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Who on Earth is Tom Baker: an Autobiography

Tom Baker
Harper Collins, 1997. 268pp
ISBN: 0 00 255834 3

review by Ann Skea

"...and oh! I was the Doctor and the Doctor was me"

For seven years Tom Baker was a Time Lord. He travelled the universe in his Tardis saving the earth from Daleks and other horrors, and he loved the part and lived the part. He gloried in the adulation of children, spoke the "gobbledygook" with the conviction of a Catholic who had been brought up on the reality of Guardian Angels, Heaven and Hell, and hated that "insufferable" little "tin dog", K9. What is shocking, for Dr Who fans, is to learn that the good Doctor's fantasy world also included women, whips and bondage. They certainly didn't show that on the B.B.C.!

The way Tom Baker tells it, Dr Who "was often pulled by women who were keen fantasists" and he just went along with it. But bondage of one sort or another seems always to have been part of his life. Firstly, he was enthralled by the incense and rituals of the church. He loved the clean smells, got high on the "holy smoke", became an alter boy and earned his first acting "fees" by crying well at funerals. So enthralled by the church was he that, after years of learning self-abnegation there and at Catholic school, he became a monk.

Reading Baker's bawdy, blasphemous and often very funny accounts of his early life, a more unlikely candidate for a life of modesty and chastity would seem hard to find. But he did take monastic vows and for six years he kept his eyes modestly on the clogs of other monks, only once raising them to the face of another man.

After leaving the monastery, Baker's bondage was to the Army where, after so much heaven, he was looking for hell and damnation. But the monastic life had destroyed what social skills he had, so most of his sinning was done vicariously by listening to the barrack-room stories of his fellow National Service recruits.

Work, family, acting, drinking: all have been a kind of bondage to a man who was taught very young that he was "nothing". And whilst this book is often very funny, it also shows Tom Baker to be a rather sad and insecure individual.

Baker grew up in a working-class Catholic family in war-time Liverpool. His father was away at sea for most of his childhood and his mother worked at several jobs. At times there were fourteen people living in the house. Young Tom's ambition was to be made an orphan so that he could get the attention of the generous American people, receive a card from the American President, and be sent some funny American hats and smart jackets. Since God declined to answer his prayers, he spent his time scavenging for shrapnel and attending "Wanking School" in the house of a schoolfriend who "had a prodigious cock".

Baker is very good at recalling the crude, scatological language and concerns of his childhood and at conveying the feeling of growing-up in a small, working-class, Catholic community. His chapters on monastery and army life are also lively and funny. He is less good at charting his later career as an actor and, like so many other actor-writers, he tends to list everything he has been in and with whom, and to dwell morosely on failures and missed opportunities.

For Dr Who fans (who will surely be the readers most interested in this book) the chapters on this phase of Baker's life come late and are disappointingly skimpy. There are a few photographs, a few comments about other actors and producers, a complaint about being mistaken for John Purtwee, and a longish explanation as to why it looked to watching undergraduates at Cambridge as if he couldn't handle a punt pole - when he could, really!

Baker must have a wealth of anecdotes to tell about the Dr Who series but, whilst saying that rehearsals were hilarious and would have made a good light entertainment programme on their own, he tells very few. Had he told more, and brought more of the skill and energy he shows in the early chapters to the chapters on Dr.Who, this would have been a much better book. As it is, the book is like the curate's egg - very good in parts.

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