In his long and distinguished career as an actor, Colin Baker has had many successes on stage and screen, not least his galaxy-hopping stint in the 1980s starring as Doctor Who.
Now he’s about to embark on an idiosyncratic theatre tour as Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles, but it all began much closer to what Northern Soul calls home. Though born in London, when he was two-years-old Baker’s family relocated to Rochdale.
“I spent my first – oh gosh, 10 or 12 years in Rochdale,” he says. “Then we moved to Manchester, so I’m from t’North.”
Specifically, Baker’s Manchester days were spent in Higher Blackley. “Victoria Avenue East I lived on, which is now within inches of the M62 motorway, though it wasn’t then. I went to school in Manchester, I studied law in Manchester and only ventured south in my mid 20s.”
In fact, his schooling took place at St Bede’s, the then boys-only independent Catholic school in Whalley Range, and Baker can still wax lyrical about the various suburbs of south Manchester. “Our sports field was in Chorlton-cum-Hardy. We used to have to walk up Alexandra Road South and turn right.”
It was at St Bede’s that Baker first found his calling.
“Unbelievably, we did a Gilbert and Sullivan opera every year, fully cast from boys. My debut on any stage was as Phyllis in Iolanthe, the leading soprano. I got a review saying ‘Colin Baker threw himself with great verve into the part of Phyllis, and rarely strayed more than half an octave from the note’. So there was an implied criticism, which I only tumbled much, much later when I realised what an octave was.”
Nevertheless, for Baker this performance was a real lightbulb moment. “It’s the old story you get from actors. I was a shy boy who wasn’t confrontational, didn’t hang out my dirty linen or indeed my clean linen in public, and suddenly, I was playing somebody else and was liberated – in a dress, for heaven’s sake.”
Further Gilbert and Sullivan performances followed but, on leaving school, Baker’s suggestion to his father that he might pursue a career as an actor resulted only in him being stationed in a solicitors’ office for the next five years.
“While I was working there, my mother and I went to see an amateur production of The King & I at the Palace Theatre in Manchester. At the end of it I said ‘oh I’d love to do something like that’, and the bloke sitting in front turned round and said ‘young man, I am the chairman of the North Manchester Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society, why don’t you come along next Friday?’ And that’s where it all started.”
The next steps
Baker hasn’t stopped since, and he’ll be back up north as part of The Hound of the Baskervilles tour. Scripted and directed by Martin Parsons, it’s an unusual production, presented as a live audio drama – that’s to say, the cast won’t be in costume but will instead stand script-in-hand at microphones. As such, it’s not unlike seeing a radio play being made, or perhaps one of the many Doctor Who audio adventures that Baker has made with the company Big Finish.
“I’ve never seen this myself, but I’m told by those who’ve been to these that audiences love it,” Baker says. “They’re watching actors working, in a kind of privileged way. It’s not like going to see a play, where they’re pretending. This is professional actors in a studio creating an audio drama and we’re seeing all the whistles and the nuts and bolts. We’ve got the special effects going on and people getting up and sitting down and going to the microphone and the interaction between the actors. It’s kind of like it’s behind the scenes, only not behind the scenes. It’s unusual. I mean, I look nothing like most people’s idea of Sherlock Holmes, who is tall and gaunt and aquiline and all those things, whereas I am not. I’m tall, but I ain’t gaunt and I ain’t aquiline. But hopefully my voice will be Sherlock Holmes, and that’s the important bit.”
In the theatre show, the role of Dr Watson will be taken by Terry Molloy, who’s played Mike Tucker in The Archers for the best part of 50 years and who appeared opposite Baker’s Doctor not once but twice in the mid-1980s.
“In Doctor Who I met him first as a human being,” Baker says. “He’d been Davros for some years before then, but he played a character [undercover police officer Russell] in Attack of the Cybermen. Then, later in the same series, he came back as Davros, which he could do, of course, because he wears a mask as Davros.”
“We’re so used to doing that in our profession – cameras or no cameras, stage, off-stage – that it’s nice rather than strange,” he says. “It’s great to have the opportunity of working in a different way.” Besides, it’s an opportunity to get back in front of an audience after a few years lost to the pandemic. “I haven’t been on a stage now for about four years. for pretty obvious reasons. It’s nice and it’s challenging, but we don’t have to learn it, which is one wonderful thing. You don’t learn radios, you read ’em, so that’s a blessing at this particular time. And it’s nice to be out and about again. I’m banging on now, I’m heading towards geriatricity, and it’s nice to be considered capable of setting foot on a stage at my age.”
Baker insists that The Hound of the Baskervilles show is “very true to the book. The adaptation that Martin [Parsons] has written is spot on. It really is traditional Sherlock. It’ll be a good night out with something slightly familiar to most people, very familiar to some, but a new take on it, a new way of looking at it, a new way of thinking about it, and it’s going to be extremely well done. So they’re all going to be leaving the theatre saying ‘I don’t want to see it on television any more, I want to hear them do every Sherlock Holmes story there is’.”
As a final thing, Northern Soul can’t resist asking Baker about the rumours about his leaving and other erstwhile Doctors popping up in the BBC centenary Doctor Who special – the interview being conducted a few days before broadcast.
“Yeah, I’ve heard those rumours, that Janet Fielding and Sophie Aldred (80s Who companions Tegan and Ace] are going to be appearing. Well, I find that annoying. There’s some perfectly good Doctors, myself and Peter [Davison] and Sylvester [McCoy] who could all be appearing, and we’re not. I suppose, if you think about it, Janet and Sophie do look pretty much the same as they did, for some reason – I don’t know whether they’ve all got pictures in their attic or whatever. We Doctors are batting on, though. I mean, I was 40, and well, it was 39 years ago, so that’ll give you a clue. We don’t look the same now. I suppose it could be confusing to import us, so they’ll manage perfectly well without us and we’ll just applaud in the background.”
If this is all a big double-bluff, it is, as Northern Soul remarks, very convincingly done. “Well, thank you,” Baker replies. “Well, I am an actor. But I’m not that good.”
In fact, sure enough, along with all the other actors mentioned, Baker appeared opposite Jodie Whittaker for a cameo in the Doctor Who special a few days later. So he was that good an actor, all along.
Main image by Ian Fraser
The Hound of the Baskervilles is currently on tour, with 2022 dates including Lancaster, Bridlington, Runcorn and Southport. For more information, click here.