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Pertwee, Jon (1919-1996)

Actor, Presenter

Main image of Pertwee, Jon (1919-1996)

John Devon Roland Pertwee (he dropped the 'h' from 'John' after a playbill mis-spelled his name in the 1930s) was born in Kensington on 7 July 1919 into a theatrical family. His parents, actor-playwright Roland Pertwee and stage actress Avice Scholtz, separated when he was young and he was raised by his paternal grandmother. Brother Michael would later become a film and stage writer and cousin Bill a comic actor.

Pertwee auditioned for the Central School of Dramatic Arts but was failed for having a pronounced sibilant 's'. Undeterred, he was accepted by RADA in 1936 but later expelled after refusing to play a Greek Wind.

A varied early career in rep theatre and music hall followed. He played a small part in To Kill a Cat in the West End alongside popular radio actor John Salew. One day Salew was unable to attend a radio commitment so sent Pertwee in his place - the producer was so impressed he hired Pertwee as his replacement. Pertwee also worked as a background artiste at Denham Studios, making an uncredited appearance in A Yank at Oxford (d. Jack Conway, 1938).

Pertwee served in the Navy in WWII - he was transferred from HMS Hood only shortly before it was sunk by the Bismark - and among various postings worked briefly in Naval Intelligence at Westminster alongside future Prime Minister Jim Callaghan.

His wartime experiences served him well when he joined BBC armed forces radio comedy Mediterranean Merry-Go-Round in December 1945. Navy spin-off Waterlogged Spa followed in 1948 - among the many characters Pertwee played was the Postman, who earned his own radio series Puffney Post Office in 1950. Pertwee's greatest radio success, The Navy Lark, began in 1959 and ran for 18 years.

Two television specials of Merry-Go-Round had appeared as early as 1947, but Pertwee's TV appearances at this time were mostly limited to guest slots on variety bills such as The Dickie Henderson Show, although he starred with Norman Evans in four sitcom/variety specials Evans Abode (BBC, 1956-57).

Pertwee took notable cameos in three Carry On movies between 1964 and 1966 (all d. Gerald Thomas); ...Screaming, ...Cleo and ...Cowboy. His stage career was also doing well and in 1967 he found himself in There's a Girl in My Soup on Broadway. It was while there that he was invited to star in an armed forces BBC sitcom by Jimmy Perry and David Croft. Pertwee having turned it down, Perry turned to Arthur Lowe to play Captain Mainwaring in what turned out to be Dad's Army (BBC, 1968-77).

Although passing up one shot at television immortality, in January 1969 Pertwee was approached to take over from Patrick Troughton as Doctor Who (BBC, 1963-89; 1996; 2005- ). Producer Peter Bryant imagined Pertwee the entertainer playing it funny voices but on the advice of old friend Shaun Sutton (then BBC Head of Drama) Pertwee played it 'as himself'.

Pertwee brought his love of gadgets and fast cars to the role. The third Doctor drove a vintage car, Bessie, and Pertwee even got his own exotic custom car onto the programme as 'the Whomobile'. Debuting in January 1970 with the series' first colour episodes, his Doctor was less anti-authority than his predecessors, stranded on Earth and throwing in his lot with paramilitary organisation UNIT. Slightly showy, operatic and vain, wearing flamboyant velvet jackets and silk-lined cloaks, the character drew on Pertwee's own unabashed showmanship. Nine million viewers regularly tuned in. The death in a car crash of his co-star Roger Delgado, who had played arch-enemy The Master, prompted a steady exodus of personnel and Pertwee bowed out in June 1974.

Pertwee returned to the stage and also took part in some British films typical of the era including children's matinée (Wombling Free, d. Lionel Jeffries, 1977; One Of Our Dinosaurs is Missing, d. Robert Stevenson, 1975) and sex comedy (Adventures of a Private Eye, d. Stanley A.Long, 1977). He remained a television face, hosting mystery panel game Whodunnit? (ITV, 1972-8) from its second series onwards.

Straight acting roles eluded him until Worzel Gummidge (ITV, 1979-81; 87-89), which he helped develop, create and promote. It produced the best performances of his career, mixing slapstick and intimate, sentimental scenes. Pertwee then voiced cartoons Superted (S4C/BBC, 1983-86; 1990) and The Little Green Man (ITV, 1985) and was to be the lead in Starwatch but although he made a pilot tape in 1989 the children's sci-fi series never transpired.

When the BBC cancelled Doctor Who in 1989, Pertwee starred in stage show The Ultimate Adventure, also recreating his role in television appearances, advertising and two radio serials in 1993 and 1996. He remains perhaps the second best recalled Doctor Who after Tom Baker.

Pertwee was philosophical about a lack of acting parts. "Somehow I seem to have been gently bypassed as a serious actor. Too long enjoying life and working in Light Entertainment perhaps." He felt that a guest role in crime drama Virtual Murder (BBC, 1992) was among his best.

Pertwee continued working until his sudden death of a heart attack in 1996. He has two children, actors Sean and Dariel Pertwee. There were two autobiographies; Moon Boots and Dinner Suits (1984) and I Am the Doctor (1996, with David J. Howe).

Alistair McGown

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Carry On Cleo (1964)Carry On Cleo (1964)

Comedy in which two British slaves end up in Ancient Rome and Egypt

Thumbnail image of Carry On Cowboy (1965)Carry On Cowboy (1965)

Western parody: a hapless Marshall attempts to clean us Stodge City

Thumbnail image of Carry On Screaming! (1966)Carry On Screaming! (1966)

The Carry On team take on Hammer in this spoof horror comedy

Thumbnail image of Doctor Who: The Green Death (1973)Doctor Who: The Green Death (1973)

The Doctor and Jo battle giant maggots to prevent global pollution

Thumbnail image of Worzel Gummidge (1979-81)Worzel Gummidge (1979-81)

Children's series with Jon Pertwee as the living scarecrow

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Thumbnail image of Doctor Who (1963-89, 2005-)Doctor Who (1963-89, 2005-)

Recently regenerated time-travelling adventures

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