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Who's that author? (1999)

1999-10-30 Times.jpg

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  • Publication: The Times
  • Date: 1999-10-30
  • Author: Joanna Pitman
  • Page: Metro, p. 16
  • Language: English

Tom Baker's childhood was blighted by poverty and priests. He failed as a monk, tried to kill his mother-in-law, but then triumphed as Dr Who. And now he's written a book for children. Joanna Pitman prepares for the unexpected.

Tom Baker, face to face, is instantly recognisable as the best-loved Dr Who. Sometimes actors can benefit from the flattering alchemy of the lying television screen: they might actually be tiny and in platform shoes, have no hair and be wearing a wig, or worse ... But with Baker everything you so desperately want to be true, is true; from the blue popping eyes to the gleaming gateway of tombstone teeth and the mop of benignly piratical curls.

He is a huge presence of naughtiness, a sort of biblical Noah, with a warm booming voice that orders in the drinks, two by two. It is 11am in the Chukka Bar of London's Langham Hilton. Early drinking.

"I'm really only a children's entertainer," he beams over his beer. "That one success as Dr Who gave me a kind of self-assurance which was wonderful. Children adored me. I was a hero. I miss it terribly. Oh, it was heaven, all the fame and larkiness of getting tables in restaurants and all that. And I was terribly popular with the grannies. You see when the children were frightened they used to bury their heads in granny's bosom and the grannies loved that. Sometimes the grannies would see me in Peter Jones and their bosoms would tingle with pleasure at the sight of me, and they'd say, 'Hello, dear!' and then wonder who they were talking to ..."

Baker took on the Time Lord mantle in 1974 and gave it up in 1981. However, he still carries a stash of Dr Who postcards, which he signs in gold ink, and still wears a long scarf with a big overcoat as if willing to jog people's memories. "Fan love is not like real love. Fan love never dies. I still have kids stopping me in the street. It's marvellous. I'm still that benevolent alien to them ..." He lets out a laugh like a muzzled hyena.

At 66, Baker is the archetypal overgrown schoolboy and it takes me a good half hour to wrestle him away from the subject of his glory days and on to his new venture, writing books. Baker has just written a grotesque little fictional masterpiece called The Boy Who Kicked Pigs. It is a cross between a particularly depraved Monty Python sketch and a ribald Edward Lear tale, with a particularly nasty sting at the end.

The seemingly innocent and polite 13-year-old Robert Caligari discovers he has a penchant for causing nasty accidents. Slimily ingratiating, he polishes his sister Nerys's favourite shoes while secretly putting weedkiller in her porridge. He kicks her piggy bank out of the window and delights in the car crash that it causes. His imagination fed by lewd stories in the local press, he soon begins to engineer more crashes, fatal accidents and multiple pile-ups on the motorway, revelling in his evil power until eventually he meets a revolting end which involves a lot of very peckish rats.

You can picture Baker hunched over his computer keyboard, giggling away as he shapes each fabulously anarchic event. "I wrote it for children. I get on quite well with children and I thought I'd write about a wicked child. You couldn't possibly write about a good child; nobody would read it. There's a great deal of horror in this story." He pronounces "horror" in a kind of audible italics, lingering on the word like Peter Cushing describing what's afoot in the graveyard. But where does the fictional nastiness come from? Baker must have some pretty devilish thoughts inside that cherubic head. "I'm very grateful for my entire past," he smiles. "I'm grateful to the Germans for having bombed Liverpool and relieved the tedium of my childhood. I'm grateful for the bigoted upbringing that passed for being a passionate Chris-tian, like the hatred of the Jews or the hatred of Protestants. All that bigotry and awfulness of reading the Old Testament. All that was in my past, so when it comes to telling a tall tale, those dark shadows come forward, the days of war and religion."

Baker has led a rather near-the-knuckle life, full of vertiginous ups and terrible downs. One could summarise his key-life events as follows: Liverpool childhood (poverty), monastery (depression), Army (bullying), drama school (joy), marriage (happiness), fatherhood (ecstasy), in-laws (misery), attempted murder, attempted suicide, divorce, manual labouring (dire poverty), Dr Who stardom, wealth, women, remarriage, divorce, remarriage. "When I was a child, I longed to die: I was baptised, we were poor, the house was dirty, my feet were smelly and I was no good at school. What was the point in hanging around waiting for things to get better? ... My own home always made me feel ashamed. My poor mother was mostly too tired to clean our house after spending most of her day cleaning other people's houses. And then in the evening after a day's scrubbing, she would do a shift pulling pints at the Sefton Arms."

With his father, a sailor, largely absent and the house full of refugees from the bombs, Baker effectively ran away at the age of 15 and entered a monastery in Jersey. For nearly six years he rose daily at 4.30am and bowed his head in prayer, vowing to be chaste, humble and obedient, while the Devil ricocheted about in his head and did his damnedest to provoke him.

Eventually he extricated himself from God's clutches, joined the Royal Army Medical Corps where he spent a couple of years administering bedpans, and then did a spell at the Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama in Kent. There he met Anna Wheatcroft, who became his first wife in 1960. "She was a pretty girl from a family with a few bob and my poverty made me despair because the Wheatcrofts found it made them uneasy. They found me disgusting. They would really have preferred if I hadn't come into their lives at all. And I was so unhappy and resentful."

When I ask him whether the business of him trying to murder his mother-in-law is true, his voice drops to a conspiratorial whisper. "I absolutely did try to murder her. I just felt it was my duty to destroy this monster who was making everybody's lives awful. I went through this moment when I hated them so much and I was afraid of them and they were so unkind to me. I cracked one day when she was screaming at me like a witch, taunting me for being a kept man. I started throwing some garden hoes at her, one after another. And she laughed at me, still taunting me. It was horrible... And the worst thing was that my two sons looked so like Wheatcrofts, with the honey-coloured skin and the blond hair. I had this terrible problem. My sons were very handsome and I couldn't look at them because I associated them with all this horror."

Baker fled the Wheatcroft household just as his wife announced she had found another man, divorcing in 1965. What follows is vague, but sounds like attempted suicide and some sort of breakdown before being gathered up by acting friends and getting work as a labourer. Baker was soon playing bit parts on the stage, got a foot in at the Nation-al Theatre, and then the big break came with his role as the fourth Dr Who.

"When you're brought up as I was, with no self regard; when you are brought up to feel the awful guilt of being worth-less, which is what Christianity is, it means that you're actually capable of accepting terrible things and believing that that's what you deserve ... so I carried on because somewhere in my madness and confusion and idiocy, I felt that it was part of this martyrdom that I'd always wanted, that I was worthless. All these anxieties continued until the huge worldwide success of Dr Who and then suddenly I had fans."

Baker's seven years in the role marked the peak of the programme's popularity and in 1980 Baker celebrated by marrying his co-star Lalla Ward. "Sadly that didn't work because I used to go drinking in Soho all the time."

After more post-divorce dark days, he found Sue Jerrard, who had been assistant editor on Dr Who, and married her in 1987, this time apparently successfully (they live in an old schoolhouse in Kent). Good work is still plentiful: he has just done six episodes of Randall and Hopkirk, 30 episodes of Nicholas Nickleby for Radio 4, and played God in Don Howarth's Take Two, also for Radio 4. And, two years ago, Baker by chance bumped into his younger son, Piers, in a restaurant in New Zealand. "It was wonderful. I was suddenly catapulted back to when he was a boy. My knees used to shake I loved my sons so much. We see quite a lot of him now, and Daniel, too. "As an actor, I'm a professional, paid escapist. Today I have my wife, my sons and I am probably as happy as I'm capable of."

He takes a gulp of his beer and gazes into the far distance, gently chewing an olive.

The Boy Who Kicked Pigs is published by Faber at £12.99/£10.99.

Disclaimer: These citations are created on-the-fly using primitive parsing techniques. You should double-check all citations. Send feedback to whovian@cuttingsarchive.org

  • APA 6th ed.: Pitman, Joanna (1999-10-30). Who's that author?. The Times p. Metro, p. 16.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Pitman, Joanna. "Who's that author?." The Times [add city] 1999-10-30, Metro, p. 16. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Pitman, Joanna. "Who's that author?." The Times, edition, sec., 1999-10-30
  • Turabian: Pitman, Joanna. "Who's that author?." The Times, 1999-10-30, section, Metro, p. 16 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Who's that author? | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Who%27s_that_author%3F | work=The Times | pages=Metro, p. 16 | date=1999-10-30 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=14 December 2017 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Who's that author? | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Who%27s_that_author%3F | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=14 December 2017}}</ref>