“I miss Waitrose terribly,” Tom Baker says in those unmistakable tones. “And Boots, and the places I used to go without realising how dependent I was on them.”
The year of coronavirus is treating the veteran actor well on the whole, he explains, “because I live in the country and have a garden and some woodland and a cat and a wife”. But there is a melancholy and a reminder of his own mortality when he does venture out. “When my wife and I go for a spin, I drive to Tenterden [in Kent] and – we don’t sob exactly – but it gets solemn as we catch a glimpse of the hardware store, and Boots, and Waitrose, and then we turn round and come home again. Then I go down to the paradise of my woods and think: ‘Well, eventually it will pass.’ Another voice, of course, says: ‘Yes, but by then you’ll be gone.’”
Baker, who hits 87 in January – “That’s a bit shocking, really” – has been busy during the summer, working at home in isolation. He still voices the character he is best known for, the Doctor of the BBC’s Doctor Who, for audio plays produced by Big Finish. It has him on a busy schedule, appearing with companions and monsters new and old.
“They haven’t been working me hard in the sense that it’s any kind of ordeal,” he says. “It’s heaven for me. This morning we got bogged down for a moment on the difference between an ice-cream sundae and a knickerbocker glory. And I thought: ‘Well, this is a nice way to pass half an hour on a whatever-day-of-the-week-it-is.’”
This month is 40 years since it was announced that, after seven years, Baker would be leaving the “smash-hit children’s space show”, as coverage in the Sun put it. The day the world found out began with Baker unveiling two waxwork figures at Madame Tussauds. He was the first person to have two replicas simultaneously – one as the Doctor in normal times, and one as the Doctor possessed by the alien cactus Meglos, a villain from a 1980 story.
He made headlines for suggesting – the audacity – that his replacement might turn out to be a woman. He was a few decades out with that one.
Baker recalls little of that day, half a lifetime ago. “I don’t really remember much about it, because deep down I really felt it wasn’t the end of me,” he says. “Because I couldn’t really imagine it actually ending for me. And, of course, in no time at all, this was proved to be true.”
Although he declined to reprise the role in 1983 for the show’s 20th-anniversary special – his part in the publicity pictures for The Five Doctors being taken by that Tussauds waxwork – he continued to narrate Doctor Who audiobooks and to film linking material for VHS and DVD releases during the 90s before returning to the role in audio. And, indeed, while a plethora of Doctors have followed, Baker’s portrayal – all teeth and curls and that impossibly long scarf – is still the go-to visual shorthand for the Time Lord.
“What I enjoy most of all in the last 50 years of my life is that gift of playing Doctor Who,” he says. “Because he’s a good soul and I’m a good soul, it kind of licensed me to be my own rather silly but good-natured jolly self, you know, with pretensions to be heroic.”
This year, to the delight of fans, Big Finish released a story pitting Baker against the Daleks alongside the more modern Doctor David Tennant. Because of Covid, it was all recorded in isolation. Does Baker miss the interaction of working with actors in the studio? “Well, I’m rather used to it. Also, I’ve often worked with people who can’t bear the sight of me, so they don’t actually look at me. I enjoy getting on very well with actors, but quite a lot of them would rather turn down a job than work with me. I understand that.”
Baker frequently returns to talk about his religious upbringing and how it shaped and enabled his career. “With being an actor, for me, it’s to do with the wonderful theatre of being brought up as a mad Roman Catholic, where everything made us self-conscious. I was brought up on nonsense, so it meant that, when it got to Doctor Who, people said: ‘How can you keep a straight face?’”
Baker is not on social media – “That’s not a matter of principle or anything like that; it’s actually incompetence” – but his name sometimes trends on Twitter, prompting an initial panic that it is bad news, followed by an outpouring of love for the national treasure. It is something he is used to now. “The idea of being loved pleases me very much indeed. People used to say to me: ‘What was it like to be loved?’ and I’d say: ‘Yes, it is wonderful to be loved. Wonderful to be loved. You should try it.’”
Since his tenure, the character of the Doctor has reached a position in British pop culture akin to that of James Bond, Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes. And, while you can easily imagine new stories being written and made about the character for decades to come, Baker remains a vital part of its history. “I’ve achieved a kind of coming to terms with life being this character,” he says. “Everywhere I go, people – if they watch television, especially Doctor Who – are pleased to see me and they think I’ve been amusing. Once you’re in that world, you see, this benevolent world where I am a harmless old geezer with a nice line in banter or whatever it is, people feel comfortable with me and I feel comfortable with them. So I’m altogether very, very happy at the moment.”
Being the Doctor is, perhaps, something of a life sentence?
“A life sentence? Condemned to being happy? Condemned to rounds of applause? Condemned to being smiled at? It’s really not a bad destiny, is it?”