Tom Baker’s other doctor

Between Rasputin in Nicholas and Alexandra (covered in a previous mewsings) and the evil Prince Koura in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Tom Baker played the part of the Egyptian Doctor in George Bernard Shaw’s The Millionairess, which was put on as a Play of the Month by the BBC in 1972, and is available as part of a George Bernard Shaw BBC box-set. (Which, fortunately, can be rented as individual disks from LoveFilm.)

It’s another example of Baker’s career following a train of thought, as he’s cast, once more, in the role of a fascinating foreigner; but, in a departure from the two film roles that bracket this TV performance, the Egyptian Doctor is not a villain. He even manages to have a touch of Doctor Who about him, being a benevolent scientist with absolutely no interest in, or knack for, money, but a strong desire to do good for the needy.

There’s little room in Shaw’s wordy play for much in the way of character development on the part of the actor, though — and certainly none for the sort of improvisation that brought life to Baker’s Doctor Who. Despite Shaw’s claim that The Millionairess “does not pretend to be anything more than a comedy of humorous and curious contemporary characters such as Ben Jonson might write were he alive now”, it is, as always with Shaw, far more a political argument than a play about people. I always find Shaw’s plays to be made up of wit and tedium and very little in between, with only the few, better, plays having enough of the former to really make up for the latter. (Heartbreak House and Saint Joan are my favourites.) At his best, Shaw can be very engaging in an argument — never failing to bring in an arresting paradox or two to really strike home his point — but after a while, in a drama at least, the constant paradoxes and cross-arguments leave me completely confused as to what point he’s trying to make. (The prefaces to the plays are far more informative, and entertaining, on that score.) If a Shaw play works at all, it’s because interesting characters emerge from the points he’s trying to make, rather than the other way round. And The Millionairess is not really one of his successes.

Still, there’s something a little Shavian about Tom Baker’s later interpretation of Doctor Who, some of the seeds of which can be found in his Egyptian Doctor — the grandiloquence, the generosity, the constant sprinkling of humour. And, of course, as always, that bulbous-eyed under-the-brow stare:

And sometimes balloons go pop…

George Bernard Shaw on Democracy:

…I am going to ask you to begin our study of Democracy by considering it first as a big balloon, filled with gas or hot air, and sent up so that you shall be kept looking up at the sky whilst other people are picking your pockets. When the balloon comes down to earth every five years or so you are invited to get into the basket if you can throw out one of the people who are sitting tightly in it; but as you can afford neither the time nor the money, and there are forty millions of you and hardly room for six hundred in the basket, the balloon goes up again with much the same lot in it and leaves you where you were before. I think you will admit that the balloon as an image of Democracy corresponds to the parliamentary facts.

— from the Preface to The Apple Cart