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I'll Tell You A Story That's Black and Gory: Tom Baker's Literary Readings

It’s 1985. I’m sitting in a classroom in West Berkshire, looking at one of those old CRT TVs that you wheel in on a stand. There is a video recorder on a separate shelf just beneath and Mrs Vasa has been fiddling with the fast forward and rewind buttons as the tape mechanically spools through to the place she wants, with the sort of befuddled incompetence you get from teachers grappling with new technology. We have been reading The Iron Man, by Ted Hughes. But this afternoon, someone else is going to read it for us.
I’ve just read over that paragraph and the thought occurs to me that it may not have actually happened at all. Video recorders were strange and exotic beasts, even in 1985. Most of them were the size and weight of a small piano and they chewed tapes with abandon. Our school had barely mastered the audio cassette. But I remember reading The Iron Man in year two, and I remember watching the Jackanory version at around the same time, and I’m reasonably confident that this was the first time I heard Tom Baker’s voice.

Left: Baker in The Book Tower, 1978; Right, reading The Iron Man in Jackanory, 1985
Left: Baker in The Book Tower, 1978; Right: reading The Iron Man in Jackanory, 1985.

Oh, I knew who he was, of course. Everybody did. He hadn’t appeared in anything I’d seen, but he adorned the cover of at least half the Target novels in our local library (including the one for Meglos, which, with its plethora of cactus spikes, caused more than a couple of nightmares). The curls bubbled out from underneath his fedora on those Five Doctors publicity shots – it would be a great many years before I discovered that he was a waxwork. Tom Baker was a former Doctor but it didn’t matter that it was a role I was yet to see him play, being more interested in why the TARDIS was now infested with a strange multi-coloured idiot who had replaced Peter Davison.
How peculiar, and yet curiously appropriate, that the first time I actually hear his voice properly, he’s telling a children’s story. Because telling stories is something Tom Baker knows how to do very well. Enunciation is part of it. His tone is always clear and precise, even when he’s mumbling. But there are hidden layers: every word is emphasised just so, even when it is not, with speeches that feel as carefully planned as Heath Ledger’s monologues in The Dark Knight, even when Baker is clearly not enamoured with the script he’s been given.

I’ve been lobbying for years to get him on the CBeebies bedtime hour. If they can afford Derek Jacobi – reading Stick Man on a half-hour break in between rehearsing in the West End – they can afford the Fourth Doctor. There are two types of introductions to CBeebies bedtime story: the cold open, where the celebrity in question is interrupted in the process of doing a particular task (something Michael McIntyre parodies with absolute brilliance), or the more dignified straight-to-the-camera “Hello, I’m ____”, presumably reserved for those who lack the inclination to play-act. Baker’s firmly in the first camp, of course. I’d already scripted the thing. He’d appear in a battered old armchair, counting out lurid confectionary. “One, two, thr- oh, hello! I’m Tom. Would you like a jelly baby? I’m just counting mine to make sure they’re all there. The monster in tonight’s bedtime story likes eating sweets…”
(If they can’t get Baker, McGann would do. He inhabits Dig Dig Digging – one of my children’s favourite books, and for that same reason, one of my least favourites – with a quiet, sensible gravitas, the sort of thing you get when the Eighth Doctor is monologuing at the beginning of a Big Finish narrative. Actually, there’s a whole history of Doctor Who actors reading bedtime stories, although the best of the lot is arguably Tennant, who is calm, reassuring, and intimate. Tennant was, for a time, my absolute favourite reader full stop, although Tom Hardy’s New Year’s Eve rendering of You Must Bring A Hat was absolutely spellbinding – and the million-strong fluttering of hearts and subsequent Twitter meltdown were the icing on the cake.)
This rapt fascination may hearken back to 1985, but The Iron Man wouldn’t be Baker’s only – or, indeed, first – brush with this sort of thing. In the late 1970s, he fronted The Book Tower, which tried to make reading interesting through visual spectacle. Sadly, Baker’s episodes are no longer available, although YouTube has a Neil Innes episode if you wanted to get an idea of the format. Elsewhere, he would move into voice work, narrating (in the children’s sector, where we’re staying today) everything from Channel 5’s The Beeps to BBC’s Tales of Aesop – as well as a number of talking books (which the DWC will be covering later in the week, in case you thought we’d forgotten them).
But there’s one that deserves special mention. Late Night Story was a series of late 1970s broadcasts (Baker takes the first series; Sir John Mills, himself quite a reasonable actor, did the second) encompassing tales of the macabre and the grotesque. Whatever notion you may have of family entertainment (not to mention the fact that Baker was just entering the difficult second album phase of his time as the Doctor), it is apparent from the opening titles – a discordant musical box accompanied by a child with her eyes sewn up – that this is categorically not for children, itself ironic given that all five stories deal with the notion of childhood in some way. Hence a young boy hides an irrational fear of having his photograph taken; a bedridden child, heavily dependent on his dog, makes a wish he comes to regret; two regressing adults carry out an intimidating act of revenge on a sadistic nanny, only to have it backfire horribly. I have considered ripping the audio and sticking them on my children’s MP3 players, just to see what happens.
All five stories are hidden right at the back of the special edition of the Key To Time box set (Armageddon Factor, disc 2; to select audio navigation press Enter now) and if you haven’t yet encountered them, all are worth watching, although preferably not in a single sitting. Baker delivers them with customary relish, inhabiting the adults with a combination of ineffectual indifference and dark malevolence, and the children with an ominous sense of dread. Perhaps even more unsettling than his eerie grin to camera at the end of the never broadcast Sredni Vashtar (in which a boy worships a ferret) is the fact that there’s absolutely nothing for the Vision Mixer to do, save cut back and forth from close-ups to mid shots and back again. There is not a single illustration: instead we are stuck with fifteen minutes of continuous eye contact with Baker (all right, he’s looking at an autocue, but not so you’d notice), which really is quite uncomfortable to watch. Brilliant, but uncomfortable.

Still. It was The Iron Man that stuck with me – I found it impossible to separate Hughes’ fantastical, cautionary prose from Baker’s ominous delivery. Such was the extent of this marriage of text and performance that when I eventually got round to buying a copy so that I could introduce my children to it, on a cold and rainy winter’s evening not unlike this one, the wind howling and the lighting atmospheric, it was Tom’s voice that I tried to emulate. “Only one of the iron hands, lying beside an old, sand-logged washed-up seaman’s boot, waved its fingers for a minute, like a crab on its back,” I read, enunciating for emphasis and keeping my tone somewhere north of the basso profundo region. “Then it lay still. While the stars went on wheeling through the sky and the wind went on tugging at the grass on the cliff top and the sea went on boiling and booming. Nobody knew the Iron Man had fallen. Is there a reason why you’re shrinking into your blanket like that?”
“You’re scaring me.”
Perhaps there’s a time and a place. But if you were expecting an apology for artistic pretension, you’ll be disappointed: when you’ve read as many children’s stories as I have, you find ways of making them interesting or feel the monotony of Guess How Much I Bloody Love You chipping away at the fragile block that is the remainder of your sanity. It’s one thing calming down your children for bedtime, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Baker’s children’s stories over the years it’s that there’s more than one way to swing a cat. I eked out Thorin’s death when we read The Hobbit, putting on my best dying-on-a-slab voice, and reducing my then-eight-year-old to tears – but at least he slept. All this starts as early in the child’s life as possible, with well-loved classics (the sort that get their own stage adaptations) given a much-needed shot in the arm wherever you can. It is a necessary evil, the only way to combat the tedium of having to read the same story again for the fifteenth time that week.
“What do you want tonight?” I’ll say to the five-year-old. “Indian Rajah, world-weary cowboy, or Brian Blessed?”
“Brian Blessed.”
You have to have some fun.

James Baldock

I'll Tell You A Story That's Black and Gory: Tom Baker's Literary Readings

by James Baldock time to read: 6 min
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