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Doctor Who: The Robots of Death discussion

Justin Johnson leads a discussion with actors Tom Baker and Louise Jameson and producer Philip Hinchcliffe on the era of the Fourth Doctor, and the making of The Robots of Death.

Transcript

Interviewer

I’m actually going to start with Philip, if you don’t mind, just because Philip, you took over the role of producer, and obviously you had quite massive shoes to fill in the sense that Barry Letts had been so successful before you. And Robert Holmes, obvious-ly, was with you and replacing Terrence Dicks. Could you just tell us a little bit about that kind of period initially when you joined the show and you were kind of shadowing them, and what it was that you kind of wanted to bring to the show?

Philip Hinchcliffe

Yeah. I was lucky because I had a bit of time to shadow Barry and the show. So I did that. You know, I went around and watched how they were doing it. It was probably the most difficult show to direct in the BBC at the time because it wasn’t just, you know, there wasn’t a huge budget. It was getting a director who could do all the stuff with the actors and carry the vision onto the screen, but also handle the intricate technical stuff. I mean, Michael Bryant did an absolutely phenomenal job. That was almost an impossible thing to do at that time in a studio and with all that miniaturisation of, you know, with using the CSO. To do it in the time scale that we had. I don’t know how he did it. It was just extraordinary.

So you had to learn, as a producer, all the constraints of the programme. But I also spent the time reading up, finding out about the folklore of the show. I did quite a lot of widespread reading in science fiction. I had grown up as a boy with H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and all that, so I knew a fair bit. But I started reading. You’ll probably see, you know, what I read in this show because the basic idea was mine. For example, you can see that I’d read the Asimov stories and I was inter-ested in doing a different kind of robot story.

I’d read Dune and I had this idea of locating a story in a dangerous and interesting environment. And then, you know, with Bob, the idea of doing it as a sort of Aga-tha Christie came up. So I think that basically I used my prep time very much to immerse myself in science fiction and science fantasy, and out of that evolved a lot of story ideas, of which this robot idea was one, that I had very early on. But it was the third season, really, before we did anything about it, probably because Tom’s first show was a robot-based story. So it kind of came good at the end. That’s what I did to begin with.

Interviewer

And Tom, I know that you’d had a career both in film and TV before you took over the role as the Doctor, but it’s funny that we’re celebrating the Pasolini here, at the BFI the moment and you were in The Canterbury Tales, of course. But in terms of preparing for the role of Doctor Who, I don’t know, how aware were you when you took over the role  Did you prepare for it? Did you talk Jon Pertwee, or how did you…

Tom Baker

No. I did not. No. I was just out of work. I’d had a flirtation with success, and then it died away. Very like life in that way. I’d played some flashy charlatan called Rasputin, I think. What was motivating him was crumpet, really, in an unstable world. And of course, that was very easy to line up with him because God knows, I was exceedingly keen on crumpet. So I was really rather good as Rasputin, I think. And then after that, everything fell away.

My next catastrophic failure was, I played Macbeth in the style of a crumpet-lover, so that didn’t do either. It was one catastrophe after another. And then, when Doctor Who came, after a great struggle and having to do other sorts of me-nial things, Doctor Who came and rather like me going in for Rasputin, identify-ing it, it came together like that. And I suddenly realized that I had nothing to reach for. I embraced this kind of lunacy, this cloud cuckoo-land, where people had to be convinced by absolute nonsense, rather like life I suppose. I had no dif-ficulty at all. I remember Barry saying to me, “What are you going to do, Tom?” And I said, “I don’t know.”

He thought I was joking. I didn’t know. It was so easy to embrace, you know. I, of course, come from a very religious background so it was very easy for me to actu-ally believe in something I knew nothing about. And so people say, “Tom, why do you say that?” I was just telling them a story inside that and he said, “Did that re-ally happen?” And I had to admit it hadn’t happened. But as I was telling the sto-ry, I grew so convinced and excited that it had happened, and it just entered my head. We were talking about signing autographs, and I said a man stopped me the other day and he wanted me to sign his wife and I was terribly embarrassed be-cause she was dead. I was just going past an undertaker’s in Tunbridge Wells and he said, “She was a great fan of yours.” And so I always have a special pen for writing on coffins or dead bodies. It said, “Best wishes Rebecca, from Doctor Who.” He was in tears. He said, “I’m really grateful.” And he shook hands with me and embraced me. And off I went.

What was the question?

Interviewer

Just to clarify, it was at that point I said to you, “Tom, that really isn’t true.” And you said, “No.”

Tom Baker

It wasn’t true. No. But at the time, you must believe it.

Interviewer

I think a lot of people felt, if what they say is correct, that you really started to embody Doctor Who. People really believed that you were Who. And you would walk around and children would see you and you were Doctor Who to them. And it almost - I mean, I don’t know if you ever felt in the public eye that Doctor Who and Tom kind of started to merge in any way.

Tom Baker

Well, yes, they did. They did merge entirely. I was the man myself. And because I had such a tangled private life, suddenly it was better to be Doctor Who than to be Tom Baker. And so, if I’d been Tom Baker in real life, people might have nodded or not. But as I was Doctor Who, people applauded everywhere. It was incredible to just go into an off-licence and the guy would give me a standing ovation. There’d only be him and me there. And I took to it like a fish to water. It’s no use my saying “It just embarrassed me.” It didn’t. It absolutely delighted me. It was incredible. It grew as the show became very popular and I was in it a lot. People began to approach me who were obviously as big fantasists as I was. I was just telling some girls in there, a lady said to me outside a pavilion, “Hello, Tommy.” I turned around. Nobody had called me Tommy for 50 years. There was this very old lady there, lots of handbags and not much private life, I don’t think. I said, “Hello.” And she said, “Don’t you remember me, Tommy?” And I said, “Yes, I do. No, no, I don’t. Were we in a play together?” She said, “No, no.” I said, “Well, sorry, I don’t remember you.” She said, “We used to be married. Don’t you re-member?” And it was plain. You know, I’ve still got quite a good memory and I knew that this couldn’t be true. I’ve remembered all the people I’ve been married to.

I went along with this old bird. I said, “Were we happy?” She said, “It was fantas-tic.” I said, “Really? Was I passionate?”

“Oh, darling,” she said, trembling all over, all her bags were rattling like that. And I said, “Well, it’s nice to remember those days.” She said, “Yes, I’m very grateful, Tommy. Very grateful. No regrets at all.” And I shook hands with her, which is an odd thing to do with an ex-wife, but there you are. And off she went.

So my life as Tom Baker was just really rather dreary. I was on a building site, you know. So when I became Doctor Who, there was something unique about the programme. Lots of actors know about playing famous heroes. But Doctor Who was so much more powerful than films, because television, being seen in a do-mestic context, people’s guard is down. And when I was doing it, I can’t quite re-member, any afternoon it used to go - Match of the Day or something, Basil Brush, Doctor Who, The Two Ronnies, Bruce Forsyth.

Amazing thing which locked us in. This was in the days, you won’t remember, it’s not your fault, you won’t always be young. This was in the days when television bonded people culturally, because this was before the video recorder. In those days, television was much more important than it is now because if you didn’t see it in real time, you were out of the loop the next day at work. You couldn’t talk about it.

So we were bonded in what we adored and we were very knowledgeable about it, you see. It seemed to me to be more intense, and it seemed to me to be a life. I lived it. I volunteered to go on lots of PR things because it was more fun being Doctor Who than Tom Baker. Tom Baker was just ordinary. But when I was giv-en all these costumes and the sonic screwdriver, phew. I dream about it still.

Interviewer

So Philip, before I bring Louise into it, obviously, Liz Sladen who we talked about at the top of the show decided to move on. You decided to fill the slot with the character of Leela who originally, I think, was meant to be a kind of Eliza Doolittle to Tom’s Professor Higgins kind of relationship. Can you just sort of tell us about the sort of thinking behind bringing in the new companion, and how you found Louise?

Philip Hinchcliffe

Oh. I get these details wrong now.

Interviewer

That’s fine. It’s been a while now.

Philip Hinchcliffe

We knew we had to find a new assistant. Tom said, “Can’t I do it on my own? ” And I said, “Well, you can’t do it on your own forever. You can’t talk to yourself forever, but we’ll do one where you are on your own. We’ll do something com-pletely sort of off-the-wall and different.” And we did, which was The Deadly As-sassin. But I said, “You know that you do need someone to talk to.” Somebody had the crazy idea of it being a real sprechhund, didn’t they. Later on it really was a dog. But that wasn’t my idea. Well, what did we do? We had an idea of the character, and I think that the script was being written while we were casting around. Can you remember what I said the part was? Oh, we had a script by then, didn’t we?

Louise Jameson

Yes.

Philip Hinchcliffe

Yeah, okay. But before the script came along, yeah, we had this idea of not a very civilised sort of girl.

Louise Jameson

A naked woman, basically.

Philip Hinchcliffe

No, no. That was Bob Holmes. That wasn’t me. And the story I’ve told before is, and it’s really true, I had this little girl who lived next door. She watched the pro-gramme. She was about eight. And she was just mad on the programme. So I real-ised that she was sort of identifying not with Liz Sladen, she was identifying with the Doctor. She wanted to be the all action hero. It just gave me a different view on how little girls were watching the programme, as well as little boys. And I thought, “Yeah, let’s do something different.” So the idea of having this sort of uncultured creature, as it were. There was this idea of it being a sort of Professor Higgins, Eliza Doolittle. And then that got put on the back burner because, I don’t know, for various things and kind of came back with The Talons of Weng Chiang. But Bob had found this new writer, Chris Boucher, and he had come along with this idea. So then we said, “Well, maybe we could do this sort of Eliza Doolittle, the uncultured character, in your script.” So basically Chris took that idea and ran with it. That’s how Leela, this sort of brave woman of the tribe, evolved. Then we started to look for a Leela who would match the script to some extent. Physical, attractive..,

Tom Baker

Irresistible.

Philip Hinchcliffe

… was going to do more physical stuff.

Interviewer

Louise, can you kind of share with us your early memories in terms of being cast, and then obviously the great man himself?

Louise Jameson

Well, Pennant Roberts had interviewed me for a television series before Doctor Who. That didn’t happen, but Pennant had a little black book and he kept every actress and actor that he’d ever seen in it. He put little stars by them. Nobody was allowed to see into this book. Anyway, he gave me Leela and later he gave me Blanche in Tenko. I stole the book and I had a little look through it. Bless him, I had five little stars. So I have a lot to be very grateful to Pennant for. They saw 60, I was told, which got reduced to 10, then down to 6, then down to 3. Yeah, you called me back and back and back before I got the part. Pennant said because Tom didn’t want to do the interviews, I was told.

Tom Baker

I must have been mad.

Louise Jameson

Pennant read in, and he said I got the part because I actually made him work. I made Pennant work. I made him respond. When I first met Tom, I don’t know if you remember this, his first statement to me was, “Well, I hope you’re into bond-age, darling, because you’re going to spend 90% of the time tied up.”

Interviewer

And as time went by, and obviously initially Leela was this savage and she was very questioning all the time and learning about the Doctor’s world. But she did sort of soften as time went on. I don’t know how much of that was kind of in the writing and how much of that was what you brought to it, do you think?

Louise Jameson

I think it was mainly in the writing. I come from a very extensive classical train-ing where the text is everything. So if I can possibly honour what the writer has given, I always will. So I would say that came from the writing. But you know, people do change and we’re doing a fantastic series with Big Finish Audio Com-pany. Do you know about Big Finish? Yes. And we’ve made the specific arc of the stories that we’re doing at the moment is Leela’s education from the Doctor. So he’s taking me all over the universe to teach me things. I’m having a wonderful time.

Interviewer

It was actually rather fascinating, the fact that you were Frank in Educating Rita once, weren’t you? Now you were educating Leela. Okay. So good. So Tom, I wanted to ask you about the sort of change in the programme in the sense that, obviously, you started the show and I imagine you were very comfortable with Liz Sladen. Then, as you said, there was a hesitance initially to kind of embrace a new companion. But that keeps coming with the show. You know, there were two Romanas, there was K-9, and then obviously there was Adric and Nyssa and Te-gan at the end. How did you deal with that change?

Tom Baker

Not very well. You know, I was utterly devoted to Elisabeth Sladen because she laughed at all my jokes and girls who laugh at my jokes really can have their way with me. Elisabeth laughed at my jokes and we grew very close together and worked very well together. I’ve somehow told this story. Elisabeth made a miscal-culation when she decided to leave Doctor Who because she made the assump-tion, I can tell you now because it’s all over, and Philip is involved in this. She made the assumption that she used to call herself “Barry’s girl”, that Barry had se-lected Liz. And indeed he had. And she was devoted to him, you see. And she as-sumed that when Philip took over the programme, that he really would want his choice of girls. That was a mistake. Elisabeth did not need to resign when she re-signed. She made it under a false assumption, which is terribly sad. It turned out all right in the end. Elisabeth went on. But that was a mistake. Philip was perfect-ly happy with-

Philip Hinchcliffe

More than happy.

Tom Baker

More than happy. She was wonderful.

Philip Hinchcliffe

She brought so much to it.

Tom Baker

But these accidents happen. And then came Louise. And of course, losing Elisa-beth like that, it must have been difficult to handle me in those days. But I got very possessive of this little mad world. And I thought that I knew about it and that my intuitions were right. My intuitions were invariably a bit off. So apparent-ly I was very cold towards Louise, which now amazes me at this great distance in time, since gradually, of course, it got better when I got to know her and admire her. And now we are such close colleagues and loving friends that it seems to me now that when we catapult ourselves back, it seems to be almost impossible that there should have been any reservations at all. But there you are. These things do happen. I can tell you now, it’s ridiculous. I disapproved of K-9 because I thought later on that when I met John Leeson, he was running around doing his lovely K-9, and then I saw this boring dog.

I thought, we’d much better give a kind of metal suit or something to John and he can answer the phone and help me about and do everything. Do some knitting, you know, when things were quiet. Because, of course, I was very aware and very vain. Every time there was a two shot I had to get down on my hands and knees, which reminded me of when I was religious and that brought back very bad mem-ories. I’m walking the way I do now because I spent so much time on my knees in prayer. And, of course, talking to K-9. But it turned out all right. But John Leeson worked so hard at that thankless job when he wasn’t in vision, you know? But the-se things change and then onwards, Philip then went away from us and someone else came. There were inevitable tensions. But that’s all part of it. Nothing can stay the same, can it really?

Philip Hinchcliffe

I thought we were on an upward curve the years we were together.

Tom Baker

Definitely.

Philip Hinchcliffe

And then with Louise. I was on the show for, what, probably three and a half years and it was just a wonderful upward curve. We were so enthusiastic together. I don’t remember ever having a cross word at any point in our relationship.

Tom Baker

No. I don’t.

Philip Hinchcliffe

But we were too busy as well.

Tom Baker

We were also celebrating the success of your period.

Philip Hinchcliffe

We enjoyed the show and we got excited about the show, didn’t we?

Tom Baker

We did.

Philip Hinchcliffe

In my mind, I’d have got a bit bored if I’d stayed on as long as you. But you didn’t.

Tom Baker

Well, no, I didn’t. I never get bored of applause. Thanks. That’s better. Yes. I did-n’t get bored at all. I left rather reluctantly. I tested John Nathan Turner. I offered my resignation and I was appalled at the speed at which he accepted it. Was he glad to get rid of me. Oh, wow, he was. And I can’t blame him, really.

Interviewer

In a sense, this is sort of an unanswerable question, but the show was incredibly successful. We’ve talked about the fact that this was a real classic time, you know, Genesis of the Daleks, The Talons of Weng Chiang, Robots of Death, and Pyra-mids of Mars.

Philip Hinchcliffe

Well with hindsight, people say that.

Interviewer

Right. Because that’s what I was going to ask. They brought in the next producer, Graham Williams. But my understanding is that they hadn’t told you about that until he pretty much arrived. Is that right?

Philip Hinchcliffe

No, no. It was one of those on-off decisions that…

Interviewer

I mean, did you feel it was the right time to go? Would you have happily stayed longer?

Philip Hinchcliffe

I got myself ready to leave and so did Bob Holmes. Then we were told, no, they wanted us to stay. So we started working on some early ideas for another season. Probably a couple of weeks or something. And then we were told again, no. I was happy to move on. I certainly didn’t want to carry on after. Three or four years is more than enough, really.

Interviewer

And Louise, you stayed then on longer and went up to the Invasion of Time, when you left.

Louise Jameson

When I fell in love with a Time Lord guard.

Interviewer

And you took the dog with you as well, the first dog.

Louise Jameson

Yes.

Interviewer

What was the trigger for you in terms of leaving? It was your decision to move on?

Louise Jameson

Yes, it was. I think that last story was… Because Graham very flatteringly, the night before we went into the studio, came up to me and said, “We really can re-write that last scene. You can run in. You can press the buttons. You can stay. You can do another series.” But I’d already accepted Portia in the Merchant of Venice at the Bristol Old Vic. And Shakespeare being my first love, and we weren’t the absolute wonderful friends that we are now. I don’t want to give him a hard time because we have such a good time now. It was just ready. It was just time to move on, time to get back on stage.

Interviewer

So then for you, Tom, another change. The original producer and writer that you’d been working with moved on, Liz had moved on, Louise moved on. Then they in-troduced two characters in the end, Romana Mark one and two, because she could regenerate. She was a very different kind of character in the sense that she wasn’t questioning him so much. She was kind of your intellectual equal. How did you find that character?

Tom Baker

We’re talking about Mary Tamm, are we?

Interviewer

Mary Tamm, then obviously it went to another one later.

Tom Baker

Well, later it gets more complicated.

[laughter]

[applause]

Interviewer

Indeed.

Louise Jameson

Can I just tell a quick story about it getting complicated? Lalla, as we know, is now married to Richard Dawkins. Tom, as we know, was the voice for BT Rich-ard used to take great delight in leaving messages for Lalla on her home phone. “I’ll be late home tonight, darling.” Freaked her out completely.

Tom Baker

Mary Tamm was very easy to get along with. She was a very amusing girl with a very interesting background. Eastern European, I think she came from Latvia or Estonia.

Louise Jameson

Estonia.

Tom Baker

I think they talked Estonian at home. She could do wonderful impressions. Not exactly dated, but she would have been great as some of those grand ladies in Os-car Wilde and everything. She had a marvelous sardonic way of going on. We got on very well. But she didn’t stay long either, did she?

Interviewer

No.

Philip Hinchcliffe

I don’t know.

Interviewer

No. She didn’t.

Tom Baker

Of course, you’d gone by then. Actually, very few women have stayed long with me, and I can’t blame any of them, really, although they blame me. Yes, Mary was fine and also she was terribly smartly dressed, wasn’t she? George Spenton-Foster and people like that really lapped her up, and Peter Moffatt. Do you re-member Peter-

Philip Hinchcliffe

Oh, yeah, yeah.

Tom Baker

He adored all the arranging it.

Philip Hinchcliffe

But you know, with Moira Armstrong, I cast Mary Tamm in the very first produc-tion I did with the BBC. That was then cancelled in a strike. We set up a show called The Girls of Slender Means. It was a Muriel Spark book. Moira Armstrong and I cast Mary as one of the lead characters, so I’d known her before.

Tom Baker

She could do marvelous camp impressions of opera singers. Her mother had been an opera singer or something like that. She was terrific fun, but she didn’t stay long, did she?

Interviewer

No.

Tom Baker

I don’t think so. I think then she suggested it would be a good idea for Lalla Ward to replace her, which she thought was a good idea.

Philip Hinchcliffe

This is all news to me.

Tom Baker

She thought it as a marvelous idea. And then, so did I. And then, so did Lalla. She thought it was good.

Interviewer

Were you involved in the selection of either Mary or Lalla?

Tom Baker

No, I wasn’t. Why should I be? They shouldn’t consult other actors, really. I would tell them don’t consult me because my judgment was so wonky. And so, by that time, Graham Williams was running it and Lalla had been in the show for a story and then came back as the assistant. You know the way life is. One thing leads to another, and another thing leads to catastrophe. But it was terrific fun while it lasted. It was terrific fun. I only have happy memories of that short time. Maybe - no, don’t say that. I’m not going to go there.

Philip Hinchcliffe

Wrong audience.

Louise Jameson

Yes.

Tom Baker

A good time. It was a good time.

Interviewer

But before we move on, obviously there was a personal life and a working life. But did that make it easier or more difficult, the fact that you were working to-gether as well?

Tom Baker

You know, I can’t remember. Because if you’re at rehearsal all day with the lead-ing lady and then sleeping with her all night, the whole thing is quite difficult to separate, really. She laughed at my jokes even in the evening. It’s all a bit of a muddle now. It didn’t last very long and it was very amiable, although we’ve nev-er met since. It was very amiable. She was very kind and terrifically witty. I think we grated, she used that expression. We grated on each other. It was one of those mistakes we make, you know when you’re full of chemicals that you don’t under-stand. You think something is good when it’s not a good idea at all. And I’ve had lots of those ideas. That’s true. I’m not very rational, I’m afraid.

Interviewer

And then, obviously, there was a point where the last of your companions came in. So there was Adric who joined, and then there was Nyssa and Tegan at the very, very end. So Janet Fielding, Matthew Waterhouse obviously, who’s here, and Sarah Sutton. And you had obviously made the decision at some point around this time to move on. So at that point, were you already kind of thinking ahead, or how would you…?

Tom Baker

I wasn’t thinking ahead, because actors thinking ahead usually means dreaming, except a few actors who have a busy diary. I just had to get out of it because there were too many of us in there. John Nathan Turner, who became, really, a very warm friend afterwards with his partner. I met them at various Doctor Who con-ventions and everything. But there was terrific creative tension between us while he was the producer. He had been the production unit manager for a long time be-fore that, and he was desperate to have this job. He got the job and naturally, he wanted to put his stamp on it. And quite naturally, I was a bit suspicious about his stamp, because I didn’t much like his taste in comedy or tragedy or Italian food. Indeed, I didn’t like his taste in anything, really.

Later on, when it was all over and the tension had evaporated, we became quite good friends and he promoted Doctor Who. So I was glad to go because in the short unit of time to play a Doctor Who excerpt, it wouldn’t stand five people. There wasn’t enough for us to do. There were a lot of people standing around do-ing nothing. Every now and then, they had to cut the camera up to show that they were there, and I felt that was a waste of time, that they should have the camera on me. I’m now confessing, and I’ll ask your forgiveness. I’m confessing an inade-quacy. I thought I’d be honest for a second. But there you were. It got silly for me. It was always silly, but it got unbearable to me. And by that time, of course, I was so bloody opinionated about all the shots in the Tardis and how it should unfold and how we didn’t need to finish certain sentences so that someone could come crowding in to create a frisson. I got tired of doing that.

The other thing is, I should never, probably this is my last word tonight, I should never have been an actor, really, for this simple reason. I actually don’t like being told what to do. I really don’t. Now this is a very bad start for an actor. It really is a very bad start. So when I got into Doctor Who, most of the producers and direc-tors didn’t much tell me what to do except when they’d say, “You’re going to stand here.” And I’d say, “Why, Tom?” And David Maloney said, “Because you look terrific.” And then I’d say, “Oh, that’s a good idea.” But being told what to do, ac-tors, especially when you’re getting started, you have to put up with that. When directors say, “This is a play about eyes,” You think, “Oh, I thought it was a play about feet.” Because you’re allowed to say that.

When you’re a director, you can say anything you want to young actors and they nod and sometimes write it down, don’t they? Oh, dear me, I found it very, very hard. I think probably I wouldn’t have gone on much further because I was quite happy on my building site, although I was hungry most of the time. But one of the chaps used to bring me bread pudding, and that kept me going. But I don’t know that I could have gone on till I got Doctor Who, and that changed my whole life, and has changed my whole life since because I’ve never stopped being Doctor Who, in a sense. I’ve always promoted it.

I’ve earned some sort of a living talking to people about it or going to conven-tions. And now regarding Louise, we’re on this wonderful roll of audio adventures bringing in marvelous actors who love being in it, don’t they? Actors who pick it up straight away. They just know it. It’s in the air, isn’t it? People like David Warner and Geoffrey Beevers. Oh, fantastic. We have a great time.

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