This article features Tom Baker-ness, and is therefore partially unsuitable for young’uns. Let’s call it ‘PG’. You have been warned.
Tom Baker’s rich, expressive dark voice is a gift to audio stories. Even when the tales he’s telling aren’t much cop, it’s always worth listening to Mr Baker. But the passage of time, both physically and mentally, has caused Tom’s voice to shift somewhat. His pipes have dropped a few tones, and a full life (much of it misspent at The Coach and Horses in Soho) have weathered his vocal chords. But it’s more than just physical.
Sometime in the mid-80s, Tom Baker became ‘Tom Baker’, a more knowing deliberately eccentric version of himself. Now, I’m not saying he wasn’t a glorious weirdo before, but it has come more to the fore in recent decades, and it certainly comes across to the listener.
That’s why it’s a real treat to experience his audio recordings from the ’70s and early ’80s, when he sounded just like the TV Doctor. Hang on, I think there might be another reason why I find it hard to listen to Tom these days. Ooh, I think I’m having a flashback…
I’m 23-years old and driving my car, a red Seat. It’s 1997 and I’m listening to my childhood Doctor read his autobiography, Who on Earth is Tom Baker? on the car stereo. And it’s a hoot. Tom is in the middle of an amusing ramble about his childhood, illegal betting, and an early interest in God. ‘Desperate for comfort and distraction, I became more and more involved in the church services,’ recalls Tom.
It’s at about this point that I pull into the car park and pick my mother up from the train station. She sits in the passenger seat next to me and hears Tom’s voice. Enquiring what’s on the stereo, I tell her and explain that it’s very funny. As I lean to turn the switch, my mother says she doesn’t mind if I leave it on. It was a request I should never have granted.
‘…nor by Guardian Angels sitting on their shoulders; they were more preoccupied by their dicks,’ says Tom. Eh? Did he mean Terrance Dicks? Now, at this point I should have turned it off. But, forgive me, I didn’t quite register what was being said…
What follows is a lengthy interlude where Mr Baker describes his adolescent escapades alongside a group of boys as they – um – exercise their Erato… I think the double whammy of hearing my childhood hero enthusiastically discuss – um – twanging his Tythonian ambassador as my mother listened in, rendered me somewhat paralyzed. I mean, it’s not the sort of behavior we expect in the cosy universe of Doctor Who. Except, eww.
‘“Mildred Barton” (groan of agreement) “Doreen Manning” (more groans), “Moira Lynch” (that was inspirational),’ continued Tom…
Perhaps the Master was nearby, fiddling with his TOMTIT, but the five minute journey back home underwent some kind of time disturbance and the drive seemed to last between six and eight decades. I cannot express the huge relief I felt as I pulled into the drive, turned off the engine, and the dirty little Baker was silenced: ‘All the dicks were struck down by this blasphemy and we went home ashamed…’
Never has a retreat to a lamasery in darkest Mummeset to chant ‘om mani padme hum’ until I entered a higher astral plane seemed more appealing than at that moment. Particularly as it dawned on me that I still lived at home and had to follow my mum inside. For both our sakes, she chose to change the subject. ‘Cup of tea?’ she enquired, to which I mumbled an affirmative. ‘Biscuit?’ Please mother, no biscuit.
Which brings me neatly on to the matter in hand. (That’s in your mind, not mine.) Yes, Tom Baker narrated stories on radio, record, and cassette in the 1970s and early 1980s. See, that wasn’t so bad, was it…? Mummy?
Doctor Who And The Pescatons LP, Argo, July 1976
Riding high on the success of Doctor Who’s magnificent Season 13, Argo records decided to cash in on the popularity of the Baker/Sladen era by releasing a brand new full-cast audio adventure featuring the voices of the TV show. Think Big Finish, except run by idiots.
That’s not entirely fair; the talented stars are always worth a listen and, since it’s one of only two audio stories to feature the Doctor and Sarah-Jane Smith, it’s worth treasuring. Except if you’re Kenneth Robinson reviewing the story in The Listener in 1976. To give you a flavour, the piece is entitled ‘Dr Who meets the clichés’. The veteran writer and broadcaster’s critique pulls no punches: ‘“I was thinking that, any moment now, Dr Who will meet the Dreaded Non-Sequitur.” And sure enough he does…’ Sorry Kenneth, Doctor Who was brilliant on TV in 1976, that’s the same year as The Pescatons, so it must be brilliant too. (See? It’s like we’ve forgotten it happened. “Mildred Barton”. Shudder.)
Doctor Who – Exploration Earth, BBC Radio, Monday 4 October 1976
The only other audio story to feature Baker/Sladen, Exploration Earth was the third episode of a BBC Schools radio series, which formed part of a study module about geography. It was clearly intended to help children learn the scientific facts about the creation of the Earth. The key fact we learn is that, as the planet’s crust began to form 4.6 billion years ago, an alien called Lord Megron, ‘High Lord of Chaos, Chief of the Carions and Lords of Chaos’ attempted to take control of the Earth, but was thwarted by a time-traveller observing creation in a small space capsule. As a result, O-Level geography passes took a significant dip in 1977 and, conversely, admittance to juvenile mental institution saw a uncharacteristic rise. Exploration Earth is another brand new full cast audio adventure featuring the voices of the TV show. Think Big Finish, except run by loony scientists.
That’s not entirely fair either: there is authentic special sound to enjoy by BBC Radiophonic Workshop and, um, somebody Mills. Dick. Dick Mills. Dick. Dick. Let’s just move on, shall we…?
Journey To The Centre Of The Earth LP, Argo, 1977 & The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde LP, Argo, June 1979
Buoyed up by having Baker in the studio vanquishing the pesky Pescatons, Argo invited the TV star back to record a couple of talking books. As a neat marketing ploy, rather than get the actor to intone any old classic tome, they opted for two science/fantasy tales somewhat akin to the Time Lord’s adventures on TV.
Jekyll and Hyde is definitely the pick of the two; Baker’s timbre fitting perfectly in a smoggy Victorian London setting, much as it did in The Talons of Weng-Chiang. And, of course, Stevenson’s book provided much of the source material for that other Hinchcliffe/Holmes classic, Planet of Evil. Long out of print, the LP fortuitously popped up a few years ago to stream for free on Spotify. The LP also has a gloriously evocative cover featuring a close up of Baker in his 1970s dark curly-haired prime, looking every bit the TV Time Lord.
Journey To The Centre Of The Earth is of less interest to me because I find it a bit of a tiresome story. In fact, if your seven-word title is a neat (and more engaging) summary of the plot of two thirds of your book, then you may have a problem, Mr Verne. This is also on Spotify but I think they only uploaded half the story, unless it actually ends rather abruptly with the young hero Axel buried alive, plunging into unfathomable darkness, looking for a wall to dash his head to pieces…
The atmospheric music on both is fab, composed and performed by pianist Kenny Clayton, whose theatre credits include No Strings, Billy, Song & Dance, Someone Like You, Nightingale, and another one. Which I won’t name here. Why? You really want to know? Because it’s Privates On Parade. OK? That’s why.
Doctor Who – Genesis Of The Daleks LP, BBC Records, 1978
I don’t have to convince many of you that this is an absolute classic story. It may be blasphemous for me to suggest it, but I think this may be the definitive version. With a 60- rather than 150-minute running time, it has a real urgency and is much less meandering than its TV counterpart (much as I love it), and the audio-only experience makes war-torn Skaro really come to life in the mind’s eye.
So, one of the huge unsung heroes of Doctor Who is a chap called Derek Goom, who wrote the linking script and realised the original LP. If that doesn’t make him legendary enough, his other claim to fame (claim it, Derek) is that he arranged the classic theme music to the ’80s BBC TV show, Juliet Bravo. Derek Bravo, say I!
Of course, the original music to Genesis is by Dudley Simpson with special sound by somebody Mills. Dick. Yes, DICK! There, I’ve said it. Again.
Doctor Who – State of Decay read by Tom Baker cassette, Pickwick International, June 1981
Just as Tom was gearing up to leave the all-encompassing part as TV’s Dr Who, and preparing to take on the role of ‘Tom Baker’, he recorded this curiosity. With such a vocal talent at the helm of the show, coupled with a successful range of tie-in novelisations, it’s surprising that Mr Baker wasn’t called upon to do more Who talking books.
And this is an unusual release as it is a totally original version of the E-Space gothic tale, with a script by Terrance, um – you know the rest* – released six-months before the entirely different Target books version. It must have been gratifying for Uncle Terrance D____ to be paid three times in 1981 to produce variations on a script that had been languishing in the draw since it was rejected by the BBC in 1977 (they didn’t want a vampire story on TV to compete with their lavish Dracula adaptation).
Since it was re-released on cassette again by Ditto in 1985, this unique audio has not seen the light of day again in any other medium. Fortunately, those clever chaps who run the internet have allowed a version to be accessed via something called a ‘YouTube’. But watch out while you are there, I’m reliably informed that you are just a click or two away from… material that would have been welcome at Tom’s school gathering. So remember to set the parental controls. Sob.
No, mother, I still don’t want a biscuit.
*Oh Terrance, there should have been another name…