Colin Baker is currently starring as Inspector Morse in a brand new stage play, House of Ghosts, which is touring the UK until December.
No stranger to taking on iconic parts, Colin is arguably best remembered as the lead in Doctor Who in the mid-1980s. He took time out of his busy performance schedule to talk to EF about playing the much-loved, lugubrious detective.
How are you today?
I’m very well, thank you.
You’re playing Inspector Morse at the moment. How’s the run of ‘House of Ghosts’ going?
It’s going very well. We’ve been on the road now for eight weeks or so, with a week in each venue. We started back in August, and we’re up in Newcastle as I speak to you. The audiences appear to be enjoying it enormously which is the object of the exercise so we’re all very happy.
You’re touring with it until December?
Are you hoping for a quiet Christmas or do you prefer being busy?
Well my Christmases are normally spent doing things pantomimical! For the last twenty-odd years I’ve done pantomime every Christmas. But this year because the Morse play finishes so late there wasn’t that opportunity. So I’m looking forward to actually spending more than Christmas Day with my family, for the first time since they were tiny. Which may either be wonderful or appalling, I’m not sure yet! (Laughs)
Time will tell! ‘House of Ghosts’ is written by Alma Cullen who wrote four of the ‘Morse’ screenplays. Do you think audiences’ preconceptions of Morse will be met?
I suppose it depends what those preconceptions are. Certainly if they’re expecting to see John Thaw on stage, their preconceptions won’t be met because clearly I’m not John Thaw. And that’s always a problem when you take over a part which is so heavily identified with somebody else, but I’ve done that before with a certain other role I’ve played on television years ago, namely Doctor Who. I took over from five other people who’d played it before. It’s something you just have to get on with. I presume that people coming to see the play are hoping to see Inspector Morse rather than the actor who played it originally. If you go back to the books, the description of Endeavour Morse doesn’t describe John Thaw any more than it describes me. It’s the character really that’s important rather than the physical appearance and hopefully I’m delivering what both Alma Cullen and Colin Dexter would expect to see.
I read that Colin Dexter based Morse pretty much on himself. You put on your blog a number of similarities you’d spotted between yourself and Morse. Did you feel connected with the part straight away?
Yes. I’m appalled to say that certainly my family would say that I share his grumpiness! Also his attention to detail in grammar and correcting other people’s language…
…Quite right too!
Thank you (laughs)! I studied Classics, like Morse; I have a chip on my shoulder about university, a bit like Morse; I like classical music; I like beer but I’m not allowed to drink it because I’d put on too much weight, but I’m very fond of it. The extraordinary coincidence is that the first car I ever drove, and which I took my driving test in, was a maroon Mark Two Jag!
It belonged to my father at the time. So it was written in the stars.
You have a legal background yourself, don’t you?
I trained as a solicitor before I became an actor.
Did that prove useful for Morse?
Not so much with Morse, but it’s terribly useful for dealing with contracts as an actor (laughs). It means that I understand small print.
You’ve worked with the director before. ‘Strangers On A Train’ was one collaboration I saw.
Robin Herford is a wonderful director. He’s principally known for directing Woman in Black, which has been running successfully for twenty-one years. He’s not only the nicest man, but the best director I’ve ever worked with, because he really gets the best out of people. This is my fourth play with Robin.
Did he approach you for the part then?
He did. He rang me up and said, “My next project is putting Inspector Morse on the stage.” I said, “Who’s playing Morse?” He said, “Well, I’m hoping you are.” Which was rather delightful, really! I thought I’d had my time playing iconic roles on television, albeit this one is on the stage. But it was, I suppose, the flagship series for ITV just asDoctor Who was the flagship series for the BBC.
Were you a fan of ‘Morse’, either the series or the books?
Well I certainly watched it. In fact two Christmases ago I bought my wife the box set, which as soon as I was cast in the part I steered away from, because I didn’t want to be influenced by John’s performance. So what I did do was go back and read the books, which are fantastic.
The reviews of ‘House of Ghosts’ all say you bring something fresh and original to the part of Morse. Is that because you went back to the books?
I’m sure that is part of it. People have been very kind. It’s very nice. I’m finding it a great role to play. It’s very demanding, because as you can imagine, in a play about Inspector Morse he’s on stage quite a lot (laughs). He gets it wrong a few times before he gets it right.
If I can ask you about your other iconic role…?
Indeed you can.
My earliest memory of ‘Doctor Who’ is of Peter Davison’s last season, which was a nice, bright, fun sci-fi show. When you took over ‘Doctor Who’ became a much darker and more sinister series, and it started giving me nightmares. Did you influence the darker tone at all?
No, I had zero input into the content. I was cast and then the scripts arrived. I think it was because two or three of the writers at that time, Robert Holmes and Philip Martin and people like that had those scripts bubbling around in their heads. Perhaps it was a sign of the times, I don’t know. I haven’t seen too many of Peter Davison’s stories so I can’t make a comparison as to whether my stories were darker or not. Certainly my Doctor was less easily accessible than Peter’s Doctor, who was kind of young and fresh and preppy; whereas I was a little less accessible initially. That was a decision by the producer and the writers. The fact that this thing called regeneration, where one person turns into another – when Peter became the Doctor it left him weak and he had to be carried around for two or three episodes because he was completely debilitated by the process. With me, they decided it would make me manic and behave in an unpredictable way; which was quite brave to hit the ground running; but running in fragmented directions. I had one story at the end of Peter’s last season, and then viewers had to wait several months for the show to come back, so the audience was left thinking, “Who is this awful person” (laughs) which is brave, and perhaps too brave, I don’t know.
Well I was certainly hooked as a six-year old, which is I guess the best sort of age to be watching.
But it was a massive part of my childhood.
I’m sorry about the nightmares! (Laughs)
Well, no! It did have that effect. ‘Vengeance on Varos’ in particular. But I loved it. I wouldn’t miss an episode for anything, even though it terrified me.
Vengeance on Varos is the one most people quote as pushing the bounds of darkness. The script was written as a parody of itself in a way. It was about television being used to control the population, and that that was a bad thing. But some viewers, particularly people like Mary Whitehouse, didn’t get it. In fact what the programme was saying is “this is bad”, and showing violence on television is bad, and that’s what was happening on Varos; but she took it as happening in England! (Laughs)
It was very prescient too, of things like reality TV and ‘Big Brother’. Philip Martin was a very high calibre writer.
It still stands up now as a very good piece of drama.
I agree. He did a brilliant series, a thriller based in Birmingham called Gangsters, which was phenomenal.
Maurice Colbourne was in that.
Who you worked with on ‘Attack of the Cybermen’.
Yes. Nice man. Sadly died far too young, Maurice Colbourne.
Indeed. Weren’t you once being driven around America with Bob Peck promoting the best of the BBC? Another one who died far too young.
It was the fiftieth anniversary of BBC television. Bob Peck, Joanne Whalley and I went over to America for a couple of weeks to take part in the celebrations. Bob Peck and Joanne Whalley because of Edge of Darkness, which was the critical success of the year, and Doctor Who because as always it was the most successful programme on the PBS in America.
Do you have any memories of Peck?
I only spent those few days with him. He was a very amiable, engaging fellow. I never worked with him; but I remember Joanne Whalley more because she was pretty and a girl! (Laughs)
I reviewed something for the website recently which was from the very beginning of your TV career. Do you remember making an episode of ‘The Mind of Mr JG Reeder’ with Hugh Burden?
Lawks a-mercy! I do remember that but the detail will probably escape me unless you can remind me? I’m trying to remember what I played in it.
You were playing a young man wrongly locked up for something you hadn’t done, and Mr JG Reeder was trying to prove your innocence, and of course he does in the end and you’re let out of prison.
Do you know I can’t remember! I know I did it! I remember working with Hugh Burden because he was an actor I’d always greatly admired, but I can remember no detail whatsoever of the story. You have a copy of it?
Yes, it’s recently been released by Network DVD.
I reviewed it for the website, and you being in an episode was an added bonus. Must have been about 1970?
Yes, something like that. It was certainly one of my earlier parts. Was it a large part, I can’t remember?
You were one of the main guest parts for one episode.
Heavens to Betsy, well I must get that and have a look at it.
It’s well worth a look. I thought it was an excellent series. That was slightly before ‘War and Peace’ for the BBC. You had quite a big part in that one.
That was Prince Anatole. That was fabulous because I got to work with Anthony Hopkins before he was ANTHONY HOPKINS if you see what I mean! He was Anthony Hopkins then but now he’s in capital letters. That was wonderful because not only was he a great actor, but I would regard him as a friend at that time. We went out and spent evenings together and I greatly enjoyed his company. He’s a very witty, entertaining man, and if anyone deserves to do well, it’s him. I’m so glad. He hasn’t sent me any of his millions, but there you are! I’ll let him off (laughs)!
You do a bit of writing as well because you’ve been keeping a column for the Bucks Free Press a number of years now.
Yes, I think this is my fifteenth or sixteenth year. I’ve written a weekly article. I must find out if there’s any record involved in that because usually when people do a weekly article, it sometimes says, “So and so is away this week,” but I’ve never missed one yet. In fifteen years every Friday, there it is, in the paper, the poor people have to read the thoughts of Colin Baker. Whether its badgers with TB; or bad behaviour on the trains; or the play I’m doing at the moment; whatever sparks my fury or compassion that week. It’s been anthologised into a book [Look Who’s Talking]. A publisher called Tim Hirst approached me and asked if he could do that, and of course I said “yes”, and now it’s gone to a second volume. I’m very pleased about that.
So people outside Bucks can read it too.
Yes, though it’s available on the Bucks Free Press website. The current article, plus the last four or five are there. People can post comments as well, and they do! (Laughs)
It’s been an absolute pleasure and a privilege talking to you.
Well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you.
All the best with the rest of the run of House of Ghosts, and thank you for talking to us today, Colin Baker.