Along with Dave Martin, and collectively known as the Bristol Boys, Bob Baker was responsible for some of the most memorable Doctor Who stories of the 1970s, including The Claws of Axos, The Three Doctors and The Hand of Fear, as well as being the lead writer on several of the Wallace & Gromit films. Bob has recently written his autobiography, K9 Stole My Trousers.
Starburst: What prompted you to write your autobiography now?
Bob Baker: I hadn’t thought about it at all during my career, and then there was a bit of a gap coming up in the work I was doing; a film was being made and the money went down. So I just had nothing else to do. My agent was looking around for extra work and my wife, who’d always told me to get moving on my autobiography, said, “Now you’ve got time to do it.” And I thought, “Oh dear.” I wasn’t confident at all about writing an autobiography, I’d only written scripts before and I thought, it’ll be quite different writing a book. But I thought I may as well, with the help of a mate of mine, Laurie Booth, who did loads and loads of tapes with me and helped me out with pictures and that sort of thing. I started, and I did about two pages one day and another page the next and thought, ‘This is really hard.’ But as I stayed with it, I found I was doing more and I was remembering more, and the more I remembered, the more I remembered off the back of that. So it began to get quite interesting, and exciting, and I found I was revealing stuff that was deep down inside from way back. And I began to enjoy it. But it’s nothing heavy, it’s just me saying this is how it was. I got the idea of the spirit of the thing basically from Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson’s book, the sort of gentle stuff about when you’re a kid, and then you get to the actual adult life through various trials and tribulations, I suppose you could call it. I suppose in my forward-brain I didn’t really want to do it, but then I thought, I’ve started it so I’ll finish.
You’ve had a more interesting and successful life than most people would realise.
More than I realise! I had a very kind man send me the IMDb of everything I’ve done and the dates and who was in it. As I went through it I thought, ‘My God, how did we ever get it in?’ However did Dave and I do so much work in the 1970s? But then in the 1980s I didn’t carry on at the same speed! I think you get to a nadir and then you suddenly jump up from there. I met Nick Park and we talked about doing some things together at Aardman, and look what happened.
Did you prefer writing children’s series, or for adults?
I don’t mind which, honestly. It’s the story that matters. If somebody says to me, it’s a young adult thing or a children’s thing or a teenage thing, you just adapt to that, and then the story takes over. It doesn’t seem to matter to me. I mean obviously, you keep certain things out of it for children. But to me it’s just drama, you just take it and do your best. If you’re dealing with characters who are adults, they have adult dialogue and actions, and similarly, when you’re doing it for younger people, you usually have a younger character in it anyway, and you have to think through their eyes, through their brain. That’s when you get the difference between it being a Bergerac or being a children’s series like Into the Labyrinth or something like that. In particular I did a teenage thing called Jangles, which was for teenagers and was where we discussed teenagers’ problems, something that teenagers would be interested in and understand and recognise. The thing was, Jangles was set in what was called a disco then, with a DJ and a bar and all that sort of stuff, and we had big, well-known groups each week – I mean big names, big names each week – and so what I did was, I made the story in the nightclub the real story which was in colour, and everything outside of it was in black and white. I mean, not filmed in black and white; we had such cooperation from the designers, they created the home where the characters lived in black and white, with black and white Corn Flakes packets, black and white furniture, but they, the characters themselves, the people were in colour. It was a most amazing effort, really great, but it’s one of those things that’s since disappeared.
You and Dave Martin were collectively known as “The Bristol Boys”...
I was born in Bristol but Dave wasn’t; he came from Birmingham. He came to Bristol University, that’s how he ended up in Bristol, and when he finished at Bristol he got the job here, with Harrison Cowley, a kind of up-market agency for commercials, and he was writing commercials.
So how did the two of you meet?
I ran a little shop, a late-night shop, and I stocked Gauloises for him, and he came in just as I was about to close most nights, to get another packet of fags. And we started talking, and suddenly realised that we both had a similar ambition, that we wanted to write movies. Well, he had a very, very good job, I mean he was earning massive amounts of money, compared to most people anyway; when you’re in advertising, it’s quite the big thing. I was working on a particular thing, and he said, “Let’s write it.” So we just started writing; it was Peter Grimes, the poem by George Crabbe. I’d met a few people in the film industry when I was at college, and I sent it to them, and amazingly enough it nearly got made. We got within a month or two of actually casting people and getting the show on the road. Having got so close with the first one we thought, ‘Why don’t we just carry on?’ And for about two years we didn’t get any work, we just kept piling up script after script after script, until we had a roomful, really, of ideas and scripts and bits and pieces.
Which is still good practice for when things do start getting made.
Absolutely. You need to exercise, as it were, keep your mind going, keep your brain working on new stories. I’d work on stories in one room and he’d work on stories in another, and we’d come together and say, “Let’s put that together with so-and-so,” and we’d lodge ourselves there. But Dave wasn’t as happy as I was, doing Doctor Who. For me, I’d watched them from the very beginning, I just absolutely adored it, and to write it was for me just an absolute “Wow” – kind of my zenith. But it wasn’t so for Dave, he didn’t feel the same way. But Dave was ace at the business of story construction, and we somehow fitted together. I won’t say “Lennon and McCartney”! But he had a kind of hard edge, where I was a lot softer. I wrote the jokes! An oversimplification, but I was trying to move it forward – I can’t explain it. It’s something that worked, and it’s shown to have worked because of the stuff we’ve done.
Did you ask to do Doctor Who, or did they come to you?
They came to us. We’d sent them something, and they’d had word from on-high: “You’ve got to get some new writers on Doctor Who.” So they read this outline that we’d sent and said, “Let’s try these two and see how they get on.” We met up with Terrance and a few others, the producer was Derrick Sherwin at the time, and that’s how it started. But it took a year before they let us loose on a script; we just had to keep writing one- or two-page outlines for a year, until we got it right. It’s really funny how it all happened. We got on so well with Bob, it was really incredible, we were very good mates and Dave and I always went down the pub, down the Bush with him for a few drinks after we’d finished a script. He gave us a few story ideas for other things, Z Cars and stuff like that which we were doing. He used to be a copper and he told us lots of super stories, which of course we worked into our Z Cars stories. These would be events that happened in his life, and we would then use the idea of that event as a piece of the script. But that’s how you do it anyway, I mean, I went out to a pub once and I heard some bloke talking and I thought, ‘My God!’ It was the most amazing line he came out with and I went straight back and put it in a script. It sounds terrible, like I was hanging around pubs, but you talk to people and you hear people talking and you pick up all sorts of interesting stuff. Gleaning from the field, as it were.
Did you and writing partner Dave Martin part company on good terms?
Absolutely. Dave said, “Look, I don’t want to go on doing this, I want to write novels.” And I thought, ‘Hmmn, dark clouds looming up for me. What’s it going to be like writing on my own, I’ve never done that.’ When it came to it, I wished him the best and he wished me the best, and I went towards the production side of things a bit more, script editing and eventually producing at HTV, and he went off and wrote novels. He wrote four detective novels, police detective novels, that sold reasonably well I think. But he was a lot happier doing that, being alone in his room smoking his Gauloises.
Writing novels doesn’t bring the same time pressures as writing TV.
That’s the thing, you see, we were under tremendous pressure, but I don’t think we ever missed a deadline. If you’re doing Doctor Who and Z Cars and a couple of single plays for HTV and a bit of script editing all at the same time, that’s quite a balancing job.
How did you meet Nick Park?
I’d just got back from Czechoslovakia, a total disaster of a film. Everything went wrong, all the money went down and everything; the usual things that go wrong with a film – everything went wrong with this one. So I came back pretty depressed and I thought, ‘What the hell do I do now?’ Then I had a phone call from Dave Sproxton – I knew the Aardmans from when they began, because they were in Bristol as well, and I’d tried to get them some work at HTV when I was working there. Apparently the BBC said they would like a further Wallace & Gromit after A Grand Day Out, but had suggested that Nick get hold of a writer to help him. Dave Sproxton knew me, and the head of animation at the BBC also knew me, from way back – he was a director, and he’d directed some stuff I’d done. So he said, “Why don’t we try Bob Baker? He’s just down the road, as it were.” So then they put me with Nick to see how we got on. We got on very well.
The Australian K9 series, how did that come about?
It took eleven years to get that off the ground. We went to the BBC and it was turned down three times. And then just as Doctor Who was coming up on the horizon, the new one with Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant, we thought, ‘This is fantastic, we could do the K9, and it will chime in with that.’ But they decided to do Sarah Jane, which was kind of ‘space science fiction on the estate’. It was an odd thing to do, but they obviously wanted it like that for some reason, I think. And they got peculiarly unpleasant about us doing the one in Australia. Which had its problems. And because of all that, we had to put too much power in the hands of the Australians, and Disney, particularly, who seemed to think that they ruled the roost. They didn’t put the full amount of money up for the show, but they seemed to think that they were going to run it. But that’s another story.
So did you use the book as an opportunity to exorcise any demons?
There were occasions when I felt I had to “bleed myself”, as it were, of these feelings that I had, though I have not used it in any way to attack anyone or anything like that. But I’ve really got rid of some of the frustrations about script editors changing your scripts; as a writer, that’s the real thing. I suppose writing it was a kind of catharsis: “These swines have changed the script!” I never had any problem on Doctor Who. It was mostly on ITV: Thames, people like that. That’s where you got pretty heavy, arbitrary rewrites. Usually they’d just go through it and take all the jokes out, and you’d think ‘Why have they taken that out?!’ Because they didn’t think of it I suppose!
How did you come up with the name for the book?
It’s just that writers, as always, are the least well-known among the general public. So writing the book, it was difficult to think, ‘What do I call it? Do I call it “Bob Baker, An Autobiography”? Or do I do something crazy?’ – which I decided to do in the end, and call it K9 Stole My Trousers, to get people who wouldn’t have thought about it, to pick it up and have a look, and say, “That might be interesting.” We’ll see!
K9 Stole My Trousers is available now from Fantom Films. Bob Baker speaks at greater length about his involvement with Doctor Who in a future edition of Starburst.