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Baker, Tom (1936-)

Actor, Presenter

Main image of Baker, Tom (1936-)

Thomas Stewart Baker was born in Liverpool on 20 January 1936 to a Jewish Naval man and a devoutly Catholic mother. Impressed by a talk given at school by a member of a monastic order, Baker joined the Brothers of Ploermel at 15 and spent six years in monasteries in Jersey and Shropshire. He left for his National Service and thereafter the Army Medical Corps, and got the acting bug via Christmas party shows.

Leaving the army in 1956, Baker studied at the Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama, Sidcup. He married a wealthy fellow student in 1961 and had two sons - but he found her family grand but loveless and so abandoned this chapter of his life in 1966.

The next couple of years were spent in poverty in provincial rep theatre, mostly in what Baker later recalled as "mostly flops or even disasters". With former drama school chum Laurie Taylor he performed a late-night pub revue for the 1968 York Festival, Late Night Lowther - a performance as a dog called Clint caught the eye of someone from the National Theatre. Successfully auditioning for Laurence Olivier, Baker took small parts and understudied, one of his bigger roles being the horse Rosinante in Don Quixote. Now attracting the attention of television directors, he won small parts in major series between 1968 and 1970 including Dixon of Dock Green, Market In Honey Lane and Softly, Softly. Olivier suggested Baker for the role of 'mad monk' Rasputin in the film Nicholas and Alexandra (US, 1971) and this highlighted Baker's slightly sinister magnetism.

His National Theatre contract ending in 1971, Baker took more theatre work and parts in several fantasy genre films released in 1973; Frankenstein: the True Story (d. Jack Smight), The Mutations (d. Jack Cardiff), Vault of Horror (d. Roy Ward Baker) and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (d. Gordon Hessler). Work was otherwise scarce.

While working as a hod carrier on a London building site in February 1974, after three film projects had fallen through, he wrote a desperate letter to Bill Slater, then incoming Head of Serials at the BBC - Slater had directed Baker in Play of the Month: The Millionairess (BBC, tx. 15/9/72). Slater wondered if Baker might be the man to replace Jon Pertwee as Doctor Who. Ron Moody, Fulton Mackay, Richard Hearne, Graham Crowden, Michael Bentine, Jim Dale and Bernard Cribbins were all either unavailable or unwilling. Outgoing producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks watched The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and were impressed, though Baker was a virtual unknown, the only non-name actor to have been cast in the part.

Antique Toulouse-Lautrec posters of French chanteur Aristide Bruant inspired a costume of long multi-coloured scarf and wide-brimmed hat and this Bohemian feel extended to Baker's characterisation, typified by wide-eyed grinning with occasional mood swings into melancholia. Allied to a strong BBC1 Saturday schedule he boosted ratings to a regular 11 million.

Baker had found an outlet for his own melodramatic eccentricities and the Doctor had discovered new alien depths. As Baker later admitted, the two were inseparable: "I began to get into the part and then the part began to get into me... I was the Doctor and the Doctor was me... for more than six years I left myself and floated about as a hero."

In this time, most of Baker's few non-Doctor Who TV appearances were made as the host of the first three runs of children's literature series The Book Tower (ITV, 1977-89).

Stardom made him proprietorial, and he berated directors, producers and 'ordinary' scripts. He was ill for much of his record-breaking seventh year as the Doctor and, when faced with a new producer, incoming 'juvenile' assistants and a ratings slump, he announced his retirement in October 1980. Before leaving the programme Baker wed his assistant Romana - actress Lalla Ward - although the marriage lasted just 18 months.

Baker's final Doctor Who was shown in March 1981 and he subsequently struggled with typecasting, retreating to the theatre and runs of Treasure Island, Educating Rita, Hedda Gabler and She Stoops to Conquer.

The 1980s saw Baker take the lead as Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles (BBC, 1982) but otherwise television appearances were restricted to interesting one-off cameos, including parts in Jemima Shore Investigates (ITV, 1983), Remington Steele (US, 1984), Blackadder II (BBC, 1986) and The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (BBC, 1986). He continued to be an in-demand voiceover artist in television and radio advertising, lending his rich tones to everything from furniture warehouses to British Telecom.

The typecasting receded in the 1990s - he was now physically heavier and the famous curls had begun to grey, while directors who had grown up watching Doctor Who began to cast him. He was heavily disguised as Puddleglum the Marshwiggle in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Silver Chair (BBC, 1990), was Professor Plum in the 1992 series of Cluedo and then took his first long-running role in a decade as Professor Hoyt in ITV hospital drama Medics between 1992 and 1995.

Autobiography Who on Earth is Tom Baker? (1997) proved a bestseller and these ribald tall tales boosted his profile. There was a memorable guest slot on Have I Got News For You (BBC, tx. 11/12/98) and he later received the This Is Your Life red book (BBC, tx. 18/3/00). The latter tied in with the regular part of ghost Wyvern in the revived Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) (BBC, 2000-01).

Baker moved to the South of France in 2003 but he's since been busier than ever on British TV, subverting his authoritative ad voice as the pompous narrator of Little Britain (BBC, 2003- ), appearing as deranged Captain Baker in Challenge TV's Fort Boyard and taking the regular role of Donald McDonald in the two final series of Monarch of the Glen (BBC, 2000-05).

Despite this revival, Baker's image remains the definitive, iconic incarnation of the Time Lord.

Alistair McGown

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