The fabulous Baker boy

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ALL dressing-rooms are disappointments, but this one - a sanctuary from a midge-infested outdoor location in the Highlands - seems especially small and cramped.

Lots of stars are disappointments, too, because they’re smaller in real life, but this Tom is no Cruise - he’s huge. The Dr Who of fond memory fills most of the space, and his big, booming, listen-to-me-laddie voice does the rest - gets right into the corners. There are two seating options: a stiff-backed chair and a sofa. I offer him the latter but he winces. "I don’t think I’ve sat in a sofa for... let me see… the last time must have been before Gordon Brown became Chancellor."

Why not? "It’s my knees. A lot of old people, when they get too comfy in low-slung seating, pretend that something has amused them vastly. They’re thinking, ‘How am I going to get up?’, when suddenly someone makes a very tame joke and they rock back and forwards with laughter and that propels them upwards, like this: ‘Ho ho ho… ho!’

"But Gordon Brown," he continues, breathlessly and seamlessly, in a manner suggesting he’s going to hog the chat, like he’s already sucking up all of the room’s oxygen, "you don’t associate him with fun, do you? The Presbyterian Scot incarnate! There’s something fundamentally sad about politicians, I think. Mind you, there’s something fundamentally sad about directors as well. There’s this terrible inadequacy, a gaping chasm, and it can only be filled by them having authority over the rest of us, telling us what to do."

So how is he getting on with his current director, the man in charge of Monarch of the Glen? "Oh, he’s very nice. A little Irish fellow, no pretensions about knowing anything. That’s why we all adore him."

Outside, the crew are mustering for the day’s shoot. Most are enshrouded in elaborate mesh capes - the latest in designer anti-midgewear, no doubt, but they also serve as a kind of tribute to the fourth Dr Who. In Baker’s 1970s, all TV monsters looked roughly like this, and he vanquished every single one of them.

But, where once he time-lorded it over Saturday tea-times, Monarch of the Glen finds the 70-year-old actor bumbling around in the early-Sunday-evening slot that has been reserved for dramas from the shelf marked ‘Rustic/Nostalgic’ - ever since the pomp of another doctor, Finlay of Tannochbrae.

Flamboyantly attired in peach pullover and cravat, though his famous curls have detumesced and turned grey, Baker has been on location near Kingussie with the cuddy country-estate drama for four months and is thoroughly at home here. "Oh, I love the Highlands. On my days off I drive around. I like driving, driving and talking, especially when people are listening to me. That’s what actors are about, really. They talk, and they hope people listen."

What TV is about these days is conceit. Like Heartbeat and Ballykissangel, predecessors in the ‘Rustic/Nostalgic’ slot, Monarch of the Glen is continuing despite the loss of its best-known faces: Alastair Mackenzie, Dawn Steele and Hamish Clark. It’s like Dr Who minus the Doctor; but at least BBC Scotland is recognising the need for a presence capable of towering over Glenbogle, and they don’t come much more presence-packed than Baker.

The role of Donald MacDonald, long-lost brother of the late laird Hector - together with his surreal voiceovers for the brilliant Little Britain comedy sketch show - represent something of a renaissance for Baker, who may not be advertising stairlifts just yet but who has been absent from prime-time since Medics, all of ten years ago. This just goes to prove that if you hang around long enough, and keep taking the pills, your short-trousered fans will eventually grow up to be TV executives who will hire you in your dotage.

Is he a fan of Monarch of the Glen? "Never seen it. I don’t watch TV. Well, that’s not true. Since I’ve been up here, on my own, too far away from our house in France for my wife to be able to join me, I’ve watched a bit. When I get back to my digs, I climb straight into bed. I don’t see the point in standing up, let alone sitting down, so I have a shower and pour myself a glass of red wine and that’s me."

What keeps him awake at night? "It must be the guilt, mustn’t it? When you’re alone and there’s no one to listen to you talking, your mind drifts back to all the lies, all the betrayals, all the wreckage. I look over my shoulder and I shudder, absolutely shudder. What was that great Macbeth line? ‘Will the line stretch out to the crack of doom?’"

Three-times married, Baker says actors are more likely to find themselves in situations requiring sexual deception because they are already habitus of the "twilight world", and well versed in the double-life. "The paradox of performers is that they are licensed liars," he says. "Actors can say things like, ‘It’s only by lies that the truth can be revealed,’ without cracking up. Plus, they’ve got some truly wonderful chat-up lines at their disposal. Just so long as you’re not trying it on with an actress who’s also read Bernard Shaw."

So far, so cabaret. Baker speaks of "exquisite embarrassments" and "delicious ironies" and "the delightful lunacy of it all". He treats the interview as a monologue, the actor as rakish, roaring raconteur, and I’m beginning to wonder if questions are a bit pointless. "In public performance," according to one wag in his cuttings, "the man tells the same three anecdotes: how he was mistaken for Gertrude Stein, how he was mistaken for Shirley Williams, and how the titties of middle-aged ladies tingle when he approaches, in memory of the days when children buried themselves there to escape the Zygons."

Well, I don’t get Stein or Williams, but I am subjected to a sustained burst of smut, unleashed with glee. It’s my own fault: in possibly one of the most ill-judged moves of my journalistic career, I ask if Little Britain shocks him, such as when the joke is all about having rude words tumble out of old people’s mouths.

"Goodness me, no. I’m sure those old dears know what rimming is." Who mentioned rimming? "And especially actresses. Once, on a film a million years ago, this casting director got really revved up by the sight of me - shamelessly fancied me, she did. I was a young, aspiring actor, and I’d just come to the auditions from a real job on a building-site, and she instantly got into quick talk about adoring chaps who neglected their underwear. She was obviously into smelly, rough trade.

"Then there was the time in Waitrose - I was Dr Who by then - when this pensioner kept bumping into my trolley. It was blatantly obvious she was trying to pull me. She just lived round the corner and told me she’d take her teeth out first.

"And just the other day in Blair Atholl…" he continues (and I’m thinking, the prim Perthshire one? What’s coming next?) "…I was met by two delightful old biddies coming out of a book shop, and do you know what they said to me? ‘We both still love you!’ And do you know what that is? It’s fan love, and it’s so much stronger than real love because it doesn’t ever fade."

So is Tom Baker just another veteran actor who is partial to a bit of self-mythology? Well, up to a point. But he has a theory as to why he’s so loud and louche and often quite lewd, and it sounds pretty plausible.

Born into a working-class family in Liverpool, he was enthralled as a boy by the rituals of the Catholic Church and was packed off by his parents to a monastery. "All those unspoken taboos, they hung in the air likes a swarm of midges," he says. "And all the discretion and repression - it meant you don’t talk, ever, about what made you so anxious. I thought, in there, that I was going quietly mad. "And then, after all those long, interminable silences, I was called up for national service and discovered that in the army areas of licentiousness were tolerated as the norm. You could drink to excess and shag to excess, as long you checked your dick in every night to guard against catching crabs.

"I also found out that I could talk as much as I wanted. I began to talk in an outrageous, distorted and completely exaggerated manner and it made the other fellows laugh. That’s how I became so incurably garrulous."

Baker’s first marriage was a disaster. He was so hated and humiliated by his posh in-laws that he claims he tried to kill his mother-in-law by hurling half a dozen sharpened garden hoes at her. "I can still hear her terrible voice: ‘You’re a kept man.’"

Later, Baker would try to kill himself. "That was a time, curiously enough, when somebody who absolutely loathed me fell into my hands because no one else would look after him." This was Baker’s father-in-law, for whom he took on the role of nurse (he’d learned the basics of nursing in the army). "So there was the delicious irony of him having to rely on me to comfort him and make him not feel undignified.

"I’m very interested in the business of getting older, of fear, of pain, because it’s the supreme actuality, and of how you maintain your self-respect, because I’m now approaching an age where - unless I die suddenly, which would be bliss - I will become more and more dependent on other people."

Baker - who is aware that the Doctors are dying in sequence, which means he’ll be next - took over the controls of the Tardis in 1974, gave up the mantle of saviour of the universe in 1981, and last year a poll voted him the greatest ever. "The BBC is very good at period drama but not very good at giant rats," he once noted. Despite the string-and-sealing-wax special-effects, he held 15 million of us agog every week; we were like Jelly Babies in his hand.

Many young viewers, as is tradition, watched from behind the sofa. In 1976, the Beeb was forced to apologise to the nation after showing Baker apparently being drowned by some long-forgotten alien foes. Recently, when he arrived at a studio to record a voiceover for a commercial for an insurance company, he was surprised to find the place deserted - until a hand emerged from behind a settee. It was the director. "I’ve always wanted to do that," he said.

So what does Baker think of the BBC’s decision to revive the sci-fi series after an eight-year absence? A theatrical harrumph. "They bring back these old shows because the new ones can’t replace them. Here’s another delicious irony: because of all these re-runs of the likes of Dr Who, the living are largely being entertained by the dead. I’m not dead yet, obviously, but recently my wife was watching a much younger, more agile and almost as attractive version of me on TV. ‘Look,’ she said, ‘you could run up stairs in those days.’" (Which is more than the Daleks could do…)

Baker’s second marriage, to Lalla Ward, his ‘screamer’ (that’s fanspeak for female sidekick), was no more successful than his first, and broke down after a year because he was spending more time boozing in Soho with Jeffrey Bernard and Francis Bacon - "two shagged-out drinking chums with no responsibilities" - than with her. Baker had to stagger home at about 4pm and memorise his lines for the next gripping instalment of Dr Who. "Jeffrey and Francis had this shameful advantage: they could spend their days moralising, criticising others, and they could do this while holed up in El Vino. But we had a great laugh together. What did we talk about? What do you think three piss-heads talked about? Ourselves and our fantasies. It was like The Iceman Cometh.

"Sometimes I’d meet them during filming breaks. We’d go to the Coach and Horses or the French. Francis always drank champagne. Jeffrey was a tumultuous drinker and people would come from all around to watch him put it away. Sometimes he got so drunk that they’d come back the next day to see if he was still alive. I had a head of steel in those days, but I suppose it’s still a miracle I survived."

Although he never played the Doctor while under the influence, Baker’s performances had a deranged quality to them; little wonder, then, that fans such as Little Britain’s Matt Lucas and David Walliams grew up to be such warped comedians. "I learned my lines but I never properly read the scripts," reveals their hero. "I think this helped me as an actor because it induced a state of mind that suggested spontaneity, that I didn’t know what was going on. Really, that’s very like life.

"Young actors these days will ask the director, ‘Yes, but what was he doing before he entered the room?’ What the hell’s it got to do with them? Or they’ll say, ‘Okay, so he comes in now, but how does that square with the fact that on page 15 he does this and on page 28 he says that? Where’s the truth?’ Well, matey boy, that’s for you to decide."

This sort of advice is offered sparingly now, because Baker chooses to live quietly, near Toulouse, with his third wife, Sue Jerrard, who was once an editor on Dr Who. This is the one that’s lasted, and it sounds as if she’s adept at bringing the 6ft 3in star down to size. "Recently, I said to her, ‘You know, love, when I’m with you I’m more alive.’ She said, ‘Isn’t that a Jack Nicholson line from As Good as it Gets?’"

Baker has two children from his first marriage, but was only recently reconciled with his youngest son, Piers, after a chance meeting in New Zealand, and there has been no contact with the eldest, Daniel, for many years. He regrets this, but insists, "I didn’t come from a close family and I never felt any particular irrational impulse to be nice to old aunties."

This is yet another delicious irony. He may not believe in the family bond, but in the so-called golden age of television, from ga-ga granny to the bravest brats he did so much to unite everyone under one roof.

Baker often said post-Dr Who that everything that followed was an anti-climax. But he has long since learned to appreciate that this was as good as it got, and that he was pretty lucky it had happened to him. "The great Scottish actor Donald Lawrie used to be fairly dismissive of Dad’s Army when he was making it, and he’d often remind his fellow cast members that he was one of the greatest verse-speakers of his generation. So he was, but how wonderful fate is: he didn’t realise that his immortality was happening right at that moment and that his Lear and Macbeth would soon be forgotten."

"For me, to be a children’s hero was just incredible. In this age of ‘Don’t talk to strangers’ it seems odd to remark that you are rooted in the affections of young people, but that is what I am and it really is the most wonderful, fantastic privilege."

Monarch of the Glen returns to BBC1 next month