Saturday, August 22, 2009
As Tom Baker steps back into The Doctor's shoes after a 30-year hiatus, he convinces PAUL WHITELAW it's no time at all – for a Time Lord
IT IS ALWAYS IMMENSELY gratifying to be reminded that Tom Baker is, in real life, precisely as you'd expect him to be. A disarmingly charismatic raconteur, the 75-year-old actor remains one of Britain's most beloved eccentrics.
From his early as a monk (he subsequently renounced his faith), to international stardom as one of the most popular Doctor Whos (1974 to 1981), to his present status as a national institution, Baker has lived a life as rich as his instantly recognisable voice. I can
PW: Aside from a brief cameo in a 1993 Children in Need special, this is the first time you've played the Doctor since leaving the series. What was so special about this project?
TB: They just called me at a good moment. People are always asking me to do things about Doctor Who, and most of the time I can't be bothered. Then I read the scripts – well, I read my bits, I don't read scripts. I really think that reading a whole script is kind of prying and neurotic, don't you?
PW: Doesn't that make them hard to understand?
TB: Well that's life, isn't it? Just imagine if you knew everything about me. We wouldn't discover anything, we wouldn't be surprised. It's none of my business where characters have been – I want to be surprised by what they do. I've never ever read a script. I really must read Macbeth, because I was in it once. I got a lot of laughs in that, I can tell you.
PW: So what's Hornet's Nest about?
TB: It seemed to me to be really very clever writing, because the hornet's nest is obviously a metaphor for the BBC. I think so anyway, although I didn't mention it to anyone there, because you don't want to be talking to directors, otherwise they get the idea that they're important. But it all made sense to me, these abused worker hornets, and queens and kings and ambitious ones who want to take over the world. I thought, yes, that's the BBC! Anyway, they didn't know my thinking, but they seemed to like what I did, and apparently they're very pleased with it. It's been well received in the religious press.
PW: Really? I didn't realise the religious press were interested in Doctor Who audio plays.
TB: Yes, there's a very good plug for it in The Tablet, whatever that is. I thought it was a kind of doctor's weekly, but apparently it's a Roman Catholic paper. It goes on about God. They're always giving God a plug, aren't they?
PW: Well, He needs all the press He can get. I haven't heard from him in years.
TB: Well, it depends what sort of company you keep! I quite often meet people who say they believe in God, and I go along with them. And I think, My God, I am actually having a conversation here with someone who's completely mad! I often say kind of cod-spiritual things about the democracy of growing old and the humiliation of dying being shared by us all, and that it's a great comfort to know that finally when we shed off this mortal coil we'll all be happy together. But the people who swallow that kind of guff are boneheads, aren't they? What I can't understand is why they don't understand the word "incorporeal". It's rather like the Muslims with their 75 virgins. I mean, what are you going to do with 75 virgins if you're incorporeal?
PW: Quite. So, did you find it easy, slipping back into the role of the Doctor?
TB: Well, you can tell by talking to me that I never slipped out of it! I'm really not an actor of any kind. I've always seen myself as an entertainer, someone who makes people laugh. That's all I've ever wanted to do. Doctor Who has always just been me, really. So when I picked up this script and read it, I just started as I would normally. There was no difficulty about it.
PW: You loved playing the Doctor, didn't you?
TB: It sounds so gooey, but it was a stupendous privilege, an amazing gift, like something out of a fairy tale. Everywhere I went I was actually loved and adored by children. And now those children have all got children of their own, and they still come and see me. I was at a sci-fi do at Earl's Court the other day, there were several thousand people there, and scores of them showed me pictures of themselves, these middle-aged men losing their hair, sitting on my knee in 1976 or something. It's all very sweet, that.
PW: You enjoy the attention?
TB: Well, I think if more people had more applause, it would make them feel better. I often give my wife a round of applause. If the meal is very good I give her a standing ovation. It's like when you fire off a sharp remark and get a big round of applause in the pub, which is enough to make you briefly immortal in Ireland. It's true, though, isn't it? People need attention, and when you're playing a children's hero you get lots and lots of attention. Doors are opened and people want to floss your teeth for you, it's incredible.
PW: You were very conscientious during your time in the role, making sure that you were never caught drinking, smoking or swearing in the presence of children.
TB: Yes, I took it very seriously because it was such a privilege. It was an absolutely amazing time, and although people asked how I'd feel when I left it, I never did leave it because I remain entirely myself. And here I am, 30 years after I left it, being invited all over the place. I recently travelled across the world on a luxury liner which had been commissioned by Doctor Who fans. They wanted me to go first class as their guest of honour, so how could I say no? These were obviously devoted fans who had made enormous sacrifices to raise money for a tour like that. You see, sci-fi fans remind me of pilgrims, really. I think all fans are pilgrims, like Liverpool fans who walk all the way to London to watch their team play Arsenal. Sometimes I do signing sessions for the BBC, signing new books or CDVs (sic], and some people haven't eaten for two days in order to be able to buy them. People are on the point of fainting.
PW: Isn't that taking things too far?
TB: When people love something absolutely they will make lots of sacrifices. The test of love is the capacity to make sacrifices for it. When you love something you become a victim of what you love. I'm a complete victim of my little dog, and I take her out in the woods at six o'clock in the morning because I love her. And so it is with the people who love football and rugby and cricket and Doctor Who, they become pilgrims. And pilgrims, of course, always had to make sacrifices. In Ireland they turned up on their hands and knees.
PW: You've said that you are now exclusively employed by people who grew up watching you in Doctor Who.
TB: Yes, that's true. Of course, the latest big one was Matt Lucas and David Walliams in Little Britain (Baker voices the narrator]. I was working with Matt the other day, actually, on something for the radio. I don't know if it has a title yet, but it was a comedy in which they set us six things to discuss, and whoever got the biggest laughs won the quiz.
PW: Did you win?
TB: Yes! (laughs uproariously] But I wouldn't mind if I hadn't, because I was brought up a Christian, so there's always a streak of the martyr in me. So one can, actually, after a while as one gets closer to death, enjoy even rejection! As you get old you have to come to terms, to absolutely gurgle with laughter, at the ridiculousness of your knees beginning to creak, and things like that. Sometimes I have to stop in the woods, there are certain logs I can sit on, and I have a walking stick because it's a bit slippery and uneven. I find that funny.
PW: So is life good for Tom Baker?
TB: I think life is good, yes. Waking up in the morning still excites me. I can still laugh, which is the important thing. When I go down to the local supermarket, where I get a lot of attention still, I feel like one of the privileged old men. Quite a lot of them who are my age, and sometimes younger, often haven't had good fortune. They're limping around or groaning, talking about statins and being dizzy, and sometimes I've seen people, when it's a bit quiet in Waitrose … to pass the time on the vegetable stall, someone will drop a five pound note and see which of the old boys can pick it up without blacking out. They get up to all sort of tricks like that. And you see old men watching the girls go by, with that mistiness in their eyes, as they remember long-gone days. But I have a wonderful wife who's good to me, and we have a lovely house in the country with a lovely garden and woodland. Life is good, yes.
PW: I'm glad to hear it. Well, thank you very much for your time, Tom.
TB: My pleasure, and if you need anything else, just make it up. Goodbye!
• The first episode of Hornet's Nest will be on shelves from 3 September at www.bbcshop.com/page/hornetsnest