Entertainment & Arts

Tom Baker on Doctor Who: 'It was so much better than real life'

Tom Baker with Daleks in 1975
Image caption Tom Baker's Bohemian-styled fourth Doctor caught the public imagination

As Doctor Who nears its 50th anniversary, Tom Baker reflects on his seven years as the fourth Doctor. "It was so much better than real life," he says.

Tom Baker is planning to break the habit of a lifetime on 23 November.

The actor says he's never been interested in watching Doctor Who - including his own stories - but he plans to sit down in front of this month's special episode that will mark the show's 50th anniversary.

"I hope it's going to be terrific," he says. "It's such a landmark. It'll be a big, emotional thing, but I don't know what they'll do - I'll make an exception and watch that."

With his long scarf and love of jelly babies, Baker's fourth Doctor remains one of the most instantly recognisable incarnations of the Time Lord. He is also the show's longest-serving star, having played the role from 1974 to 1981.

"I can't explain the show's longevity any more than I can explain my own," booms the 79-year-old actor when we meet in a private members' club in London's Covent Garden. "It's just a happy accident."

Baker admits he "wasn't at all happy" just before he was cast to replace Jon Pertwee in what is arguably British TV's most well-known role.

After joining Olivier's National Theatre company in the late 1960s, Baker moved into films. He was Rasputin in Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) and had roles in Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Canterbury Tales (1972) and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973).

But he was working as a labourer when he was cast in Doctor Who.

"I was going through a bad time of feeling rejected, even though I'd had a flirtation with movies. I was on a building site, having no skill there except to make the tea and use a drill," Baker recalls.

"So when the opportunity came to play Doctor Who, it was a jackpot."

Baker's co-workers on the building site found out the news by reading it in the Evening Standard.

"I went to work next morning - famous! They were so thrilled for me. I legged it down to Barclays Bank and got an advance and gave them a party. It was like being reborn."

Baker admits he had no idea how he was going to tackle his role as the new star of Doctor Who.

Image caption Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) and the Doctor (Tom Baker) in a scene from 1976's The Brain of Morbius

"How could I? I didn't watch it. I didn't watch it when I was in it and I haven't watched it since. So when it came, and these scripts were given to me, one of the problems was they were being written for Jon Pertwee - so I had to wrench it my way."

Without doubt, Baker made the part his own. Viewing figures went up and many of his stories - The Ark in Space, Genesis of the Daleks, The Brain of Morbius, The Deadly Assassin and The Robots of Death - are regarded as classics.

How did he find being the Doctor?

Baker beams. "It was a great experience. Actors want a big audience, and to be admired and to get applause is one thing, but to be adored is something I recommend."

He reminisces about visiting schools and hospitals, doing charity work and being flown round in helicopters.

"Everywhere I went I was waving like royalty and dishing out 50 pence pieces," he says.

"It was so much better than real life. I stayed so long because real life at the time wasn't so terrific.

Image caption (from left) Peter Davison, Tom Baker and Paul McGann launching a set of Doctor Who stamps earlier this year

"Being Doctor Who, I used to look at the clock and know at half past four we were going to stop rehearsing - and that was a sad moment for me because I wanted to stay in this beautiful, unreal world."

Asked if he has kept any Doctor Who props, Baker responds: "I had lots of bits and pieces but they've all been begged off me by the charities. It's all gone now."

"I have some interesting letters from fans who saw me as a messianic figure and thought I could do miracles."

He flashes one of his Doctor-like grins: "They were quite mistaken, but I didn't disabuse them."

'In the groove'

After leaving Doctor Who in 1981, Baker's career embraced TV, stage and film.

In 1982 he was Sherlock Holmes in BBC TV's The Hound of the Baskervilles, and his stage roles included Hedda Gabler, Educating Rita (RSC) and She Stoops to Conquer (NT).

More recent TV roles include Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased), Monarch of the Glen (2004-5) and the narrator of Little Britain.

Despite his assertion that he's not watched his own stories, Baker has, of course, sat through some of them for DVD commentaries and at conventions.

In recent years he has reprised the role of the Doctor for a number of Big Finish audio adventures.

Image caption Baker's tenure as the Time Lord lasted from 1974 to 1981

"I'm back now in the groove," Baker says. "The fans want to go back in time and I don't disappoint them because I haven't advanced at all from Doctor Who."

All these years on, the actor notes, Doctor Who fans can still be in awe of him.

"Anyone who's on television gets a reaction when playing a heroic part like the Doctor. And it still happens now with much older people.

"But some of them are telling me lies," he adds, with a glint in his eye. "I met an old lady, aged about 85, the other day, who said: 'When I was a little girl I used to hide behind the sofa when I saw you!'"

Many of those who watched the show in the 60s and 70s have helped bring on the next generation of fans.

"People introduce me to their grandchildren or to their children," Baker says. "It's very sweet that it's passed on affectionately by parents, showing my old stuff.

"Small children sometimes approach me and ask 'is it true you used to be Doctor Who?'"

The Doctor Who 50th anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor, will be shown on BBC One on 23 November.

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