and bugger me, there was a monumental mason engraving a gravestone for some poor soul. So, I went up to him and said, "Excuse me," and he went, "Christ! Doctor Who!" He was a big fan of mine. So I said, "Do you want to earn 30 quid?" and he said, "Not 'arf!" So I said, look I bought a stone off these guys here, so would you put my name on it? So I gave him 30 quid, went off and when I came back he'd put in TOM BAKER in really big letters and "1933 -" He didn't fill in the second date, I'd have died if he'd have done that! So there it was.
Anyway, one day when I was mowing the lawn, months and months later, looking over the wall I saw somebody standing by my gravestone. I thought, if he's having a pee on my gravestone, I'll kill him. When I looked again, he wasn't standing by it, he was kneeling by it. So I continued mowing and on my next trip back, he was standing there again. So I said, "Hello!" And he said, "I've just been putting flowers on your grave." I thought, this is odd, why doesn't he see that I've got a Honda mower and am extremely corporeal? He said, "It's so sad... I've put forget-me-nots down there. Did you like forget-me-nots?" I thought, "Did I?" But I said, "Yes I did," and he said, "It's so sad..." and he started to back way. Not walk away, back away. It was quite a long way down the hill and he was still waving at me, and I thought, "Why is he waving at the dead?" But I thought now he knows where I live, he might bother me, but he never did come back.
Will you write another book? You haven't written any fiction since your The Boy Who Kicked Pigs novella in 1999.
I don't know, really. It's a big deal writing a book. I'm tempted to try another horror or bad-taste novel. I was also offered some money to bring up to date my autobiography, so I thought I'd better give it a whirl, so I had a look at it, and I was so horrified about what I'd written. I think it was about 12 years since I wrote that book, and I've changed so much. I remember the incidents but the tone of voice sounds anxious and at times unhappy. I think because I'd never written anything before, maybe I overdid it. Maybe it was too vital or too vivid. But from the bits I read, I didn't like that Tom Baker with all his carping and slamming into everything. Although, I can get indignant when I think of certain things in my past, there's no need for me to bang on about it as much.
I was actually thinking recently of rewriting the Book of Genesis from the point of view of God, telling it in a steady, modern way about why he did it and the disappointment we've been to him. Especially the Jews. (Laughs)
Have you ever been asked to record a Sat-Nav?
No, I haven't. I see Jeremy Clarkson's just done one. And whatsername, Jo Lumley. I imagine they want her to do her very beguiling, seductive voice. In my wife's car, she's got a nice one with a very calm voice. Apparently you can get some that give performances can't you, like "Turn left! Turn left, you diamond geezer!" and all that nonsense. I don't much like that idea because driving is not a joking matter, is it? You just want guidance, not attitude! Since Little Britain, everything changed for me and the commercials I get now are more extravagant and nosier and in-yer-face. I used to do adverts for engagement rings and shampoos and things like that.
Have you read Matthew Waterhouse's autobiography, Blue Box Boy?
No! I wonder why he didn't send it to me, I'd have given him a quote! As much as I can remember little Matthew, he didn't have an easy time as an actor and he hasn't had an easy time since - he's the butt of everybody's humour. People would say, "You might be bad, but at least you're not Matthew Waterhouse!" and you think, "Awww!"
It was a rather thankless little part he had and there were all sorts of rumours about how he got it - that he was just walking past and John [Nathan-Turner, producer] thought, "Oh, there's the lad!" But by the time I'd finished with him, there were far too many of us. It was getting a bit like Sgt Bilko with us in tight five shots! John was glad to be rid of me I think. He felt I had too much influence, I think that's how he put it in some book or other. But I was at the front of a show, so naturally I wanted to have influence. And I didn't like John Nathan-Turner at all as a producer - I disagreed a lot and it was difficult to hold my tongue. But afterwards when it was all over and I used to meet him and his partner Gary, I became quite fond of him. Especially towards the end when I realised how ill he was, I was filled with compassion. He'd given up drink, and like other people when they give up drink, instantly looked more interesting.
Have you seen Matt Smith in action?
Who? Matt who? Why, what's he doing? Oh, Matt Smith! I thought you meant Matt Lucas! No, I haven't seen any new Doctor Whos. But I didn't see it when I was in it! Or hardly, except at revoicing bits! I had no interest in watching myself, what I liked was the feedback I got. When the feedback was good, and sometimes it was very good, I thought leave it at that. When you're an actor, especially when you're an opinionated one like I was, if I saw something, I'd be like, "God, I told them not to use that take!" That would just make me irritable. So I thought the best thing to do was not watch it. If I had seen any of these other Doctor Whos I'd have either had to have been very honest and perhaps embarrass them, or be very dishonest and therefore bland.
David Tennant sought me out at Nick Courtney's Memorial Service, and there was a kind of portaloo which looked a bit like a TARDIS, so we had a photograph taken there for the vicars of that Church in St Pauls. That was nice. But all the Doctor Whos, well not all, but they've sent nice messages to me. I don't know about from Matt Smith, but certainly from David Tennant... But people have their favourite Doctor Whos don't they and are irrational about that. Now that I meet them occasionally at conventions, we're all pals together and they've all grown old, like me! I mean I'm the oldest by a long way, but Colin must be gone 60 now and Sylvester. He does a lot of serious work, doesn't he, Sylvester?
What's it like playing the Doctor again?
I don't mean to denigrate the process but it's not an acting part. When you're playing a hero, things are so utterly predictable. But within the utter predictability of it, you have to be inventive enough to amuse or divert or captivate the audience, but we know how it's going to come out. We know Sherlock Holmes will crack the case, we know Doctor Who will win out... The thing is, coming from my muddled religious background of Roman Catholicism, all those years ago in an Irish parish in Liverpool, I was brought up believing in miracles. So when I got Doctor Who I was thoroughly at home! I never had to try, I just said the lines. Then when the letters started to come, I thought, that's what they want, they just like me doing that turn!
A shorter version of this article appeared in SFX magazine.
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