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Dark side of the Doctor

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In an extraordinary interview, Dr Who actor Tom Baker tells ANDREW WILSON of the day he tried to kill his mother-in-law and the breakdown that led him to a suicide attempt.

When Tom Baker was starting as Dr Who, he would stop young children in the street and ask them where he had seen them before. Then, flicking back his 25-foot multi-coloured scarf, he would bend down and whisper, 'I know, I've seen you watching television.'

To the world at large, the amiable actor with his mass of brown curls, aquiline face and handy box of tricks was the ultimate children's hero. Parents would ask him to visit their terminally ill children in hospital, and Tom would be there, telling them the Doctor was standing by them. Yet, when it came to being a good father to his own two sons, the role seems to have been one he found too challenging.

In his autobiography, Who On Earth Is Tom Baker? which the Daily Mail starts serialising on Monday, he reveals how, at 31, he abandoned his children Daniel and Piers from his first marriage and didn't see them again for nine years. Even then, contact remained so rare that last January he failed to recognise his youngest son, Piers, now 36, when they met, by chance, in New Zealand.

Tom, in Auckland filming a commercial, was sitting in a restaurant with his third wife, Sue, when the waiter informed them that a young man at the bar wanted to pay their bill. Assuming it was a fan, Tom sauntered over to make small talk. What happened next simply beggars belief.

'The tall young man introduced himself as Piers Baker and said he was my son,' recalls the actor, his eyes nearly popping out of their sockets. 'I didn't recognise him — but I hadn't seen him for 16 years. He was working in New Zealand as a horticulturist, but the coincidence seemed just too bizarre.

'When the truth sank in I was astounded, completely astonished. The first emotion I felt was pride. Maybe it is a sign of emotional shallowness, but I kept thinking how nice-looking he was and what a marvellous voice he had.'

Then the regrets began. 'I realised how much I'd missed him when he was little, after my first marriage broke up. I felt saddened that I had not seen him for such a long time, and realised that I was partly responsible.'

In his autobiography, Tom reveals how the bitter disintegration of his first marriage drove him to attempt suicide; how he tried to murder his mother-in-law and how he abandoned his children to pursue his dream of becoming an actor. He also goes on to explain why his second marriage to actress Lalla Ward — who played his assistant Romana in Dr Who — lasted only 16 months and how his Catholic upbringing scarred him for life.

'The most painful part to write about was the loss of my religious faith. I remember a time when I was so certain of things, but that's gone now. And as the faith ebbed away from me, it began to turn to rage. All my life I have had difficulty in knowing whether I am awake or in a nightmare.'

Tom was born in 1934, in Liverpool. His mother, Mary Jane, a cleaner and barmaid, and his father, Stewart, a sailor, always seemed to be fighting a losing battle against poverty. During the war, the family home sheltered as many as 14 people and his earliest memories are of overcrowding and filth and the cockroaches that infested the house.

He confesses how he would fantasise about becoming an orphan; he even imagined his mother being killed by a bomb. That way, he would be taken away from the the Liverpool slums and be given the love he thought he lacked. To compensate, Tom turned to the Catholic Church for comfort, but it wasn't long before he became disillusioned. He was forced to repeat the words, 'I am nothing' in Latin and English over and over until he truly believed that he was completely unworthy of human love or compassion. I think it's been very difficult to get away from the fact that as a child I was brought up to loathe myself,' he says. At 17, he entered a monastery on Jersey. Woken at 4.30am, he would spend the day praying silently —the apprentice monks were not allowed to speak or even look at one another. 'The whole point was to learn humility and practise obedience,' says Tom. 'Yet the real point was the annihilation of the self and I suppose that's where I lost myself for ever.'

After five years, he dared to question certain aspects of the monastery and was expelled.

Adjusting to life outside proved difficult; one wonders whether he ever managed to make that transition successfully. He remembers on his release how, because he had been forbidden to look at his fellow monks for five years, he felt compelled to stare intensely at strangers. His view of women had been warped by his experience, leaving him unable to form lasting relationships.

After a spell in the Royal Army Medical Corps, he decided he wanted to be an actor, and went to the Rose Bruford College Of Speech And Drama, in Sidcup, Kent, where he met and fell in love with the woman who would be his first wife — Anna Wheat-croft. One of the characteristics he found attractive in her was the air of self-assurance that came from being comfortably off — her family belonged to the famous rose-growing dynasty. Despite their differences in background and personal wealth, the couple married, in Stafford, in 1960. It was, by all accounts, a disastrous relationship — the Wheatcrofts made him feel deeply inadequate and his self-esteem hit an all-time low.

'Sometimes they would give me nice gifts, a lovely shirt or a new suit,' he says. Tut they would always remind me that they had done this. I believe that they wanted to control me.'

Occasionally, Anna did try to defend her husband by standing up to her parents, Alfred and Constance. Once, when Anna gently pointed out that Daniel was Tom's baby, not Alfred's, her father flew into an apocalyptic rage, reeling off what he had paid for — the Nottingham nursing home, the best gynaecologist in the county and the baby's clothes. As the tirade ended, Alfred pointed at his son-in-law and said, 'He's got nothing. I paid it all, so the baby's mine.'

Although Tom and Anna had another son, Piers, their relationship was beginning to fall apart. Alfred then suffered a stroke and the family decided that Tom, with his nursing experience, should look after him. Caring for the man who had made his life miserable pushed him further into a deep depression. 'This monster who hated me suddenly became dependent on me,' says Tom. 'I found the whole experience so draining and I felt completely isolated and alone. I couldn't bear to look at my wife because she looked like her mother. And finally I couldn't look at my own children because they reminded me of their mother.'

In his bleakest moments, there seemed only one escape. 'I began to think about suicide and one day I swallowed 24 of Alfred's anti-depressants. Half an hour after taking them I woke up to the sound of Alfred banging his stick on the floor. When I realised that I wasn't dead, it felt like I was trapped inside some black farce.'

Confused and desperately unhappy, he even envied Alfred when he eventually died. Soon afterwards, he took up a manual job in the family's rose-growing business. Working in the fields one day, he overheard his mother-in-law ordering two fellow employees around. Spotting him, she shrieked: 'Come on there's work for you, too.'

For Tom, the pressures of the last few years came to a head. He shouted at her, and she started to laugh. Tom reached inside his car, grabbed one of the ten newly sharpened hoes that were lying on the back seat and threw it at her. Constance ducked and renewed her verbal onslaught. Deep inside Tom, something snapped. Gripped by a murderous rage he threw hoe after hoe in her direction. He admits there was no doubt that he meant to kill her. 'When she started to mock me, I really wanted to get her and absolutely intended to murder her. When I failed in that attempt, I went to pieces.

'I just wanted to run away — obviously something had happened in my head. I remember running up to the house, where I was sick over and over again. Then I realised I had to get the boys. But Anna came back and found me in a state and I thought her response wasn't sympathetic enough. I just stormed off, I couldn't cope any more.'

He went to Birmingham, then returned and told Anna he needed some time away. 'I went to Coventry, where I took a driving job and where Anna came to see me, quite soon afterwards, to tell me that she had met this other chap. I didn't want to know how long it had been going on or how serious it was.

'I don't know if I had a nervous breakdown, it's a very glib phrase to use. Certainly I was experiencing some terrible things and I wasn't thinking clearly. You would have expected a reasonably intelligent young man to think about his children, but I thought my children were possessed by them, the Wheatcrofts. Instead of saying, "I must have my children," I was easily persuaded that my state of neurosis would just make them more agitated. I don't think I even said goodbye to them.'

After the end of his marriage in 1965, Tom went to London to make his name as an actor. He worked with Laurence Olivier at the National Theatre, but fame eluded him and he often took labouring jobs to survive.

Between acting jobs, he was working on a building site when, in 1974, he heard he had been chosen to take over as the new Doctor Who. He became a national figure overnight, a man adored by millions of children and adults. For the first time in his life, Tom Baker felt loved.

'Dr Who was my salvation,' he says simply. 'The role fulfilled me in an amazing way and it was one part I could play off-screen as well as on. I never stopped being the Doctor and the rule, "Don't talk to strange men" never applied to me. Children just adored me.' In 1980, towards the end of his seven-year run as our favourite Time Lord, he fell in love with Lalla Ward, the 29-year-old actress who played his assistant Princess Romana. 'I can't remember the exact moment we went beyond friendship, but I recall my feelings being reciprocated by her. And for a short time we were happy.'

They married in December 1980, but 16 months later their relationship broke down. The fact that he was no longer the Doctor took its toll. Once he was off TV, and with a drastic haircut, no one recognised him. 'I lost my identity like Samson losing his strength,' he says.

He took to drinking with friends and his marriage began to fail. 'Lalla said it might be a good idea if we give it a rest and see how we really felt. I was never faced with the problem because that was it, we never saw each other again. Without any hostility we divorced very amicably and I've never seen her, ever.'

Bearing in mind his record, it comes as a surprise to learn that he has been happily married to his third wife, Sue Gerrard, a TV director and producer, for 12 years. Tom says, 'I find it much easier to be married now. I feel seriously committed and cannot imagine not being so. But I made it very clear I didn't want any children —I haven't been a huge success with the last two.' Tom keeps in regular contact with Piers, but has not seen his other son Daniel, 37, who is a builder, for a couple of years. He has never met Daniel's son Max.

His actorish voice drops to a whisper as he says, 'It may be that my sons were better off without me, with my uncertainties and my anxieties, but that may well be a piece of self-justification. I wouldn't say for a moment I've been a good father. I wouldn't say I've been a good anything, actor or father. In fact, I wouldn't say I've done a good turn to anyone. But I am trying to be a good husband.'

Who On Earth Is Tom Baker? is published on October 6 by HarperCollins, price £16.99.

© Tom Baker 1997

STARTING MONDAY Read Tom Baker's own story — only in the Daily Mail

Caption: Past wives: Above, Tom Baker with second wife and former Dr Who assistant, Lalla Ward; and, inset, first wife, Anna Wheatcroft

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  • APA 6th ed.: Wilson, Andrew (1997-09-20). Dark side of the Doctor. Daily Mail p. 24.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Wilson, Andrew. "Dark side of the Doctor." Daily Mail [add city] 1997-09-20, 24. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Wilson, Andrew. "Dark side of the Doctor." Daily Mail, edition, sec., 1997-09-20
  • Turabian: Wilson, Andrew. "Dark side of the Doctor." Daily Mail, 1997-09-20, section, 24 edition.
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