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Tardis Party/ Legends: Tom Baker ~ Top of The Docs

August 13, 2013

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Pen pal: Tom Baker is in his element (and in his full Doctor togs) as he’s mobbed by autograph hunters while on a mid-’70s promotional walkabout for the greatest ever sci-fi TV show 

That crazy curly hair. That inexplicably silly, goofy grin. Those bulging, dazzling eyes. Those deep, sonorous, unmistakable bass tones. That imposingly tall frame. That brown, often crumpled fedora. And, of course, that ludicrously long, multicolour-striped scarf. It could only be – and, of course, is – the fourth and surely forever greatest protagonist of the greatest ever sci-fi show to have graced our TV screens, Doctor Who (1963-present). Yes, it’s the legend in his own ’70s BBC Saturday teatime (and his own lifetime), the one, the only Tom Baker. And for that reason, he is quite TARDIS-tastically the latest entry into this blog’s Legends hall of fame.

Although, if I’m being perfectly honest, while The ‘Baker’s status as The Daddy of Doctor Who rightly makes this post the centrepiece of George’s Journal‘s trawl through 50 years of the show in celebration of its golden anniversary, his synonymosity as the Who Doctor doesn’t define the man on its own. It may be what made him a thespian superstar, a British (nay, international) institution, and thus plays a huge role in the Baker story, but that story isn’t just about Who. There’s certainly more besides – if you will, more time and space outside the TARDIS for him as well as in it.

Indeed, nowadays in his homeland of Blighty he’s as perceived by the media and the public as a barrel-chested, white-haired, jolly, old fully-fledged eccentric as much as he is as a one-time terrific Doctor. It’s a role he seems only too happy with too – just how much he’s playing up to it and how much of it is, well, genuinely him is near impossible to discern, so nobody seems to bother to try. But where does this true/ faux eccentricity come from? What made Tom Baker first The Doctor and then the post-Doctor Tom Baker? Well, it’s been a twisty-turny (nay, wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey) journey has been The ‘Baker’s, involving austerity, awards, Catholicism, depression, marriages and eventual iconoclasm, which once learnt can only persuade the reader he was never going to be anyone else.

His journey started on January 20 1934 in Scotland Road, Liverpool; five years before the outbreak of World War Two and several years before the same city would spawn its four most famous sons in the shape of The Beatles. Thomas Stewart Baker was born into a decidedly working class home, which during the war years numbered as many as 14 people and was infested by cockroaches – leading him to fantasise it being hit by a bomb and him becoming an orphan.

The family was headed by his barmaid and cleaner mother Mary and his father John; its nominal figurehead, a sailor whom, even when in town, seemed not to be at home as much as he could have been. In fact, the lack of closeness between Baker and his dad is perhaps best summed up by the fact the latter once proposed giving his son to a childless couple in Australia, much to Mrs Baker’s consternation – whom cuffed Tom for saying he’d be happy to go.

Thanks to his mother’s religious fervour, Catholicism and its seductive rituals hung heavy over Baker’s childhood. He’s claimed he was near bewitched by the heavy spirituality of the Catholic faith; the blessing afforded his grandmother on her deathbed, her ablaze with wonder and delight at passing over into the next realm, was a profound highlight for him. Although the wicked, irreverent side of Baker was present early on too – a chance weeping due to the cold while an altar boy at a funeral saw him receive two shillings from an adult mourner, only for him to take advantage of more sympathetic souls and turning a healthy profit by play-acting tears at subsequent funerals.

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From zero to hero (via a villain): a young Baker (l), Golden Globe-nominated as Rasputin in Nicholas and Alexandra (m) and with Elisabeth Sladen at his announcement as the new Who (r)

Nevertheless, his upbringing led him (in his mother’s eyes certainly, no doubt) to making an inevitable step – at the tender age of just 15 he left Merseyside for The Order of Ploermel on Jersey, where he joined its brothers first as a noviciate and eventually became a monk in Shropshire. In a 1974 article from Films Illustrated magazine, Baker opined: “It was difficult to break the pattern of my childhood. I consider that an achievement. Not because I didn’t like it, but because I wanted to do something else other than grow up in that city and do something unskilled, because that’s what would have happened to me”.

Shaven-headed, woken at 4.30 every morning, praying constantly and only allowed to speak occasionally – and then only for conversations about The New Testament – his life had become stricter and more religious than ever. Apparently, touching other human beings was forbidden as was looking into others’ eyes and even smiling. Eventually it became to much for him; he really wasn’t the zealot waiting for heaven like his grandmother he’d believed he was.

He’s since claimed that being an adolescent and so secluded it became very difficult to think about anything but lust. By the end of his six-year stint as a monk, he was worn out by sexual urges so a priest advised him to rejoin the big, wide, secular world. But, inevitably, what came next was a huge shock to his system… he jumped straight into the the British Army, specifically the Royal Army Medical Corps, for he could no longer avoid doing his National Service. By his own admission, he was an incompetent soldier, apparently getting through the experience by taking on the role of the unit clown, crying when shouted out on parade, during which he sometimes wore red leather slippers. His final job as a squaddie was to look after the CO’s pig.

Yet, it wasn’t all bad. In 1992 he admitted to a UK newspaper that it was during his two years in the Army he “discovered sex, started practising it in a frenzy and rejected the Church very swiftly”. This, however, did leave him “with a huge residue of guilt. Sometimes God knocks on the side of my head now and says: ‘Let’s get back together’. But I prefer guilt, lust, anxiety, lies, and confusion. I prefer the uncertainties of life”.

It was around this time that he concluded an actor’s life may be for him, but after being accepted on a drama course (at the Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama in Sidcup, Kent)  he had to wait seven months before it started, so for a brief time took to the sea in the Merchant Navy. This seemed – strangely perhaps, given his general experience in the Army – to suit him admirably. He’s described the experience as genuinely ‘bohemian’ – not least because there were yet more girls to distract him in ports around the world, of course.

At drama school, he eventually met the first girl that truly stuck – her name was Anna Wheatcroft, they fell in love and were soon married. And, despite having two sons together, David and Piers, the marriage and Tom’s life quickly turned into a disaster. Owners of a successful rose-growers’ business, Anna’s parents never allowed Tom to forget that he had come from nothing, unlike their daughter.

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And according to his autobiography Who On Earth Is Tom Baker? (1998), their control over his and Anna’s lives eventually led to him nursing her father when he became desperately ill. Sending Tom into a spiralling depression, the experience saw him down a clutch of his father-in-law’s anti-depressant tablets in a suicide attempt; however, it was the father-in-law that died, not Tom. The latter, in fact, ended up working in the Wheatcrofts’ rose fields along with orderlies, allowing his mother-in-law the opportunity to mock him openly. Eventually, Baker snapped and, following an incident in which he threw several hoes at the woman, left his wife and their kids for Birmingham. And never went back, not least because Anna quickly found someone else.

His marriage may have disentegrated, but Baker didn’t give up. By 1965 he was in London and hired by Laurence Olivier as a member of his National Theatre. Acting-wise, there’s no doubt this was the making of him and in subsequent interviews he’s suggested it was a time of huge professional and artistic satisfaction, despite him never getting close to becoming famous as a member of the company, nor making any real money.

Yet, after a few years, he finally hit the big time. Or so it seemed. Suggested for the role by Olivier himself, Baker was cast as Rasputin, the (yes) monk whom enjoyed a much scrutinised, intensely powerful position within the court of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra, the last, tragic royal rulers of Russia before it was consumed by Bolshevism in 1917. The producer was Sam Spiegel, the film was the multi-Oscar-nominated Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) and for his performance Baker received no less than a Golden Globe award nomination.

Making hay as the sun shined, our man Tom followed this by playing the Wife of Bath’s young husband in Pier Pablo Passolini’s well received adaptation of The Canterbury Tales (1972), then gave a charismatic villainous turn as chief baddie Koura in Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion blockbuster The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad (1973) and in the same year delivered a similarly memorable performance in the Hammer horror anthology flick The Vault Of Horror as Moore, the boho artist whom discovers the subjects he paints all quickly snuff it, until the curse is broken when it’s revealed he once half-finished a self-portrait, leading to his own grisly demise.

But – although thanks to these fine supporting roles in distinguished movies that made full use of his pseudo-crazy charisma, boggling eyes and huge grin, Baker looked to be on the verge of genuine cinematic stardom – the truth was sadly and dramatically anything but. As was also revealed in the aforementioned Films Illustrated article, at the point of Sinbad‘s release, he was living in a tiny, single room apartment in The Smoke with barely any possessions, making ends meet as a labourer because he still couldn’t scrape together enough money as an actor. Even though he’d been a Golden Globe nominee just a year before and was receiving constant goodwill from the theatre in-crowd and the press.

He explained in the article: “In between talking to you and whatever else Columbia want me to do to promote The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, I suppose next week I will be working for the Cadogan Employment Agency, which means I shall be putting emulsion on people’s walls or scrubbing the front steps”. Years later, he also claimed of similar building-site-work around this time: “[It] was so hard that it soothed me. Being shattered at the end of each day helped me get through the night. As it sank into my poor nut that sheer bone-shaking activity was good for me, I redoubled my efforts and always asked to take the Kango drill”.

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Self-portraiture, sorcerer and Sherlock: in The Vault Of Horror (l) and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (m) and as Holmes (to Terence Rigby’s Watson) in The Hound Of The Baskervilles (r)

And then it happened – ironically at the point in his life where he was in perhaps the greatest grip of austerity and (who knows, surely for anyone else) despair he was was doomed to a life of menial work. Out of desperation, he wrote a letter to someone he knew in the BBC’s drama and serials department saying he was available for anything. Two nights later he got a call from drama producer Barry Letts asking to attend an audition the following morning. Baker went along, did his thing and, to his huge surprise and no doubt great delight, landed the gig as Jon Pertwee’s successor in the already hugely popular Doctor Who. Apparently, Letts wasn’t merely impressed by Baker’s audition, he’d also seen something in his performance as Sinbad‘s villain.

Suddenly, like being caught in the solar winds cast out by some malevolent sun in a Who script, his life was turned upside down. Quite simply, following his appearance alongside Elisabeth Sladen (then companion Sarah Jane Smith) at his press announcement as the new Doctor, for which he was curiously dressed in a slightly tatty looking combo of white suit, patterned jumper and tie (he genuinely possessed few other clothes at this point; see image above), he would within months become a household name. That was simply the power of Doctor Who and the result of him at 40 years-old fortuitously, deservedly and finally landing very much on his thesping feet.

For, while during Baker’s first season, Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks handed over the show’s reins to the up-and-coming Philip Hinchcliffe and his seasoned script editor Robert Holmes, the actor made the role absolutely his own. His Aristide Bruant-inspired outfit and off-centre charisma (with those boggly eyes and goofy grin, of course) perfectly emphasised The Doctor’s fey, genius alienness, while his National Theatre-honed acting chops ensured he delivered perfectly the sombre and weighty dialogues, monologues and moments of dark drama (of which there were many in the gothic horror-infused Hinchcliffe/ Holmes era). In short, he was the perfect Doctor for the times – probably for all times.

His own verdict on his performance is truly amusing in a surprisingly-frank-rather-than-self-deprecating-way: “All that was required was an ability to speak gobbledegook with conviction, which I found easy because all my life, including the years in the monastery, I had been taught nonsense by priests and teachers, on all sorts of subjects”.

The show then, as mentioned, already on a high thanks to the highly popular Pertwee years, went stratospheric. If Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds (1965-66) created a mid-’60s children’s TV phenomenon, then Baker’s Who years undoubtedly delivered the ’70s equivalent. It and his mug were everywhere – in spin-off books, annuals, comics; on other TV shows (Blue Peter most often, as well as The Multicoloured Swap Shop – see video clip above), lunchboxes and, yes, er, mugs.

Baker too never missed an opportunity to promote the show – spending a proportion of his down-time from filming travelling up and down the country, visiting the provinces and meeting his adoring fans of all ages, shapes and sizes. This is true to such an admirable extent that in ’78 – at the height of ‘The Troubles’, lest we forget – he popped over to Northern Ireland to visit schools – both Catholic and Protestant (see video clip below). In the guise of Baker, The Doctor truly did cross all boundaries – and barricades.

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Indeed, so popular was he that the role also brought him attention of, well, a different kind, as he also recounted in his autobiography. “One young university don persuaded me to show her my Doctor Who costume – and put it on herself,” he wrote. “She looked terrific as she threw herself wantonly on the wide Holiday Inn bed and growled: ‘Come on Doctor, let’s travel through space.’

“She really did say that. I nearly laughed in her face. But then, we were not in our right minds at the time and we had been drinking champagne. I managed to travel as far as the bed. As we grappled like demented stoats, her wearing my gear, I kept thinking I was making love to myself. At least she didn’t want to whip me, as some Who groupies did.”

After living with and often cheating on TV make-up designer Marianne Ford for much of his time on the show, he eventually fell in love once more – with, yes honestly, the actress playing The Doc’s latest companion. Tom met the lovely Lalla Ward when she was cast in ’79 as the second guise of Time Lady and fellow TARDIS incumbent Romana (following the character’s originator Mary Tamm departing after a single season).

Anyone who wants to know why he fell for Ward need only watch the outstandingly witty serials City Of Death or Destiny Of The Daleks (both 1979); Lalla is basically – and always has been and always will be – delightful. Yet, by now, the quiet, truly monogamous life didn’t suit the somewhat trumped up Tom; he was always out in Soho drinking with friends rather than spending time with his second wife. They were wed in late ’80, but their marriage ended, amicably at least, just 16 months later. Baker was a bachelor once more.

But, in fact, the dissolution of their relationship was foreshadowed by the end of the other major relationship in his life – the one he had with Who. Yes, on March 21 1981, after seven years, 41 serials and 186 individual episodes, Tom Baker’s final bow as The Doctor was broadcast in the last part of Logopolis, at the end of which he regenerated into the blonder, younger Peter Davison – the sort of star for Who new show-runner John Nathan-Turner envisaged for the synth-backed, gaudy ’80s.

Like his parting from Lalla, Tom seemed to take his parting from the TARDIS with good grace, recognising that the show needed – and thrived on – change and him hanging around longer probably wouldn’t do it any good (whether it really did that good without him in the ’80s is open to question, to be fair, but there you go). But the spontaneous, bombastic, unpredictable Baker was always ready for new acting challenges – his past experiences of the slippery slope of thesping and fame before Who being testament to that – and, him now nearing 50, it was just as true as ever.

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Narnia, Channel Five and CGI: as Puddlegum in The Silver Chair (l), in Fort Boyard (m) and as the voice of the villainous Zeebad in the big-screen adaptation of The Magic Roundabout (r)

He went on to essay that other great fictional hero from the past (if not also from the future) Sherlock Holmes in a Sunday evening, prime-time BBC adaptation of The Hound Of The Baskervilles (1982). Produced by old colleague Barry Letts, it co-starred the well respected Terrence Rigby as Watson – it was referred to by its crew as ‘The Tom and Terry Show’. While Rigby’s Watson’s a little stodgy, Baker often impresses as Holmes, even if the series itself wasn’t greatly received at the time (see the first episode for yourself here).

Later, he co-starred in the memorably racy BBC drama serial The Life And Loves Of A She-Devil (1986), played deranged seafarer Captain Redbeard Rum (whom possessed ‘a beard you could lose a badger in’) in the Blackadder II episode Potato (1986); appeared as Puddlegum in The Silver Chair (1989), itself part of the Beeb’s acclaimed adaptation of CS Lewis’s Narnia novels; portrayed Professor Plum for the ’92 series of ITV’s Cluedo gameshow (1990-93) and essayed a veteran surgeon in the same channel’s medical drama, er, Medics (1990-95). Along the way, he also featured with Eric Morecambe and ’70s Bond Girl Madeline Smith in the comedy short The Passionate Pilgrim (1984), which inexplicably was shown on the same UK cinema bills as the Bond film Octopussy and computer-themed teen flick WarGames (both 1983).

As the ’80s progressed, Baker’s Soho-based bachelor lifestyle began to lose its oomph and he reignited a love affair with TV executive Sue Jerrard (which had ended when he’d met Ward). They moved into a converted school in Kent in ’86 and married the following year. He and Sue are still married and after living in France for a brief time, moved back to Blighty in 2006 – surrounded as they’ve always been by cats and blessed with a large garden in which Tom’s able to indulge his soothing interest in horticulture.

Gone now, of course, are the days when he was a prime-time TV actor; these days many of his professional endeavours seem to be narratives and voice-overs for everything from adverts to videogames and Doctor Who audio adventures to attractions at The London Dungeon and Alton Towers. Yet, since the turn of the millennium, he’s popped up as a terrific panelist and guest host of Have I Got News For You (1990-present) and in supporting roles in Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer’s BBC revival of Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) (2000-01), Channel 5 gameshow Fort Boyard (2003), the Beeb’s Scottish Highlands-set drama Monarch Of The Glen (2004-05), a computer-animated movie version of The Magic Roundabout (2005) and, of course, as the narrator of the BBC sketch-show Little Britain (2003-06) and its US effort (2008).

Moreover, after maintaining a prickly relationship with Doctor Who ever since he left the show (as its directly preceding and most popular star, he refused to appear as The Fourth Doc in 1983’s Davison-era 20th-anniversary story The Five Doctors, so while all three other previous Docs properly appeared, he only featured in previously shot footage), in recent years his stance has softened and he’s become a regular on the geek-out Who convention and appearances circuit – even alongside other actors to have played the Time Lord. Indeed, his beloved status as ‘The Doctor’ – as well as his barmily, brilliantly witty demeanour – was never better captured than when huge fan and impersonator Jon Culshaw stunt-called Baker for the original  BBC Radio 4 run of comedy hit Dead Ringers (2000-07) – do listen to it below by playing the bottom video clip, it’s honestly hilarious.

So to sum up, who is – what is – Tom Baker? Yes, he was The Doctor, The Doctor, but as I hope I’ve maybe suggested to you dear reader in this somewhat indulgent blog post, so much more besides. His life has genuinely been a fascinating, logic-defying, unconventional ride of highs and lows like a light-speed journey in the TARDIS through a heavy turbulence-inducing meteor shower. In the end, though, he’s an unmitigated, unmistakable legend; after all, who else in the mid-’70s would, while travelling in a car back from a Who event one Saturday evening, stop off at a random house in Preston to check out the latest episode of the show because he wanted to see how it played on-screen, flabbergasting and delighting the home’s family in equal measure, especially the kids? His take on this escapade? “Those were the days. I was a hero in Preston and far around the world. And now what? Now I get mistaken for Shirley Williams…”

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Further reading:

tom-baker.co.uk

thomas-stewart-baker.com

See George’s Journal‘s pictorial celebration of Doctor Who in the 1970s here

Read George’s Journal‘s review of The Ark In Space (1974) here

Read George’s Journal‘s review of Genesis Of The Daleks (1974) here

Read George’s Journal‘s review of Pyramids Of Mars (1975) here

Read George’s Journal‘s take on why Doctor Who is one of the 1970s’ ultimate TV shows here

Read George’s Journal‘s article on The Doctor’s regenerations (including Pertwee into Baker and Baker into Davison) here

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. August 13, 2013 8:04 am

    I was fortunate to encounter Tom Baker and Lalla Ward on the London underground in 1980, I believe. I spoke quietly and politely to them and he thanked me for my praise. I was just shocked that I seemed to be the only person on a moderately busy train who recognised them! 🙂

  2. August 13, 2013 9:00 pm

    Wow, meeting both Tom Baker and Lalla Ward – at the same time and in something of a private moment from back when they were together? That’s a memory to cherish indeed!

    Thanks for your comment, as ever, Peter… 🙂

    • August 13, 2013 10:29 pm

      “Cu placere” as my friends here in Romania say.
      It means “with pleasure”.
      The Romanian people are so much like the British, particularly from when I was very young!
      I am on holiday here in Bucharest. 🙂

      • August 13, 2013 11:14 pm

        Good for you! Wouldn’t mind visiting an Eastern European capital – always thought them fascinating places. Haven’t got to that part of the world yet, sadly.

        Have a good holiday, Peter… 🙂

      • August 13, 2013 11:24 pm

        Multumesc (moolts-oo-mesk). It means thank you.
        Romania is like the Lake district in England, but it is the size of the whole country!
        The Carpathian forest is the last large area of unspoilt forest in Europe. There are still bears and wolves living wild! They can be a small problem to the native farmers, sometimes.
        The Beatles sang (from “Back in the USSR”) “Ukraine girls really knock me out, they leave the west behind”. The Beatles never went to Romania! Stunning and friendly are the two best adjectives…!

  3. Tom permalink
    October 15, 2013 9:59 pm

    I’ve always wanted to meet Tom Baker, as people say “he was my Dcotor” but, never got the chance. I did meet up with the 5th Doctor Peter Davidson at a local Doctor Who convention. I also met his then wife Sandra Dickinson who played Trillian in the television version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and had them both sign a Dr Who book and the HHGTG book.

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