It was twenty years ago today, on Monday 20th May 1996, that we lost the irrepressible, the inspirational, the uniquely talented man that was Jon Pertwee.
John Devon Roland Pertwee was born in July 1919 in London, a few months after the end of World War One. He joined a long established theatrical family, the son of the actor and playwright Roland.
Pertwee had a varied education after being expelled from a number of minor public schools. From the start his firm convictions and refusal to bow to authority, created friction with those in power and forced his premature departure. The same happened when he trained as an actor where, at RADA, despite rave reviews from a visiting Noel Coward, he was eventually dismissed for refusing to play a Greek wind.
In 1939 War broke out and Pertwee joined the Royal Navy. He was a member of the crew of HMS Hood, escorting Russian Convoys, transferring off the ship just three days before it was sunk with the loss of all but 3 hands. Joining Navel Intelligence he was thrust into the world of espionage, working alongside James Bond creator Ian Fleming and reporting directly to the Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The full extent of His top secret work was not revealed until an interview was published long after his death.
Post war he began making a career as a jobbing stage actor and Radio Comedian. His talent for accents gained him a role in Waterlogged Spa playing an ancient postman. His success was rapid and by 1948 he was being billed as The Most Versatile Voice in Radio. His longest running role was as Chief Petty Officer Pertwee in The Navy Lark, which he played from 1959-1977.
Small roles in feature films followed, including parts in four Carry On films, as well as a burgeoning stage career. He appeared in the 1963 London production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and on Broadway in There’s a Girl in My Soup
In 1967 he was offered the role of Captain Mainwaring in the BBC Comedy Dad’s Army, a role he turned down.
The role that would define him came in 1970 when he was offered the role of the Third Doctor. He was second choice for the role, behind Oliver! actor Ron Moody, but it was a role he embraced and made his own. Initially unsure how to play the role he was advised to play it as himself. “Who the hell is that?” he exclaimed.
Pertwee’s era redefined the show, with the inclusion of UNIT as a regular part of the narrative. The bond formed between the main players was obvious on screen and for many it would be regarded as the golden age of the drama. The team chemistry between Pertwee, Manning, Courtney, Franklin, Levene and Delgado, lead by the production team of Letts and Dicks, created a warm family feeling to the programme and ratings grew after declining towards the end of the second Doctor’s era.
The team began to break up towards the end of 1973. Katy Manning decided to move on and was replaced actress April Walker. Pertwee objected, feeling the chemistry was wrong and Walker was replaced by the more acceptable Elisabeth Sladen who developed a strong bond with Pertwee. By far the biggest loss was the death of Roger Delgado, who was killed in a car crash while filming in Turkey. The loss of his friend affected Pertwee deeply and when producer Barry Letts and Scripts Editor Terrance Dicks announced they were also leaving, he decided to call it a day. He had appeared in 128 episodes of the series, over 52 hours of television.
Post Who Pertwee charmed a new audience, playing the scarecrow Worzel Gummidge in the Southern TV series as well as educating a nations youth in the correct way to cross the road as the voice of the Green Cross Code.
In 1983 he returned to the role of the Doctor in the 20th Anniversary special The Five Doctors. In 1989 he toured the UK in the stage play Doctor Who – The Ultimate Adventure and three years later performed in two BBC Radio Drama’s, The Paradise of Death and The Ghosts of N-Space.
Jon Pertwee was active on the early convention scene, appearing at events on both sides of the Atlantic. He persuaded he old friend Patrick Troughton to attend and their mock feud entertained fans around the world, although it left Terry Wogan perplexed when he tried in on Children In Need. He was the Honorary President of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society.
Pertwee died in the USA in 1996 at the age of 76. His death was shocking as he was so full of life, so irrepressible, so irreplaceable. He was survived by his wife Ingeborg Rhoesa, his son Sean Pertwee, and his daughter Dariel Pertwee.
The mark Jon Pertwee made on the series can never be over estimated and he legacy will live on as long as Doctor Who is remembered. Twenty years on we remember the wonderful, inspirational, immense talent that was Jon Pertwee and thank him for being part of our lives.