Tom Baker (2001)

Almost every Tom Baker interview is a good one, but I’m not sure you can beat this one from 2001. Mark Gatiss talks to him about his entire career, and I’ve put the ‘Doctor Who’ section on here but you should absolutely positively definitely go here to read the full thing.

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.

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