Peevish actors are descending mournfully upon the remote English village of Happenstance for the funeral of TV legend Tom Baker. His one-time co-star Suzy Goshawk is sucked into a parochial vortex of intrigue involving the quailsome local vicar, Tom’s acidulous housekeeper Mrs Frimbly and various other fruminous scrumblebums. None of them can agree upon how Tom met his disastrous end and Suzy is starting to suspect that something murksome and swervish is going on. The snow comes down and Suzy finds herself trapped at Baker’s End for Christmas, with all the village’s creepy pensioners enslaved by a strange, dancing dragon… and a Sinister Presence lurking on the sidelines. Why are old ladies twerking their bottoms outside the post office-cum-mini-mart? Why is the vicar creeping about in the bushes in the dead of night? And why, just when all looks hopeless, does a strange, scobberlotching creature sproing into view? Who exactly is The King of Cats in his furry costume and his battered golden crown? Also, there are elderly mumblecrusts who shoot lasers out of their knockers.
You may think that you’ve heard almost everything that audio has to offer, that the life and times of Tom Baker are whimsically madcap.. but you’ve seemingly got a grasp on the triumvirate of the man, the myth and the legend… but you clearly haven’t had the pleasure of Baker’s End, the latest collaboration between Baker and writer Paul Magrs. Heavy on the meta and the surreal, the first episode of Baker’s End, The King of Cats is exactly what you’d expect if Tom were let loose on the world – part Alice in Wonderland, part Roald Dahl, part evidence in an insanity accusation.
Suzy Goshawk, a one-time co-star of Tom (played by the ever wonderful Katy Manning) is on the way to Happenstance, a quaint English village, for the sad occasion of the passing of Tom Baker. While nobody seems to know how exactly Tom met his end, it seems he’d been acting strangely of late, believing fans had been replaced by doppelgängers. Failing to find answers, Suzy is soon cut-off from the outside world by a snowstorm and forced to spend Christmas at the late Tom Baker’s former residence. Soon things take a surreal and sinister turn with Suzy confronted by twerking old ladies, tarot readings, sinister buskers, an odd man in a cat costume and much much more besides.
There was a danger given the subject-matter, the death of Tom Baker, the script could have become morbid, somber or even descend into bad taste, yet Paul Magrs has crafted both a symbolically moving and funny script while remaining at his most surreal, playing homage to the dark and macabre visions of Tom Baker. Gripping, yet proceeding at a gentle pace, we can’t help wishing the play had been longer, particularly with a somewhat hasty finish. Yet there are enough questions raised to whet the appetite for the second instalment and you can’t help but wonder what the minds of Baker and Magrs can possibly come up with next.
Making his grand entrance into proceedings at the halfway point, this is Tom firmly in his element, relishing the rich material offered by Paul Magrs and clearly having a whale of a time throughout, dominating (yet never overshadowing) proceedings as only Tom can do. Yet this is not a solo offering and Katy Manning is more than her co-stars equal here, playing off Baker wonderfully, her straight role acting as the perfect juxtaposition to Tom’s insanity. Susan Jameson (Mrs Wibbsey in the Nest Cottage Trilogy) meanwhile returns to familiar ground as Tom’s sinister housekeeper Mrs Frimbly. Given Tom’s delightful performance, this is very much peak Tom Baker, yet we’re never quite sure how much is “acting” and how much is Tom being Tom. It’s both amazing and incredibly worrying to believe this sort of thing might just happen to him every day.
Whimsical, macabre and delightfully bonkers, Baker’s End will not be for everyone. Full of enough Doctor Who references to please fans however, those who’d enjoy a collision between Magr’s Nest Cottage plays and Tom novel The Boy Who Kicked Pigs will find much to adore here. A recommended release from Bafflegab Productions and a highly encouraging start to the series with the second episode, Gobbleknoll Hall, released this November.