Wednesday, 29 May 2013

BFI Southbank: Tom Baker



All aboard the Sandminer (Image: BBC/2 Entertain)
BFI Southbank, NFT 1, Saturday 20 April 2013
A packed-out NFT 1 celebrates the era of Tom Baker, with the added thrill
of being the first Doctor Who at 50 event to feature the man who played
the Doctor.

All of these BFI events have been special, but you could tell by the amount of people queuing up for return tickets – from 10.30 in the morning, with one man bringing his own collapsible stool: serious stuff – that this one was extra special. The focus of appreciation from 2pm this afternoon was to be the still unbeaten seven-year stint of fourth Doctor Tom Baker, with the great man himself appearing on stage after a screening of ‘The Robots of Death’.
The event began with a clip from clip from the BFI panel promoting the Sarah Jane Adventures story ‘The Death of The Doctor’, showing eternally popular Sarah Jane companion actress Lis Sladen clearly enjoying herself on stage in the company of Katy Manning (Jo Grant). Rather movingly, it had been her last public event before her sad death, and was given extra poignancy by her husband Brian Miller and daughter Sadie being present in the afternoon’s audience. Sad it may have been, but it was a fitting tribute to an actress many still believe was the ultimate companion to the ultimate Doctor.
1974-77 producer Philip Hinchcliffe, Louise Jameson (Leela) and
the Fourth Doctor himself, Tom Baker. (Courtesy BFI) 
Current Executive Producer Steven Moffat was on fine form, letting his inner fan boy dribble forth as enthused about “chatting television” in the green room with Baker’s highly regarded first producer Philip Hinchcliffe. Even funnier was his account of how as a child he’d queued up to get Tom to autograph a Target Doctor Who book… which had been ‘Planet of the Spiders’, Jon Pertwee’s last story. “I’ve always been an undiplomatic arse,” Moffat said above the ensuing laughter, “it’s not recent.” He encouraged more amusement with his assessment that ‘The Robots of Death’ was a “[very] short whodunit if you’ve read the title,” and that the addition of tribal warrior Leela (Louise Jameson) as companion was an “an ambitious, extraordinary and slightly pervy decision.”

A surprise guest was Mathew Waterhouse, who played companion Adric in Baker’s last season, helping to bridge the transition to Peter Davison. Surprisingly nervous for an actor, he spoke endearingly of how he’s been the first regular cast member to have been a genuine Doctor Who fan, remembering discussing ‘The Robots of Death’ at school “as the mystery thickened,” and confessing to being “in love with Leela, even if [I was] gay.”

Mr Moffat was correct with his assessment that ‘Robots’ is one of the few, classic Doctor Who stories that is absolutely perfect. Much as we love the series, it used to have a charming tendency to let the side down in an otherwise immaculate production with either some appalling acting or a duff special effect (like a certain giant rat). ‘Robots’ succeeds on every level, and as was often the case in Tom Baker’s early years, presents a consistently realised fantasy-world, which for the audience is a look inside an exotic environment but which the characters believably react to as an everyday setting. Interestingly, for a Doctor known for his off-beat humour, Tom’s performance is light on laughs in this story, with Leela getting a lot of the one-liners. One thing I thought people might laugh at was mad scientist Taren Capel’s robot make-up – they didn’t, a sure sign of how much the audience was caught up in the story – and the chuckles went instead to the amusing dialogue of the dead pan robot detective, D84. 

Sir Tom Baker (Courtesy BFI)
As is by now customary, between episodes 2 and 3 co-host Dick Fiddy interviewed the first of the event’s special guests, in this case BBC Visual Effects designer Mat Irvine. A specialist at achieving visual miracles on the smallest of budgets in the Tom Baker era of the programme, Irvine spoke good-naturedly about how in the 1970s the Effects Department comprised “several odd people, some very odd” and how his favourite effect was always “the last thing that went right.” It was heartening to hear Fiddy announce that he wanted to put on an event based around the Effects Department in 2014, which Irvine typically remarked would be “the Matt and Mike [Tucker, his fellow designer] Show.”

It was perhaps inevitable that, in a smaller panel than usual, Philip Hinchcliffe and Louise Jameson would be eclipsed by the natural eccentricity of Tom Baker. Neither seemed to mind, as the leading man’s noticeable loss of weight and reliance on a walking stick aside, here was a Tom content with Doctor Who – in stark contrast to how he felt about the series in the 1980s – and in an amiable working relationship with Jameson, as opposed to the fractious association they had in the 1970s.

If ‘The Robots of Death’ showed a Fourth Doctor more serious than the one of popular memory, seeing Tom on stage on stage at the BFI on 20 April 2013 was like an audience with the zany, quipping (if slightly more bawdy) Doctor of his Graham Williams-produced seasons, when Baker’s personality began to bleed more and more into the Doctor’s character. The one-liners came one after the other: “I wanted to play Macbeth in the style of a crumpet lover”, “quite a lot of people who have anything to do with me die suddenly afterwards”, “I’ve no sense of direction, which is why I’ve never had children, I suppose” to the memorable advice he gave Jameson when she joined: “Well, I hope you’re into bondage, darling, because you’re going to spend 90% of the time tied up!” There was also an outrageous story about Tom signing the coffin of a dead fan, which he confessed was totally untrue.

By contrast, a sign of his new humility was his admission that he had treated Jameson badly, had hidden in the character of the Doctor because of his “tangled private life” and the humble disclosure that even though his marriage to companion actress Lalla Ward failed, “it was terrific while it lasted.” 
The warrior of the Sevateem,
Louise Jameson (Courtesy BFI)
Perhaps predictably, an audience member’s declaration of how much pleasure Tom’s time as the Doctor had given him was met with the quip “are you alright for money?”, but you could see how touched he was. A perfect afternoon was brought to an end with the delivery of a birthday cake to Louise Jameson, complete with models of Leela and a Robot of Death, and the first, well deserved standing ovation of these events.
With Tom now 78, it was a privilege to see him on stage (one last time?) After that, it was debriefing time in the bar, where the consensus was that although Doctor Who has been many things in its time – and you might not be a fan of all of it – the real joy of it, as these BFI screenings show, is that it is, uniquely, the most wonderfully diverse programme on television.

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