Radio Times guest editor David Walliams talks to his childhood hero, Doctor Who star Tom Baker, about monks and the macabre, sonic screwdrivers and jelly babies…
DAVID WALLIAMS: Thank you very much for inviting me down to Rye for a chat. It’s a beautiful place to live – I’m jealous.
TOM BAKER: Oh yes, it’s lovely. Great cemeteries. Very tidy.
DW: That’s all you want in a cemetery.
TB: Nothing worse than a messy cemetery. But thank you for coming to Rye. I presume you wanted to talk to me because of my time as the Doctor…
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DW: When Radio Times asked which childhood hero I would most like to meet, it had to be you. I can remember sitting on the sofa with my dad watching you in Doctor Who and being in total awe of you. I thought that you were magic. And that awe has actually never gone. That was why Matt Lucas and I chose you to voice Little Britain. It helped that you have the most incredible voice and don’t take yourself too seriously – we were worried you might not read the nonsense that we wrote, but you had no such qualms.
TB: No, no, I did not.
DW: And you’ve done such brilliant comedy as well – your episode in Blackadder II is one of the funniest half-hours of comedy I have ever seen in my life.
TB: Oh, yes, it was an incredible performance. Some people were amazed I ever worked again. Rowan Atkinson was so anxious – he wasn’t very fun to work with. He took me aside the first afternoon of recording and he said: “You know Tom, I’m very experienced in this and the part you’re playing here, this sea captain, I think you’re actually doing too much. I think he should be as boring as you can make him.”
So, we then had the final run-through, and I did this boring routine, and the producer came down and said, “What’s going on, are you ill?” I said, “No, no, no, I’m just taking in the notes from your boss.” And he then said, “Tom, he does that every week. He gives those same notes to the visitors every week.” Weird isn’t it? A comic genius and yet he has these anxieties.
DW: You’ve had the most colourful life – I read in your autobiography that you started off as a monk.
TB: Yes, well, becoming a monk in Catholic Liverpool was a way of getting three meals a day. And my mother was a terrible cook. I was about 14 or 15 when I joined but I was very religious all my life. I was also poor and terrible in school, and thought the only way to be extraordinary was through religion. And I really liked being dressed up in a cassock and surplice – I’d always had an impulse to wear women’s clothes…
DW: Well, we’ve all had that – I made a career out of it! It’s weird because when I was a kid I also wanted to be a vicar. I saw them addressing people and thought, “That looks like fun. It’s like being on the stage.”
TB: Oh yes, it was much more dramatic than the humdrum of school or home life. I also gave some of my best performances in confession. I could see the vicar was bored by what I was saying, so I started to make up a few lies. It was a great way of getting attention and as I got older, I kept embellishing my sins until I remember saying to Father Dougan when he asked “Anything else, Thomas?” – “Yes. Murder!” That really got him interested. His hairy ear got right into the grill and he asked, “Murder? How many times?” “Three,” I said. He was quite nice about it. “Three murders since last Wednesday?” he asked. There was a pause. “Anyone we know?” And with the genius of a born liar, I said, “No, father. They came from St Teresa’s parish down the road.” “Oh,” he said, “that’s all right, then.”
DW: Are you religious now?
TB: Oh, no, no.
DW: So, you abandoned the church to become a classically trained actor and joined the National Theatre under Laurence Olivier.
TB: Yes, I think I was the last actor at the National Theatre to put black face on when I played the Prince of Morocco in The Merchant of Venice, directed by Jonathan Miller. That would have been in the late 60s. I was there until 1970 when Olivier mentioned me to the great Sam Spiegel for a big film called Nicholas and Alexandra.
DW: Where you went from being a real monk to playing Rasputin.
TB: That’s right! That was a big turning point. It was a success and got a lot of publicity, which is perhaps more important.
DW: So you were a very successful actor in the early 70s. When did you first hear that you were being considered for Doctor Who?
TB: I was out of work and labouring on a building site in Pimlico. I used to make the tea…
DW: You were working on a building site? You’d played Rasputin in a major movie, were nominated for two Golden Globes and then found yourself out of work?
TB: That’s right. Isn’t that incredible? I was on the building site for about seven months when Bill Slater, the head of drama at the BBC, asked me to come and see him. He had the idea I would be a very good Doctor Who.
DW: Had you watched the series?
TB: Oh yes. You couldn’t not have watched it – but I didn’t ever think I’d like to do it! When I got it, they said, “What are you going to do with it?” I had no idea, which made them a bit anxious. In the end, I was just entirely myself. A man with a sonic screwdriver, who could put a band around a planet, who could dematerialise, who could go backwards and forwards in time – it’s what we all do in our imagination all the time, isn’t it? Then to be playing it on screen, and doing the double takes, and winking…
DW: I watched your first story, Robot, again the other day and it was amazing how you do feel alien in it. That’s the thing people often forget about the Doctor: he’s in human form but he’s not a human. And you captured that brilliantly.
TB: The Doctor comes from somewhere else and I’ve often felt that I come from somewhere else. I think lots of people feel like that. So it was very easy for me to be utterly preposterous. Because I am preposterous and that’s the way I do things. And once the children responded to me I was completely shattered with joy. The Doctor liberated me in a way. And the more I told silly stories or did double takes or rolled my eyes – it was quite shameless – the more children enjoyed it. They liked that grotesqueness. And I’m also grotesque, so there you are. I had it all: grotesque, shameless and ambitious.
DW: I was at university with Simon Pegg and he met you when he was a kid – you must have been signing annuals or something – and he remembers it exactly even though he was only eight years old. He told me he was walking away from the table and you gave him a jelly baby, and then he came back and said, “I’ve got an action man of you.” And you went, “Have another jelly baby.”
TB: Yes, I would have done! The jelly babies, of course, were a wonderful piece of childishness. I remember a chap at one of those conventions saying to me, “You gave me a jelly baby when I was eight years old and I’ve still got it.” I fell about with laughter. And then he pulled out a little box and opened it up. And sure enough, inside was this hideous lump of gelatine with my initials on it, where I’d apparently signed it! I didn’t recognise the writing, but I realised I was in the presence of a very benevolent lunatic.
DW: Why did you decide to leave the series? Was that hard?
TB: It was. I must’ve been deeply in love with someone at the time. I was always in love with somebody. And she…
DW: You did it for love?
TB: Well, yes… I’ve never been very rational.
DW: That surprises me… But you couldn’t have stayed for ever. Was it hard letting go of the part?
TB: I can’t. It never left me. I’ve been playing Doctor Who ever since. When I was in Educating Rita years ago, I played Frank the same way I played Doctor Who. It was because of Doctor Who that fans were piling in to see me. I couldn’t exactly produce a sonic screwdriver in Educating Rita, but I did the double takes and was very over the top. Fortunately, the actress, Kate Fitzgerald, didn’t mind my idiocy at all.
DW: I read this incredible “day in the life” piece you did with The Sunday Times in 1981, which was an extraordinary insight into your life at the time. You were friends with Francis Bacon…
TB: Yes, Bacon and Auberon Waugh, Jeffrey Barnard, they were recklessly enjoying life. And they were fun to be with. Francis was often absent but mysteriously, after a few weeks, someone would come in and say, “Francis is in town.” And we’d wait and he would appear, very proper, except for that strange way of talking.
DW: Was he flirty?
TB: Oh yes, he was very flirty! It was a crazy time. I was doing lots of voiceovers, in between some of these plays, which supplied the ammunition to go to clubs and be frivolous with money. I was making a lot of money. No idea how much. I just assumed it would never stop.
DW: Those voiceovers are the reason Matt Lucas and I thought of you when we were making a radio series of Little Britain. Of course, we were fans, but we also knew you had an amazing and instantly recognisable voice. And we figured that you didn’t take yourself too seriously!
TB: I played it straight. Well, as straight as I can.
DW: Did you ever actually watch it?
TB: I didn’t really watch it, no. But I enjoyed getting paid for it. And seeing the effect it had. I remember children saying, “That’s the man from Doctor Who who does the voice of Little Britain.” And they’d start skipping about being the only gay in the village. It was terribly sweet. But I never saw it. Do you watch yourself?
DW: Watching yourself is tricky, because either you’re alone in your house, watching yourself on television, therefore you’re bonkers. Or you’ve invited some people over and said, “Let’s watch me on TV…” Which is also bonkers. I can’t see a scenario where it’s a good idea to watch yourself on television.
And life now – earlier this year you released Scratchman, the novel of a Doctor Who screenplay that you wrote in the 1970s, which we’d only heard of in legend…
TB: Yes, people used to ask me about it and I didn’t really know where it was. Then I finally traced the manuscript and Patrick, the head of publications at the BBC, revived it as a novel.
DW: That’s great! It’s a first because it’s a Doctor Who novel by an actor who played Doctor Who.
TB: Is it? I’m quite pleased with some of the horror of it. I have written a book before about a cruel boy who kicked pigs…
DW: People like the macabre. I really enjoyed the book.
TB: I am notorious for my bad taste. And it’s been a blessing really. Perhaps not for other people.
DW: Was there ever a time when you fell out of love with the Doctor?
TB: No, I’ve always celebrated it. And I hope it will never go away. Sometimes when I’m getting my paper in the morning, a plumber on his way to work, who’s about 45, does a double take and will say, “Hey, are you Tom Baker?” And for a split second I see him become a child again at the sight of me. And he’ll say, “You were just great.” And tap my shoulder. Those little taps are so eloquent. And it’s wonderful. I can’t complain about that happening to an old man.
DW: Do you still do Doctor Who conventions?
TB: Not many. I find them long and arduous and I get very tired now. I do the big one at Olympia where they come from all over the world. They come to worship all things Doctor Who and I lay my hands on them, and they feel better.
DW: So, you may not have become a monk but you definitely found your calling!
Doctor Who returns to BBC1 in 2020