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Thursday, October 21, 1999 Published at 07:54 GMT 08:54 UK


Dr Who meets Mr Dickens

Tom Baker brought his own eccentricity to the role of Dr Who

By BBC News Online's Rebecca Thomas

Former Doctor Who Tom Baker is travelling through time again to take part in a new BBC adapation of the 19th century Dickens classic Nicholas Nickleby.

Baker plays the rumbustious actor Vincent Crummles in an all-star radio version of the story, alongside Anna Massey, Richard Johnson and 27-year-old Oliver Milburn.

[ image: Tom Baker's co-stars in Nicholas Nickleby]
Tom Baker's co-stars in Nicholas Nickleby
A self-styled Dickens expert, Baker says he couldn't be happier with his new project - particularly since he gets to play a long-coveted role.

"Dickens is full of all that theatricality from simple times when people could be heroic, ridiculous and strike attitude.

"And, of course, all that pretentiousness and snobbery is right up my street. I was born to play Mr Crummles. Even when I played Macbeth, someone said to me that I would make a great Crummles," Baker booms enthusiastically.

Tom Baker: "I try to see irony in everything"
It's easy to see what he means. From Sherlock Holmes and Rasputin through to Dr Who and Captain Rum in Blackadder II, Baker has excelled at playing larger-than-life characters.

And at six foot three with wild curly hair, grand gestures and an even more majestic voice, it would be hard to imagine him playing much else.

But there has been at least one occasion when he would have liked to have been given the chance.

[ image: Tom Baker today: Too friendly to act mean]
Tom Baker today: Too friendly to act mean
"I remember once having an argument because someone was doing a play about a child molester and I said 'I'd like to do that'.

"But they said 'No, you can't, you look too friendly. We have to get someone who's balding with shoulders like a Guinness bottle, sweats a lot and looks furtive," he muses.

Still, 65-year-old Baker's not bitter. He professes to relish every project he embarks on. And despite enduring countless bad "Who" jokes, he doesn't regret his time as the fourth, and arguably most popular, man to play the TV timelord.

Tom Baker on the joy of playing Dr Who
"It was simply an amazing time so whatever I have done nothing compares to the joy of that. I was a children's hero, grannies loved me as much as parents and I was welcome in everybody's home," he says.

For seven years, Baker made the part his own, complete with rainbow scarf, floppy hat and jelly babies. It earned him what he calls success on "a colossal scale". Now, almost 20 years on, he still receives fan-mail by the sackful.

[ image: Tom Baker and Terence Rigby  play Holmes and Watson in Hound of the Baskervilles]
Tom Baker and Terence Rigby play Holmes and Watson in Hound of the Baskervilles
But if the young Tom Baker had had his way, the world of interstellar travel would have had to do without him.

Aged just 15, Baker dreamt of epic adventures of quite a different kind and decided to enter an enclosed order of monks.

"The idea was that I wanted to do something extraordinary and heroic, which is what most children want to do," he explains.

"Coming from an intensely Irish, Catholic background, the most extravagent thing I could do was serve God with vows of chastity, obedience and poverty - it's the ultimate annihilation of self."

Tom Baker: "My attempt at sucide was a disaster"
His subservience lasted six years, at which point he was kicked out for confessing to a desire to commit murder - something he later attempted, and failed to accomplish, on the "repulsive" mother of his first wife. Later he turned his despair on himself and tried to kill himself twice.

These tales, and more, Baker recounts with eye-watering candour in his autobiography, Who the Hell is Tom Baker?

[ image: Baker's subversive new book for children]
Baker's subversive new book for children
The book has sold well since it was published in 1997 and reveals Baker as both a talented writer and literary wit.

It's an achievement he hopes to repeat with his new children's book The Boy Who Kicked Pigs.

It's described as a comic fantasy about an evil little boy who hates everyone around him and eventually comes to a sticky end. But despite its subversiveness Baker believes it will appeal.

Tom Baker: His new book will either make you laugh or sick
"I got the idea from the poor slimy well of my mind. You can't write a novel about happiness. When you think about fiction, happiness is death to the ratings," he says.

He goes on: "But I think it's rather funny because, you see, the death of the wicked can be very consoling."

[ image: Stay tuned: Baker has teamed up with Reeves and Mortimer]
Stay tuned: Baker has teamed up with Reeves and Mortimer
And talking of death, Baker will be jesting alongside comedy duo Reeves and Mortimer in a remake of the 1960s kitsch classic Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased).

Baker plays a greeter at Heaven's gates but, as the consummate eccentric explains, he managed to bring his own brand of levity to the role.

"I try to reassure people and bring them to terms with being dead. I thought it was a very nice part and I played it very sincerely and sweetly but people kept falling around with laughter - so maybe it's going to be a great success."

Nicholas Nickleby will run every weekday on BBC Radio 4 from 25 October to 3 December.

The Boy Who Kicked Pigs is realeased on 1 November.

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