Tom Baker likes to do things his own way. This interview was arranged to promote the new audio adaptation of Treasure Island from Big Finish , in which he plays legendary pirate Long John Silver. We weren't going to talk about Doctor Who at all. But as anyone who has met Tom will tell you, conversations with the great man tend to start in one place and end up somewhere else entirely. He spoke to us on a rare sunny day earlier this month and was in high spirits...
“Hello, Tom Baker here, Will!”
How are you?
“Well, I’m fine. What a glorious day. I’m just sitting here in my kitchen having finished my ironing for tomorrow and I’m looking out at an imitation parrot.”
That’s very appropriate…
“Well that’s right. I did play the part a bit passionately, I think. They have to be careful of my bad taste.”
“Oh I think so, yes. I can be a bit extravagant, so playing Long John Silver – that great confidence trickster – it's marvellous. I played it before, you know, many years ago on stage at The Mermaid. That was an annual thing they did, and I did it one year. The Doctor Who thing was very popular and we sold out for six weeks. It was marvellous. But of course, utterly exhausting.”
Every night for six weeks?
“Yes, eight shows a week. It was great fun. Even though it’s a wonderful, rip-roaring yarn for boys, the character of Long John Silver was based on the poet WE Henley. He was so extravagant and wonderful and Stevenson thought that would be a good model. Because he’s an irresistible confidence trickster, isn’t he? He’s so beguiling that you stop thinking about him most of the time as a greedy murderer. That’s the marvellous thing about Boy’s Own stuff, isn’t it? The stories don’t moralise too much. I think they do more now, but in the old days they didn’t. I mean, I remember one time I put in a thing – here’s a perfect example of my bad taste – with Blind Pew, when the Customs men come and say, ‘Stay where you are!’ and he says, ‘No, please sir, I’m only a poor blind man!’, and they say, ‘Be off with you!’, and he goes off. Then you hear the coconut shells and you realise he's been run down by the Customs men on horseback. Well, I said, ‘I think it’s much better if they say, “Be off with you,” and as soon as he turns around, shoot him in the back.’ Hahaha! I thought that would show how ruthless they were. All the other actors thought this was a terrific idea.”
And playing the baddie, you get to do all these nasty things...
“Well you can when it’s simply an adventure yarn. The thing about Treasure Island is that they were all after the loot. The gentlemen and the pirates. The gentlemen thought they had an absolute right to it. There was no question. They just thought they’d have it.”
And how was recording the new audio version?
“It was terrific fun. When you do these audio recordings you can put in anything. You can do lots of things and sound effects and get it done fairly quickly. When you come to filming something or doing it on the telly, everything takes a long time.”
You must be hoping that it's going to reach a wider audience than just Doctor Who fans?
“Well the fans are so... Being a fan of anything, of course is being, in a sense, nostalgic. I’ve forgotten who said something like that, y’know, that actually nostalgia is the mother of loyalty. The wonderful thing about nostalgia is that I’m old now – nearly 80 – and people don’t seem to notice that. When they’re introduced to me they’re catapulted back to their own childhood. We’re all fans of someone, aren’t we? Whether you meet an old rock group or old football player. You don’t think, ‘Gosh he’s looking old.’ You think, ‘I remember 1966…’ and away you go. The Doctor Who fans are so loyal.”
How has it been coming back to Doctor Who for the Big Finish audios?
“Well, you know I never went away from Doctor Who really, because that's all that people saw me as. When you're playing Doctor Who or James Bond or Sherlock Holmes or any of those sort of people, they are utterly predictable. They're always going to win. They're always going to get their man or whatever it is, so the fun of it is finding how, within that predictability, you can be surprising or witty or amusing and divert the audience. I finished with Doctor Who rather reluctantly. There were certain tensions by the end. When an actor's been too long in a series and he's at the front of the series and doing most of the publicity and things like that, it's very likely that he'll become more and more opinionated, ha ha! Anyway, by the time I was in the last year, John Nathan-Turner was the producer and I didn't have much time for listening to his ideas. The ideas we'd been using for years were working brilliantly. But he wanted to leave his mark on it and there were tensions between us. Afterwards – he was very relieved when I gave it up – but afterwards I became very friendly with him and his partner Gary. But that last year with him was pretty tense.
“Anyway when I left it for the Royal Shakespeare Company, on tour with Educating Rita . They'd bill me in certain places as Doctor Who!”
“Ha ha! Well it's understandable, really, if you're running a provincial theatre. Anyway, the places would be packed out with Doctor Who fans. So I felt a moral obligation to do it like Doctor Who . Hahaha! It might be said that's the only way I act, really. But the audience absolutely adored it. I didn't produce a sonic screwdriver, but I did very coarse triple-takes and things like that, and walked about a bit like Doctor Who . When I did it in Hedda Gabler , which is a deeply serious number, Susannah York was appalled by it. Absolutely appalled. She didn't like that at all! But the audiences packed in. And when playing in An Inspector Calls , the other actors began to hate me.
“What would happen is some American fans would come over and book eight performances or 16 performances and they would sit on the front row. After three performances they'd know the play, so what would happen is they'd all be loitering, smoking in the corridors. And they'd know when I was coming on, and when I'd go offstage they'd all go out for a ciggie! The other actors were furious. But the Americans adored me. They hadn't come to see some moralising bloody ghost of a policeman, or something. They'd come to see old Tom Baker! Hahaha!”
Well, it was flattering for you! Back to Treasure Island , did you approach the character differently for audio?
“No, no I didn't. We've both agreed, haven't we, that the character is utterly predictable. It's when the audience get tired of the actor who is doing it, like with the actor who is playing Sherlock Holmes or whoever. I used to watch Sherlock Holmes as a child when Basil Rathbone was doing it. But then I watched Jeremy Brett – I used to watch television in those days – and I used to think he was simply amazing. You really felt that he was in cloud-cuckoo land. Nowadays, of course, it's done differently. Nowadays you can't do the two things he adored doing, one of which was shooting up and the other was smoking a pipe. All that's gone now.”
Are you interested in that period of history? Pirates and the high seas...
“Well I couldn't not be. Everyone loves Treasure Island . Not because they've read the book – though of course lots of people have. But people of my generation were completely governed by Robert Newton. Everybody was, the whole world. He was doing all that, ‘Ah-haaaa, Jim lad!’ and the parrots and all those things. It's very hard not to just do a cheap imitation of Robert Newton, because Robert Newton got the glee. The wonderful thing about Long John Silver is that he's so utterly persuasive. He's so fantastic at arguing and he's so much cleverer than everyone else. Of course you couldn't have him killed at the end. He get's away – and he gets away with a few gold bars. But when he was pushed, he killed people. He murdered them.”
There's an unrepentant “baddiness” to him...
“Yeah, and there is a way of doing it that takes the nastiness out of it. Rather like in those old films when suddenly the goodie will be faced with a group of baddies with swords, they'd all surround him, and they'd cut away to the girl looking aghast, and then they'd cut back to the fight and he's killed about 19 fellas! I used to like doing things like that in Doctor Who . I remember one time saying, ‘Look into my eyes…’ So I hypnotised all these baddies and of course [Elisabeth Sladen] Sarah Jane and Ian Marter were terribly clever and quick, but when I said, ‘Come on, let's go!’ they were there sound asleep. I adored Elisabeth because she laughed at my jokes, hahaha!
“We've had a terrible time recently losing Elisabeth and Mary Tamm, and, of course, our darling Brigadier. Nicholas had that wonderfully pompous way of expostulating and yet he had this amazing quality of compelling affection. I think of all the characters in Doctor Who , he was by far the most loved. I really do. Maybe it would have been good to do Treasure Island with an entire cast of Doctor Who actors! Perhaps with Elisabeth playing Jim Hawkins, haha!”
Would you like to write something for Big Finish yourself?
“Well... I don't know. I have written little things. I wrote a book called The Boy Who Kicked Pigs and that was done as a play last year in Manchester by some very progressive group. They're going to do it again next year at the Edinburgh Festival. But I don't know. I think the boys at Big Finish are so experienced and they know about their fans. They do allow me to rephrase things sometimes, or they take my ideas on. It's very very pleasant. And the lovely thing about it is, the inspiring standard of the actors they get there. When I get there there's Geoffrey Beevers or David Warner. It's incredible.
“But no, I don't think I'd write a story. That doesn't stop me from making suggestions. Of cours,e they're terribly clever – what happens is I'll make a suggestion about a sequence, and they'll say, ‘Okay, we'll do it two ways...’ That's the way to shut the actor up, because they know perfectly well that I don't look at it or listen to it. The reason why I never watched Doctor Who when I was in it was because it just gave me grief. If I watched, which I did a bit at the beginning, I'd always think, ‘Ah, no, we did a better take than that!’ The best thing to do is just lap up the appreciation of the fans and look at the viewing figures and leave it at that. I was doing it for the fans. It was my job, so I left it at that. Alright kid, any more questions?”
No, that's me done. Thanks Tom!
“Alright, if there's anything else, just make it up! Bye bye!”
Treasure Island is available now on CD (£14.99) and download (£8.99) from www.bigfinish.com .