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Tom Baker - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

November 2005

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To most, Tom Baker is only known (if at all) as the actor who has played Doctor Who from 1974 to 1981, his trademarks being a manic toothy grin, big staring eyes, curly hair, a booming voice, an old hat & coat, and an incredibly long scarf. So prominent was his performance of Doctor Who in fact that he (well, his caricature) made (at least) 2 walk-on appearances on the popular tv-show The Simpsons in the mid 1990's, and he (as Doctor Who) is regularly spoofed on the TV-impersonation show Dead Ringers. This article however tries to portray Tom Baker the actor in greater detail.

 

Baker was born in 1934 to a devout catholic mother, who made her living as housecleaner & barmaid, & a Jewish father, who was a sailor & was thus rarely at home. At age 15, Tom Baker turned his back on this world as it is & became a monk with the Brothers of Ploermel on the island of Jersey. However, his vocation only lasted for 6 years, after which he abandoned monastery life, joined the Royal Army Medical Corps & later became a sailor like his father. Eventually though the theatre-bug seems to have bitten him. He subsequently underwent formal acting education & started his career in repertory theatres.

 


It wasn't until the late 1960's that he got an assignement at the National Theatre & played with some greats as Anthony Hopkins (then a close friend of him) & Laurence Olivier. The late 1960's also brought on his first TV & film roles - the motion picture The Winter's Tale (1968) & guest spots in series like Z-Cars, George and the Dragon or the Thirty Minute Theatre..

 

The first role that gained him bigger attention though was that of Rasputin in 1971's film Nicholas and Alexandra.

 

1972 brought Baker a role in Pier Paolo Pasolini's I Racconti di Canterbury/Canterbury Tales, a film that he holds in highest esteem (& thinks it was his best performance) to this day. (For people who only know him as Doctor Who, it might seem a tad odd to see him doing full frontal nudity & sex scenes, though).

 


Flix.com



Some interesting genre-films & -oddities followed, like The Mutations/The Freakmaker, in which he played an assistant to mad scientist Donald Pleasence [Donald Pleasence bio - click here], Amicus' The Vault of Horror [Amicus history - click here], a guest role on Frankenstein: The True Story (which told everything but what Mary Shelly has written), & the lead villain (an Arabian sorcerer ... a bit far fetched for a red- & curly-haired Brit) in The Golden Voyage of Sindbad, a Gordon Hessler-directed showcase for Ray Harryhausen's stop motion effects also starring John Philip Law, Caroline Munro [Caroline Munro bio - click here] & Douglas Wilmer.

 


However, Baker soon thought his career led to nowhere & turned his back on acting. Legend has it that he has taken on a job as a construction worker when he got the BBC approval for playing Doctor Who ...

 

The tv-series Doctor Who was premiered in 1963 as a kids' sci-fi show (that would within time attract a large adolescent & adult audience as well). It dealt with a time (& space) traveller called the Doctor (no last name) whose adventures were set both in earth's own history as well as in its future, on other planets and in outer space. It would eventually wind up to be the longest (consecutively) running science fiction tv show ever (it was eventually cancelled after 26 seasons in 1989, however picked up again in 2005), but that would yet lie in the future.

 

Before Tom Baker, already 3 other actors - William Hartnell, Patrick Throughton, Jon Pertwee - had played the Doctor in the series (Peter Cushing, by the way, had also played the Doctor, for 2 big-screen remakes of popular episodes: Doctor Who and the Daleks and Daleks Invasion Earth 2150 AD), & these actors had only 3 things in common: One, they had nothing in common, two, they did not follow the traditional description of a science fiction hero, and three, they were all a bit weird, even eccentric.

Tom Baker, a natural eccentric, of course fitted this bill perfectly, & not only that, he brought an intensity to the role that few other actors could equal. He always seemed to be on top of things, always seemed to be prepared to throw himself into things head-on, he tended to offer his opponents jelly-babies in the least probable moments, & he could deliver endless lines of outrageous technical gobbledegook with such a conviction that one actually tended to believe every word he was saying - in short, Tom Baker was Doctor Who on speed. His always wide-open, staring eyes, seemed to only emphasize on that, as well as his anachronistic outfit, inspired by Toulouse Latrec, but with a long scarf.

 




Arguably, Tom Baker joined the show at its most creative & innovative period, with Philip Hinchcliffe just having become producer & Robert Holmes script editor (producers & script editors always had a massive input into the show, as you will see later). With them on board, the show left its more traditional sci-fi roots & entered what is dubbed by fans its gothic period - which in this case means the show gives a sci-fi spin to horror mainstays.

Consequently, Baker, as the Doctor, has to fight walking mummies (that turn out to be robots controlled from Mars) in Pyramids of Mars, a Frankenstein style monster in The Brain of Morbius, a giant man-eating plant in The Seeds of Doom, while The Ark in Space has giant insects, & The Planet of Evil combines a traditional ghost story with the Jekyll & Hyde-myth.

 



Maybe the episode that shows the series closeness to the gothics best is 1977's The Talons of Weng Chiang (scripted by Robert Holmes himself), an episode that features oriental villains (something that might today be seen a s politically incorrect), weird experiments, giant rats in the London sewers, Limehouse & prostitutes, & everything else you would expect from a classic horror/detective story. Tom Baker even dons a Sherlock Holmes-like outfit for this one.

(It has to be noted that during that era of the series, there were a few non-gothic stories as well, like Genesis of the Daleks, essentially a war story with references to World War I that delivers a strong anti-war message not usually found in a kids' sci-fi show and that is actually one of the best episodes of the series.)

 


The Talons of Weng Chiang unfortunately was the last episode produced by Philip Hinchcliffe,

& while initially everything looked fine - the first post-Hinchcliffe episode Horror of Fang Rock manages to have the whole supporting cast killed off one by one by an alien - , soon the series declined in quality of both story & production values (e.g. in the episode Underworld, a whole world made up of caves is represented by unconvincing back projections for budgetary reasons).

 

However, the immediate post-Hinchcliffe-era also featured one ot the best Doctor Who episodes ever, The Sun Makers, a satire on taxation & capitalism &/or communism gone wild, again scripted by Robert Holmes. It's nothing short of a shame that this episode isn't out yet on DVD, my suggestion is, if you can ever grab this episode in any form (& be it on VHS), get it, & bombard the BBC with e-mails & phonecalls to realease it on DVD.

 

As the quality of both production values & scripts declined though, Tom Baker found more & more possibilities to make the show his own, chewing up & hamming up every scene he's in & filling his lines with irrelevant (but often hysterical) little jokes (his co-star & later wife Lalla Ward claimed he did it for the children in the audience, but in some episodes, his jokes are the only thing memorable & appealing to grown-ups like me as well). Eventually, inside the BBC, Doctor Who became known as The Tom Baker Show.

 



Enter Douglas Adams.

Douglas Adams was then fresh from scripting the highly successful Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe radio series, but somehow the royalties for that series tended to come in rather slowly, so he had to look for other work at the BBC, scripting first an episode of Doctor Who, The Pirate Planet in 1978, then, in 1979, becoming script editor of the show. Fortunately for Tom Baker, Adams totally shared his sense of humour & his views on turning the show into a sci-fi--comedy. 

With Adams on board, both the script ideas & Baker's performance got ever crazier & more outrageous. The writers seemed to be even encouraged to take a no-holds-barred approach to science fiction, which is probably best portrayed in City of Death, scripted by Adams himself, where a villain who for some reason exists through time persuades Leonardo Da Vinci back in his time to paint 7 Mona Lisas, then steals the actual Mona Lisa from the Louvre in contemporary Paris to sell his 7 (also authentic) Mona Lisas, all to finance the creation of a time machine so he can travel back to the beginning of life on earth & stop his spaceship from exploding - the explosion which made life on earth possible in the first place.

Confused ?

 

However, many of the episodes during Douglas Adams' time as a script editor suffered from poor storytelling, inadequate scripts, sloppy & cheap sets & so on. Not even Tom Baker managed to save some of the weaker episodes. Despite the continuing success of the show, a change seemed thus immiment.

Unfortunately, the change was not for the better ...

 


John Nathan Turner became producer of Doctor Who in 1980, & his idea of a popular sci-fi TV-show, especially in the wake of the Star Wars-series of films (the first 2 episodes of which were out back then), were quite different from those which Baker & Adams had. He steered the show back towards traditional science fiction, ommitted all the jokes & restrained Tom Baker to a point where one wonders why he had Baker on at all ... the Doctor became unimpressive, & often a supporting character in his own show.

It came as no big surprise that Baker quit the show which he has once delivered to new heights in 1981 with the episode Logopolis.

 

Being out of a regular job, Tom Baker found time to marry Lalla Ward, his former sidekick (or companion, as Doctor Who-fans tend to call sidekicks) on Doctor Who (but their marriage did only last 16 months).

 


Apart from that, Tom Baker found it difficult do find new work, despite the show's undisputed success. After The Golden Voyage of Sindbad, he played another Arab, Hasan, in Curse of King Tut's Tomb (1980), but was a secondary villain even to Raymond Burr (who also played an Arab), he played a supporting character on the TV-series The Zany Adventures of Robin Hood, and he made a fun guest appearance as maddened & amputated sea captain on Black Adder II. In 1982, he even got to play Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles, a BBC mini-series. His portrayal of Holmes however was widely dismissed by Sherlock Holmes-fans, even though he does a pretty sincere job portraying the detective (and seems to be a natural for portraying the character's cocaine addiction) - it rather seems that nobody wanted Doctor Who portraying the iconic detective to begin with. 

In 1986, Tom had a supporting role in the TV-miniseries The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (directed by Philip Saville), based on Fay Weldon's novel of the same name - the same novel 1989's She-Devil (Susan Seidelman) starring Meryl Streep and Roseanne, but no Tom Baker, was also based on.

 

By & large though, Tom Baker's roles during the 1980's were few & far between, so much so that by the late 1980's, several publications spread the rumour that he had actually died from a drug overdose in 1982 ...

 


The 1990's did show a renewed interest in Tom Baker though. 

Reasons: Doctor Who had been cancelled & this strange phenomenon called fandom emerged, plus with his old Doctor Who shows being by & by released on VHS, he once more became a household name ... he was in demand once more. 

The 1990's kicked off with The Silver Chair, a made-for-tv movie from The Chronicles of Narnia, he was a regular on the third series of Cluedo in 1992 (as Professor Plum) and from 1992 to 1995 he was seen on the hospital series Medics. In 1993, he even returned to the role as Doctor Who for a 14 minute charity spoof, Dimensions in Time, for Children In Need, shot on the sets of the popular daily soap Eastenders. Jon Pertwee, Peter Davison, Colin Baker & Sylvester McCoy can all also be seen as Doctor Who in this one.

 



However, his career seems to have gotten a real new lease of life in the 2000's, suddenly it seems everybody found a niche for Tom Baker in one way or another: He played the ghost Wyfern in Reeve's & Mortimer's reworking of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), got a role in the rather forgettable fantasy film Dungeons & Dragons (2000), was a co-host in the adventure gameshow Fort Boyard from 2003 onwards, got a central role in the final 2 series of Monarch of the Glen (2004 - 2005), had a hilarious guest role as a sleazy film producer in the first episode of the not so hilarious show Swiss Toni (a spin off of the Fast Show, starring and produced by Charlie Higson, who also produced  Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased)), and was the narrator on Matt Lucas' & David Walliams' spoof show Little Britain (from 2003 onwards) - where his sense of humour and the deep conviction he lays into his voice work especially well with the utter nonsense he has to proclaim.

Besides that he, or rather his distinct, booming voice, has become a recognizable entity, from voice-overs for advertisements, doing voices for animated shows to doing narration in various media, including video games and answering machine messages.

 

Despite his workplace being (primarly) Great Britain, Tom Baker these days lives in France with his third wife, Sue Jerrard, who once was an assistant editor on Doctor Who. However, if you have no desire to go to France to find him, visit him at http://www.tombaker.tv.

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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On the same day
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and your Ex wants
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... and for the life of it,
you can't decide
WHICH IS WORSE!!!

 

A Killer Conversation

produced by and starring
Melanie Denholme
directed by
David V.G. Davies
written by
Michael Haberfelner
starring
Ryan Hunter and
Rudy Barrow

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Stell Dir vor, Deine Lieblingsseifenoper birgt eine tiefere Wahrheit ...
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