1.01. Destination: Nerva
Behind the Scenes
This story takes place immediately after The Talons of Weng-Chiang.
BREAKING THE FOURTH'S WALL
In the first part of a two-part interview (second part in the Behind-The-Scenes section of The Renaissance Man) Tom Baker looks back to the Seventies and forward to the future of the Fourth Doctor, with Paul Spragg
It’s odd how you don’t believe something is happening until you see it with your own eyes. I’m in studio for Destination: Nerva and, while this is the first of the brand new range of Tom Baker-starring releases from Big Finish, it’s not the first to be recorded. Knowing Tom was in studio, being told by Nick Briggs and David Richardson that it was all going well; it’s just not the same as being there and seeing it. A few recordings into his stride, Tom is ebullient, dedicated and extremely tongue-in-cheek. I’ll let you decide what may or may not be true from the following…
“It’s a good question, what’s it like being back as the Doctor,” muses Tom. “Because the brutally honest answer – and I don’t often give honest answers because I’m a proper actor – is, of course, I’ve never stopped being the Doctor. Even though I left thirty-odd years ago, I’ve never stopped being the Doctor simply because, for one reason or another, mostly the enthusiasm of the fans, that’s the way they saw me. The only great success I ever really had was the Doctor and it’s lasted so long that whatever I’ve done since, it’s been the Doctor. Because that’s really all I know what to do! And also, it‘s what the fans want me to do! So when I’ve done An Inspector Calls or Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet, it’s very hard on the people who don’t know me as Doctor Who. But most of the audience are Doctor Who fans, so I do it like the Doctor! Except, of course, I don’t have a sonic screwdriver in Macbeth, although I did suggest it.
“I played Macbeth and afterwards some biting critic said, ‘I had no idea Macbeth was such a nice chap!’ And they would have said that about my Jack the Ripper: ‘Oh, he was a darling! What are they making all this fuss about?’ But that’s because, like waiters, most actors want to please. They really want to give the audience what they want. There’s no point trying to give them something else.
“It’s never gone away from me, you see, because of the repeats, the merchandising, and also, above all, the power of nostalgia. You people are trading brilliantly on the power of nostalgia. We’re all nostalgic for something: songs, memories of famous sportsmen or beautiful actresses or whatever it is; nostalgia is such a potent thing. You look at the back of any of the trade papers, there are thousands of young men and women trading on nostalgia; it’s called tribute acts. It’s about catapulting us back to when we were young, when we were happy, when we were full of hope. And that wonderful feeling comes back to us when we’re grown up or, in my case, old age, and some of the fans, of course, who caught me late, are now in middle age themselves, but they’re reminded of when they were young. Most people who look at me now feel young.” He laughs that magnificently warm, joyous laugh he has.
Suddenly there’s the sound of a hideous scream from another room as an actor provides what sounds like their character’s last moments. Tom grins. “Oh, I love all this. Absolutely adore it. Audio is always the most exhilarating thing. You’ve got to actually go for it, and most of the actors cotton on instantly. Sometimes they don’t get the pitch right for a scene or two and then they hear the others…”
If there’s one thing you can say about Tom, it’s that he’s always keen to go for it in a performance. “Sometimes they say, ‘Tom, could you just hold back a bit’ and that’s very difficult for me really,” he grins.
Tom seems to be settling into the Big Finish pantheon with ease. “The thing about Big Finish and me, it’s absolutely right up my street, this heroic, driven quality [of the Doctor’s]. And it’s being recorded not far from where I live, which is a great help because I live quite a long way from London and it consoles me because I really love lying in bed; I spend a lot of time in bed, marking up my scripts, making little suggestions. Because they’re so accommodating, they often allow me to make little suggestions. And sometimes they accept them. Of course, most of the time they reject them, but at my age I’m used to rejection,” he grins again and laughs.
This first story finds the Fourth Doctor returning to Nerva. Can Tom remember watching The Ark in Space or any of his other stories? “No, no, no. I never watched Doctor Who when I was in it. It’s a very common thing for actors not to watch what they do. When I began, I used to watch it and I used to get terribly rattled because one of the things about being an actor, which is sometimes frustrating, is that the editing is a matter of opinion with the producer and the director and technical people. The shots they select in order to drive the narrative, it’s always a matter of debate.
“And I liked to think, ‘I remember we did another take there when I looked over my shoulder and winked at Leela; why didn’t they use that?’ That’s because I was interested technically in the thing. And so [I’d ask] the director, ‘What made you choose that shot?’ and he’d say, ‘I’m the director, I can do whatever I like’. And so after the first couple of disputes, I thought, ‘Listen, the best thing I can do is just not look at it, and if the audience likes it and write lots of letters and come and see me at a personal appearance, I’m getting it right.’ I think that’s very common with actors, disputing, because the selection of the shots changes the tempo of a scene; technically, after the actors have all finished with it, the editors, directors and producers can change the tempo of something. They can either quicken it up by clipping the scene or slow it down.
“I was asked to be in a film just a few weeks ago called Cockneys vs Zombies, which must be a horror film; it sounds a scream! Anyway, I went along and they offered me the part; a very violent part of a guy who rescues all these old ladies from an old people’s home. And so I looked at a script carefully and the very nice director said, ‘Have you got any ideas how to do this?’ and of course, did I have ideas how to do it! So I reeled off all the ideas, which included me actually being seen putting a burkha on and then five old ladies clambering underneath my burkha while I crept out to see the zombies. And a zombie was veering towards me to kill me and the zombie is suddenly tapped by another zombie who obviously was politically correct and so they let me through.
“I thought this was really quite funny and would have got a roar of laughter from the sort of people I know, but I saw the producer catch the director’s eye and he went like that.” Tom rolls his eyes. “And so they called me a cab. But I didn’t mind. I think I was deliberately making these suggestions so that they’d call me a cab really! I don’t need to do the sort of things I get. Because as you get old – I’m 78 now – now they only offer me very old men, obviously, and quite honestly, old men don’t have very good parts. Also, they can’t run any more, and they’ve got to come downstairs backwards.”
Tom returns back to the question of watching Doctor Who. “So no, I didn’t watch it. However, I am terribly aware of it because of my fan mail. The other day I was asked to go to Argentina and then they sent a cable to my agent saying, ‘Not this week because we’re having a revolution. But could we put it off for a fortnight? Because we think the revolution will be over. We’ve got a dedicated two- or three hundred people here and we’d send Tom flying to Argentina first class’. But I don’t want to go to Argentina. I’ve got nothing against Argentina; I’m not a vegetarian and I’ve had the occasional Argentinean steak, but I don’t want to go to Argentina. I get asked all over the world; isn’t that wonderful? All over the world. I could spend the entire spring until September in America and Australia, easily, going back because of the nostalgia.
“Because I live in Sussex in a lovely old farmhouse, I don’t want to be travelling really; I’ve done all that. I’ve done the glamour of first class travel and now I don’t like being groped at airports by boot-faced security guards. I’m very happily married at home, and my wife is very affectionate. But a great number of very lonely people with bad breath are travelling by air now in the hope of being handled and feeling human contact as they’re being searched. They often, actually, try to creep back into the queue…” I burst out laughing and he grins.
If anything, Tom is back in the limelight now more than ever. Quite apart from his Big Finish work, the likeness of the Fourth Doctor is appearing on a variety of merchandise from mugs to moneyboxes. “The wonderful thing about nostalgia,” explains Tom, “nostalgia is blind. A woman did say to me the other day, which was deliciously humiliating, ‘Excuse me, my little boy is a great fan of all your stuff; he’s got all the CDs and everything. I wonder, could you give me a photograph? I mean, not the way you look now, the way you looked then’.” Tom laughs uproariously. “I said, ‘Okay, I’ll get you one’ and I sent her one.
“The wonderful thing about older fans… fan love is very superior to human love really, because when you’re a fan of something, you go in for that wonderful ecstasy. We’re all a fan of someone, so if you’re a cricket fan and you meet Ian Botham or some old cricketer from the past, you don’t think to yourself, ‘Oh dear, he’s grown old or gone bald’, the sight of him does the trick for you and you then see him as he was in all his glory. You don’t say, ‘Oh look, you’ve got fat and ugly’ or anything like that. That’s not the way fan love works.”
And there’s certainly a lot of love for Tom amongst the fans still, which is why it seems only fitting that he’s finally doing some Big Finish audios. He’s somewhat apologetic on that front. “They’ve been pursuing me, inviting me, for a long time,” he says sadly, “and I’m the very last one to join, aren’t I?”
He certainly is. He was the gap in the Big Finish collection. “I was the gap. That’s good,” he smiles. “I was a gap. And so many people, Louise [Jameson] particularly, who used to live near me, and Elisabeth [Sladen], who I adored, they were always saying to me, ‘Tom, we must do some Big Finish; they’re so nice and they pay very reasonably, and it’s such fun! And I was thinking, ‘Oh, b****r Big Finish, I don’t care about them!’”
And then, I don’t know how it happened. I think it was because of Louise, because I lived briefly in Tunbridge Wells and I’ve become very fond of Louise; I still admire her hard work and ingenuity to make a living. She said, ‘Tom, we’ve got to do some’ and so I said okay and sent a message and they got straight back to me and I was on. And now I must have done eight or ten or more, I don’t know. And there’ll be more still. We’ve got a very, very exciting project that we’re beginning to talk about now and explore, a really large project, which will be a lot of recording. And I’m back again in October to record something with Trevor Baxter and Christopher Benjamin, who I haven’t seen since the huge success of The Talons of Weng-Chiang and apparently they’ve got a whole thing going from Big Finish. I look forward greatly to that because I so admire them and it’s such happy memories.”
More from Tom in the Behind-The-Scenes section of The Renaissance Man.
Reunited: Tom Baker and Louise Jameson
Raquel Cassidy, Tom Baker and Louise Jameson
The cast and producers of Destination: Nerva