Polycarp of Smyrna was a second century bishop. He was burned at the stake after he refused to burn incense for the Roman Emperor, but the fire did not touch him. Eventually he got stabbed to death instead, and became a martyr and a saint.
Not many people have heard of Polycarp of Smyrna, but he gets a brief mention in Tom Baker’s 1997 autobiography. I found myself wondering if Polycarp was real or invented, and so I looked him up. There he was on Wikipedia, and maybe that story was true after all, in which Baker puzzled a group of fellow monks at the breakfast table by calling out the name of Polycarp of Smyrna as an example to be followed. ‘Let us not be obscure,’ replied one of the monks. But I’m really glad Tom Baker is obscure, in all things. He tells a lot of tales, and most of them seem so strange that you wonder if they can be factually correct. But, of course, factual correctness doesn’t always represent the whole truth.
Tom Baker has had one of those lives that meant becoming a time-travelling alien with two hearts and a penchant for jelly babies came as a relief to him. The first half of the book, and the more interesting half for me, concentrates on his childhood of poverty in Liverpool, his devout Catholicism, and his decision at a very young age to become a monk followed by a stint of National Service before he settled on acting. His sheer puzzlement at life in general comes across strongly, and makes him such a warm figure on the page even when he talks about things that don’t usually find their way into the autobiographies of actors, such as scabies, breaking wind, and venereal disease. Humanity is a pretty strange business, he points out on most pages, and his talent to see the absurd in everything makes for incredibly entertaining reading. There is a real sadness in some of these events: families fall apart, his dreams often come to nothing. And yet his use of bathos and his turn of phrase never encourage us to wallow in these moments.
Baker is also very good at drawing some interesting parallels throughout his life choices. What does becoming a monk, a soldier, and an actor have in common? He sees the theatrical in all three vocations: the ability to escape himself in a role was always the appeal. He tells few tales, comparatively with other actor autobiographies, of experiences with fellow thespians but the ones he chooses to share with us often highlight that lack of a personality behind the façade. As an example, there’s a moment where a grand old actor refuses to acknowledge an old friend at a party. When challenged about it, the actor says he can’t behave in any other way because he has absolutely no personality of his own.
The same could not be said of Tom Baker, no matter how much he wants a big role to hide behind. His personality comes across loud and clear in his writing, and you can picture his huge smile and startling eyes as you read. There’s always been a great public affection for Baker as the Doctor, and it’s not hard to tell why. When you reach his reminiscences of his stint as a Timelord he has a palpable love of the role and of the people who responded to it, and he took his responsibilities towards the fans very seriously, forever carrying around jelly babies and signed photos to dish out as required. His love of the fan base seems to be bigger than his appreciation of the programme itself. Judging by the way he concentrates on the more outlandish stories of scripts and costumes (my favourite one involves Davros, who always terrified me as a child; now I don’t think I’ll be able to ever be scared by him again), I don’t think he ever took it very seriously. But then, he doesn’t take anything very seriously throughout. I love that approach, but I can see it might grate on those who want a full-blown dissection of his time as the Doctor. This is definitely not the book for that.
Towards the end of the book the stories became a little more piecemeal and I got the sense Baker was running out of energy for the subject matter. But then, doesn’t the past always look more interesting the further away you get from it? His childhood memories are, possibly with the aid of a very active imagination, filled with a great sense of time and place. It seems a strange thing to say that, for an autobiography of a man undoubtedly best known for Doctor Who, the parts that don’t have Doctor Who in them are the most entertaining. He might be synonymous with the role on television, but on the page he comes across as a very different person. His confusion at what happened to him – both the highs and lows of a very surprising life – provides both the funniest and the most moving aspect of his story.
There’s no attempt to portray himself as either a saint or a martyr – he’s no Polycarp of Smyrna – but there’s a lot of emotional candour and many moments of pure surprise and delight. When he was recently interviewed by Den Of Geek Baker said he felt surprise when he reread his autobiography at what he considered to be true forty years ago – “…all those people I used to hate!” There is passion in this book, and hatred for systems and people who crush hope and individuality. If he does feel much more benevolent now, I wonder what kind of book he would write about his past. It’s a very rare thing to want to read the same story again written by the same author just to find out how their opinion has changed, and it surely must be the highest compliment any reader can pay to an autobiography.
On Monday 16th June Kaci will be reviewing the next Den Of Geek book club choice, which is Sparrow Hill Road by Seanan McGuire.
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