The Horror Channel has picked up the rights to show classic Doctor Who, and celebrated the fact at a special launch, attended by the mighty Tom Baker. As part and parcel of that, we got to spend some time chatting with the longest serving Doctor, a man whose eyes and teeth have life of their own, and are as simultaneously transfixing, unsettling and warm as they are on screen.
Here’s how we got on…
You’ve talked before that it’s adults that respond to you in the street, and it’s adults that send you letters. But my 10-year old has never been as impressed about anyone I’ve interviewed. Have you found in the last couple of months in particular that you’ve had a lot more reaction from much younger fans?
Yes. That’s right. I think that might be something to do with ExCel too [the Doctor Who Experience event last November]. I noticed the young fanbase has increased a lot. Particularly from America.
Also, I noticed I’m getting mail from the Ukraine, from Norway… it’s amazing to get a letter from so far. The postman said to me ‘you’ve got a friend in the Ukraine, Tom!’
The odd thing though about the fans though is that the fan letters are pretty much identical. They’re not just fans, they are huge fans. They’ve often been introduced to [Doctor Who] through their father, their grandfather now. And it’s always this great affection, and it always ends with begging for signatures or messages of whatever.
What I find is that if I’m over-effusive, or make too many jokes, what happens is that by return of post I get a six page letter! [Roars laughing] Because they’re encouraged! They think oh, I can be a friend of the Doctor! So I have to measure it out and be friendly. Be one among many!
You do return the affection. I read earlier that Harrison Ford was talking about Star Wars over the weekend, and a fan asked him whether he thought Greedo or Han Solo shot first. His exact quote was ‘I don’t know and I don’t care’.
How do you feel about those who don’t display quite the same levels of warmth as you do towards fandom?
Well that sounds terribly ungracious, doesn’t it? Or at least ungracious. I think he’s been asked that a lot, and he’s had stupendous success. But I would have thought that his success was so great he could have… well, that was a disappointing reply, wasn’t it? I’ve had to say about Doctor Who time after time that it was the loveliest thing that ever happened to me as a professional. It was so much fun to do. But not to be gooey about it, it’s no small thing for many, many years to be a children’s hero. It’s no small thing. So I’m sorry to hear Harrison Ford said such an ungracious thing.
We should talk about the Doctor Who 50th anniversary episode, The Day Of The Doctor. You’ve said when you first picked up the script, you said that they would have let you tamper with it, and also that you didn’t warm to it. Did you tamper with it at all?
No, no. I didn’t tamper with it in the end. But I had a conversation with… I think the big executive is called Moffat, I think. And he talked about it a little bit. I said to him ‘well alright, I guess I can try to make it work’. But I was at a terrible disadvantage, because I didn’t understand the cameras. It now takes a long time to do quite short scenes on high definition cameras. I don’t know why, I don’t want to know: it’s too late. But apart from the charm of Matt Smith, whose genuine affection to have me in a scene with him, apart from that it was a pretty boring bloody experience.
And then I was just amazed by the reaction of the audiences. I got letters from everywhere! It went out all over the world, didn’t it? Lots of people said very sweet things. Like ‘suddenly, we heard your voice…!’
A girl said to me the other day ‘I just wanted to mention to you Mr Baker, my mother took me – I’m 15 – and when you appeared, my mother smiled’. And she said ‘I hadn’t seen my mother smile since I was a little girl’. What a wonderful observation. She said, ‘for that moment, I thank you’.
Americans are often formal, and call me sir [roars].
In the past, you said of returning to Doctor Who that ‘I just don’t want to be paraded through as some shagged out old icon of the last century. It’s too much of a source of happiness’. Does that account for your pickiness?
I think it might. Quite a lot of people offer me commercial jobs, you know, and I don’t want to do commercial jobs. I don’t need to do them any more, and the memories of what I did… some people say, like Harrison Ford, that it was only a job, you know. But it wasn’t. I think anybody who says it’s only a job, when I could go anywhere in the world…. it was never that. I don’t want anything to be too commercial. I was offered a wonderful job in Australia, travelling with the BBC’s music concerts. I couldn’t face it. That was for about five weeks, I think.
Now I go to regular conventions where I know the people who are putting them on.
See, when people overegg my appearance somewhere, and you end up with 500 people, that’s no good at all. I don’t want 500 people there, I can’t deal with it. Because in the ordinary way, children with their parents are not just coming to see me and to get an autograph and that’s it. Some guys I know don’t even raise their heads! They just sign it and push it along! Doctor Who fans want a little encounter, they want to meet me, they want to say sweet things. Even though they all say the same things, and I give the same answers, we’re still only ordinary people. So I can only deal with about 30 people an hour. And they all want to take photographs of me now, and then put the baby there and take another photograph. All this eats in time, and in the meantime, the audience is down there. I like the ones where it’s a bit more measured, and I’ve got time to give people time. If people have paid £20 to come and see me, or £10 for a picture, they want to see me, don’t they? They want to see me sign it, to be affectionate in the character. And I try not to disappoint them.
I see that your memoirs have now, finally, been made available again. They’re on Kindles now. But do you have plans for a volume two?
No! No, no, no.
Are you doing more writing?
No I’m not. I wrote the horror story didn’t I, which is now a play. But I tried to re-reread my autography recently, and I was really quite shocked! I could scarcely believe anything! It’s amazing, what was true 40 years ago, and then you write about it, then 15 years later you read it… is that what I felt? Because time does influence it, doesn’t it? Now, I’m really rather benevolent. Even towards The Pope, and all those people I used to hate! Religion, you know, I used to always be saying sarcastic things. Now I just say mischievous things [grins].
You wrote it in a non-media trained age though. Autobiographies written now seem far less truthful. There’s something quite refreshing about someone giving it to you straight.
[Roars] Yeah, yeah.
Final question then. You’ve talked in the past about how you liked to tease Jon Pertwee, over his inability to buy a round of drinks. But with all the people you’ve teased over the years, has anyone got you back?
Well they couldn’t try that one, because I always buy the drinks [laughs]. The thing about Jon Pertwee is that you have to be very, very careful you know. Because sometimes… well, people say to me that he died. And I said yes, I know. Apparently he had this terrible dream where he was in a bar and had to buy everyone a drink. And this caused a cardiac infarction. I thought it was quite droll really. Anyway, he’s dead, but afterwards someone said ‘listen Tom, don’t say that’. I was being insensitive.
Is that the closest you’ve been to media trained?
Well…. [roars]… I don’t know. I think your time is up!
Classic Doctor Who episodes start airing on The Horror Channel (Sky 319, Virgin 149, Freesat 138) from Friday the 18th of April.
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