17 October 2016

The Time When Tom Baker published his autobiography



The gap between my initial encounter with the television debut of the fourth Doctor in December 1974 and what I now know about the actor who played him is Atlantic wide. To a kid, Tom was the lively, boggle eyed, long scarf bedecked grinning hero who saved us all from the squidgy monsters and helped make 5.20 pm on a Saturday night a magical place. To an adult, Tom became a bawdy, crazy eccentric obsessed with death and, er, ironing. Inevitably these two aspects came together in 1997 when Tom Baker published his autobiography. In some ways it was something you didn’t want him to do as explanations often sabotage the most beguiling people. By this time though Tom was out and about on the convention circuit and re-engaging with his best known role. These appearances- and the book they promoted- did not disappoint. 



In interviews of the day he talked a lot about beggars and failure yet in person oozed energy and life. The sort of stuff he came out with could be called pretentious, disengenuous even, from most people but spoken by Tom they seemed soaked in life's rich experience. If his meandering conversational style began as a pretence it was clear by 1997 that it was now part of him because he had left behind the tumult of London and was living –as he continues to do to this day- in the relative calm of the countryside. Yet all those scoundrel days had given him an uncanny ability to home in on life's absurdities, nuances and awkward conventions resulting in tales that inspire sheer bafflement towards things that happen.

If all the original series’ Doctor's reputations have unravelled somewhat over the years whereas with the others that process has taken away some of the gleam with Tom it seems a perfectly acceptable state of affairs. He was the most alien and strange of them all and it would be rather disappointing to learn he'd spent the past 40 years married with 2.5 kids in a semi in Croydon visiting the pub once a week and going fly fishing each Sunday. Perhaps the mega stardom that a lot of us used to feel he deserved would have removed him from the very things that fed his worldview and which continue to beguile him.
For such a character an autobiography did though seem at odds with his splendid isolation and self confessed humility so alarm bells rang when the original title 'All Friends Betrayed' was dropped in favour of the more fan friendly commercial moniker `Who on Earth is Tom Baker`.  It sort of encapsulates Tom's dilemma, he is so much more than the Doctor yet his fertile mind continually draws him back to his greatest triumph; the role that effectively stalled his career for good. 

The irony of the book was that those most likely to be critical of its contents were the fans who probably deplored the fact that the show isn't mentioned till two thirds of the way or so through and the subsequent section is the most blandly written. He makes an attempt to run through each story but gives up; never having seen most of them his memories must be jumbled at best. He does write fondly of the "licence to be benevolent" that the role afforded him, his delight at being a childhood hero and goes into a little detail about groupies and the like which makes amusing reading. The part seems to have consumed him blurring the on and off camera attitude he had and he talks of leaving being like suffering a bereavement only he was the one who died. There's also some acknowledgement of the fractious relationship he had with Graham Williams whose producership collieded with the period when the actor was at his most proprietorial about the role.
The book begins brilliantly with vivid and mostly depressing memories of his childhood where poverty abounds and his Catholic upbringing makes him fearful and a bit of a liar. He talks of collecting cardboard boxes to help with the war effort, becoming pre occupied with the smell of carbolic soap and incense and there are tales of his extended family plus his worry about the omnipotence of God. All of this is sketched with grimness mingled with an uncanny ability to see the funny side of anything. His six years cooped up in a monestary are made to sound frighteningly austere while his National Service seemed to involve degrading himself just to get through. Few punches are pulled and it soon becomes clear that his poor background shaped him less than his lack of emotional connections.

There is little talk of love (as opposed to sex) at all until much later and when it does appear it's fleeting and awkward. His first marriage, apart from his two sons, seems a disaster yet he manages to get laughs out of the humiliating scenario of having to live with his wife's odd family whom he loathed. He does mention a suicide attempt but again it all turns into dark humour. By halfway through you marvel that he still had any self respect left to pursue his acting career and become the outwardly confident figure he is today but one paragraph, on page 110, stands out in particular. "All my life I have felt myself to be on the edge of things" he says and goes on to talk about how he's unable to grasp the point of what everyone else says clearly; perhaps that's why he was able to immerse himself so deeply in acting.

As his career develops with a spell in the National Theatre and some films he is equally adept at unveiling the less flattering parts of the acting world though oddly he never refers to anything like  technique nor says much about the many roles he's played unless it's a lead in to an anecdote. Somehow such detail isn't needed as his tales are so lively. He's self effacing throughout, allowing moments of triumph to pass as if acting is, for him, a refuge from reality and of no special worth in itself. Post Doctor Who much of the text concerns lengthy drinking sessions and rambunctious evenings in the 'Colony Room'.
Then in 1986 he moves to an old schoolhouse in Kent with his third wife Sue and seems for the first time in his life blissful and content. After all that's gone before the reader is delighted with this genuine happy ending that sees him pottering about mowing the lawn and ironing; his only complaint being the lack of a decent pub in the village. If his Doctor was the Universe striding larger than life character and offstage Tom was the life of whatever bar he was in, his eccentricity is now comparatively unobtrusive.

The sense of moving on is present throughout the narrative. Perhaps because his first marriage trapped him so much he now seems to value the company of people only for the moment they are with him. Like the people he worked with on the building site whom he seemed to quite like but never saw again after he was cast as the Doctor; "I was an alien now" he says dismissively. Yet this is an upbeat story of how someone took on the world in his own way and came out OK or as happy as someone who's already bought his own gravestone can be. As a book this is a tale to be lapped up and, even if gets a bit wearisome near the end (stories about drinking sessions are only really interesting if you were actually there) it's a tantalising and surprisingly bold exercise in exposure.  While not confirming some of the more outrageous rumours about him, Tom lays a surprisingly large cast of ghosts out for us and laces their stories with undiluted realism and a splashes of black humour. In the end one is left feeling it's possibly more than we really have the right to demand.
I was lucky enough to see Tom twice on his promotional trail in 1997, those reviews originally printed in my zine Faze are reprinted below --


Tom Live 97!

@ PanoptiCon in Coventry  

Irons. That's what seems to be intriguing Tom Baker at this juncture. His latest tale concerns both the art of ironing and his frequent visits to a shop to ogle them. What's more, he tells of encounters with a frisky old woman who seems to have taken a liking to him. Now it doesn't matter whether this story is true it's the way it's related that has the audience totally absorbed. Tom's performance is perhaps less spontaneous than it looks but more than you'd expect though why people criticise planned stories I don't know. All I do know is that Tom is really worthy of his own event; he combines wit and warmth, vitality and a sense of the absurd in an irresistible concoction. He speaks with those familiar booming tones through a perma grin of such attention grabbing geniality that you feel like a small child sat listening to the worldly tales of an eccentric Uncle. In alot of ways he's even better now than he was on Doctor Who because in the show, sooner or later, you had to get into the plot and so forth whereas at an appearance like this there are no such distractions. He latches onto the ordinary and everyday and makes them glitter in the same way that a stand up comic can do. Tom can go a bit further though because he doesn't have to be funny every sentence and he's able to paint such a detailed portrait of what he's describing that you can visualise it vividly.
So when he talks of skulking out to confront burglars you can picture this bear of a man trying
to tip toe into the garden or you can just see that bloke peering at him over the gravestone! His love of Dickens comes across in such razor sharp descriptions. The other thing is that he is rarely flattering himself with his stories and that somehow helps them to be even more interesting. It's quite a remarkable capacity he has for turning the everyday into something important and he should really consider doing this sort of thing in a wider market. Occasionally he will throw in a delightfully egotistical repost to an inane question such as today when he's asked who he liked working with on Doctor Who the most. His reply? "Well, me actually!" Still in his shabby mac and with that bag about which nothing is ever explained he did an hour on stage and about 3 hours signing autographs making him incredible value for money. In a few years, people will say "Did you see Tom in
1997?" and you'll regret it if you can't say that you did.
@The Everyman Theatre, Liverpool

Peaking through the door of a set erected for that week's play at the Everyman Theatre, Tom Baker has come home for what is, remarkably, his first time in the limelight of a Liverpool stage. Relaxed and carrying a glass of Guinness he looks at the audience with a devilish smile as if not quite sure what to expect. Once it's clear how delighted we are to see him his delivery becomes sharp and colourful; at such close quarters he makes just as effective a storyteller as in the larger convention halls. The audience is more diverse than the usual convention types and there are less of what you might call hard core fans who perhaps have difficulty reconciling today's Tom with the childhood hero they fondly recall. Knowing of people who's love of the series when he was at the helm was partly responsible for them pursuing careers in scientific research and recalling the real Doctor from the 1977 Documentary reminds me that Tom's personal appeal far transcends that of Doctor Who itself. 
Having reviewed his book and then discovered another reviewer reached different conclusions and I'm now not sure if mine are right, I can empathise with Tom's talk of inadequacy which seems to be something he can't shake. Tonight he strings together three of his best anecdotes to explain why he came to write his autobiography in the first place.
There's a woman staring at him on a train about to say something on several occasions but staying silent until they're alighting whereupon she announces "I've loved you all my life". His happiness at this palls as he wonders who she thought he was! Next, he's regaled by someone who thinks he's Shirley Williams; "I'll never forgive you for what you did to grammer schools" the stranger declares. Then, and he tells this one with relish and as much swearing as he can muster, there's an encounter with a belligerent cabbie who thinks Tom is Jon Pertwee and goes on and on about how good that Doctor was before finally reaching the inevitable enquiry; "Tom Baker, he was a pisshead, what happened to him?" "He died" says Tom "penniless in a bedsit in Clapham". Thus he felt "invisible" and decided to write his story.
If the book itself is lively and direct then Tom is doubly so live using a comic's timing and an actor's observation to hold your attention every second he's there. He has a presence that is both imposing yet welcoming, like some friendly visiting relative he'll make you feel glad he popped in. As in the book his early years are documented with uncanny clarity and he also has a masterly way of building up his public persona which is full of contradictions; one minute he's inadequate, the next he's enjoying being cruel, in his book he makes out that his life in Kent is blissful, on stage he talks of boredom. He still wants to work too - this is reassuring and means we can hopefully look forward to a second volume or at least a reprint with extra chapters down the line. 

He seems to emphasise this more than earlier in the year; he talks of wanting to maintain the appearance of availability so always walks behind or in front of his wife, never alongside her and bemoans the fact that at his age it's "impossible to scuttle and be mysterious"! His wife is at the centre of a hilarious rant about noisy eating; when she's chewing celery he listens to Wagner! When it's celery and cheese he revs up his car!! This sort of stuff makes you feel you've visited the couple and their ever so slightly barmy life.

After 50 minutes he trails to the bar to sign copies of the book for all and I find myself in an autograph queue for the first time in about a dozen years. But what to say? I decided to jump into his world and enquire exactly what was in that bag which he's taken on stage with him so often. Self confessed "professional liar" that he is, he told me it contained sandwiches and a pint of Guinness! "I thought it would make the fans smile" he grins; y'see he knows us so well.
As I shake his hand and contrast the cut out model of a pic of him in long scarf from about 21 years back and look at him beaming at me now I realise that, yes, he's still a hero but a more earthly adult one. Being a star of any kind can't be easy as everyone expects different things yet Tom has found a way to entertain us, turning his often strange experiences and observations into a brilliant repertoire in which the ordinary becomes the extraordinary. Best of all, he's still every bit as cool as he was when battling cosmic villains. 



No comments:

Post a Comment