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Jon Pertwee - A Life

By Paul Scoones

John Devon Roland Pertwee (Pertwee is a modification of the original French Huguenot family name Perthuis de Laillevault), was born 7 July 1919 in Chelsea, London. His parents, Roland and Avice, divorced shortly after Jon's birth; they had been living apart for some time and Jon was conceived on Armistice Day, 11 November 1918, when they had met up again by chance during the celebrations.

Jon and his older brother Michael remained with their father, who was a distinguished playwright, actor and novelist. Jon and Michael lived for a time with their Grandmother and their Uncle Guy at Caterham in Surrey, and then returned to live with their father in South Kensington after Roland remarried in 1927.

Jon was sent to Aldro boarding school in Eastborne at the age of seven, but was expelled for swinging on the lavatory chains Tarzan-style. Between schools, Jon visited a friend of his father's, A.A. Milne, and met his son Christopher Robin Milne, who introduced him to his toys, Piglet, Owl, Kanga, Roo and Winnie the Pooh.

Jon's second boarding school was Wellington House preparatory in Westgate-on-Sea, Kent, and it was here that he decided to become an actor, a career that was encouraged by the headmaster and his wife, who assisted Jon to put on evenings of performance entitled 'Pertwee's Delights'. At the age of thirteen Jon left went to the public school Sherborne in Dorset, from which he was expelled for threatening a prefect after being repeatedly bullied by two senior boys.

At the age of fifteen, Jon re-established contact with his mother Avice whom he had previously believed had died. After this reunion Jon and Avice were at first close but later drifted apart when Jon realised that his mother disliked acknowledging him as her son in public. Avice died aged sixty in 1948.

Jon's next school was the co-educational Frensham Heights, near Farnham in Surrey, which he entered in 1935, aged sixteen. At this school Jon helped to construct an open-air theatre in which he and his fellow pupils put on two plays, Twelfth Night, and Lady Precious Stream. It was for the latter play that Jon received his first and very positive review in the local paper, describing his role as 'an outstanding performance'. Jon cites Frensham Heights as the first time in his life that he enjoyed learning.

Leaving school, Jon announced to his father that he wanted to be an actor. Jon's Uncle Guy, a teacher at the Central School of Dramatic Art, arranged for Jon to have an interview there but he was turned down, being told that he had a malformation of the jaw which caused a lisp. This sealed Jon's determination, and he auditioned for, and was accepted by, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in 1936. Jon returned to live with his grandmother in Caterham until her death from cancer later that same year, after which he moved back in with his father. Roland Pertwee was Governor of RADA at the time of Jon's attendance, but his father's position won Jon no favours, and indeed Jon was eventually asked to leave. Cast as a Greek wind in the chorus of Euripides' Iphigena, Jon refused to perform the part on the grounds that the role was too boring. Jon was subsequently summoned to the Principal, Sir Kenneth Barnes, who voiced the opinion that Jon had no talent whatsoever, and was consequently asked to leave RADA at the end of term. In the meantime however, Jon performed in a J.B. Priestly play, playing two small parts. Noel Coward was in the audience and after the play informed Sir Kenneth Barnes that there were two young men with definite talent - the one who played the man who was murdered in the first act, and the detective who found out who murdered him in the third - both roles had been played by Jon Pertwee. In later years Jon recalls meeting the great character actor Charles Laughton who reassured him that 'All the best people get chucked out of RADA.'

Jon next obtained a place in Hugh McKay and Eleanor Elder's Arts League of Service Travelling Theatre, which travelled around the countryside in a converted double-decker bus. The Arts League disbanded in 1937, and Jon began searching for employment in a good repertory company. Finally Jon's agents found him a place in J. Baxter-Somerville's Repertory Players at the Springfield Theatre in Jersey, a position that was short-lived due to Jon playing practical jokes on the company's leading man which caused his dismissal. It was while in Jersey that he decided to alter the spelling of his name from John to Jon after it was misprinted this way on a play bill. Jon's next attachment was to the Rex Lesley-Smith Repertory Players in Brighton, which he joined in April 1938, and appeared in plays including Love from a Stranger and Candida.

Pertwee had developed a great love of vehicles as a teenager, owning several motorcycles on which he liked to ride at breakneck speed. Whilst in Brighton he purchased a hydroplane, which was a form of speed boat. On only his second trip out in it, the hydroplane sunk and Jon had to swim to shore.

Whilst in Brighton he fell in love with an eighteen-year-old girl called Louise Spitzel, who was recuperating from illness. When Louise returned to her home in London, Jon followed her, and her father Cecil Spitzel secured Jon an acting job. Sadly, Louise was diagnosed with a virulent form of inoperable cancer and passed away.

Jon was then engaged by a repertory company at the Festival Theatre in Cambridge, and it was whilst there that he got to meet and chat with Winston Churchill, as his daughter, Sarah, was a fellow player in the company. Jon returned in London in late 1938, determined to make a name for himself in the West End theatres. He obtained a small part in the play Judgement Day and next landed the part of the juvenile lead in one of his father's plays, To Kill a Cat, but was downgraded to an understudy following a disagreement with the director. Jon also appeared in Goodbye Mr Chips at the Q Theatre, aged nineteen and did his first radio broadcast, narrating Lillibulero in Northern Ireland.

John Salew, an actor who played roles in several radio soap operas, suggested that Jon audition for work in these programmes. Ironically, the producer hired Jon to replace John Salew, and for the next two years Jon worked on the serials Marmaduke Brown, Young Widow Jones and Stella Dallas on Radio Luxembourg, doing around twenty to twenty-five fifteen minute episodes a week. This made him quite financially well off, and he moved in with his girlfriend, Carlotta Joachim Sid'Kithan from Ceylon.

In addition to his radio roles, Jon also appeared as an extra in many films for Denham Film Studios, including Dinner at the Ritz (1936), A Yank at Oxford (1938), A Young Man's Fancy (1939) and The Four Just Men (1939). It was in this last film that Pertwee got his first speaking role, playing the part of a young politician. His father Roland, who had written the script, also had a small part on screen.

When the Second World War broke out in late 1939, Jon enlisted in the Navy as Ordinary Seaman Pertwee PJX178358, stationed at Portsmouth Naval Barracks and then transferred to HMS Vincent in Gosport as a wireless operator, and then on to HMS Collingwood in mid 1940 as a trainee telegraphist. Failing to make the grade, Jon was transferred back to Portsmouth and on 29 November 1940 was assigned to one of the largest battle cruisers in the world, the HMS Hood, which was stationed at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands off Scotland. On one occasion aboard the Hood, Jon got very drunk and acquired a green and scarlet cobra tattooed on his forearm.

In May 1941, Jon was made an Officer Cadet whilst at sea aboard the Hood, and was promptly transferred along with fifteen other Officer Cadets to a trawler to take them to the ship Dunluce Castle and back to Portsmouth. A short time later the Hood engaged the Bismarck and was sunk with the loss of 1412 out of 1415 men.

Shortly after his return to Portsmouth, Jon was caught in a bomb attack and suffered a severe head injury. When he regained consciousness he discovered that he had been presumed dead and placed in the morgue. Once Jon had recovered from his injuries, he was posted to HMS King Alfred for training, and graduated as SubLieutenant J.D.R. Pertwee, RNVR, Special Branch. Jon was then posted to HMS Valkyrie in the Isle of Man as a Divisional Officer.

On the Isle of Man Jon formed a small theatrical company called The Service Players in early 1942 and staged performances at the Gaiety Theatre. The first play he put on was Night Must Fall, followed by George and Margaret. When not involved with The Service Players, Jon formed a concert party company to entertain the Navy personnel and the locals.

Jon was then drafted to the Security Staff of Naval Intelligence in Westminster, and travelled around the country lecturing the services on the importance of security and secrets. One of his fellow employees was James Callaghan, the future British Prime Minister. When Jon's section was wound down, he was appointed to the Naval Broadcasting Section, and worked with the Overseas Recorded Broadcast Service whose responsibility it was to make radio programmes for the armed services.

Sent to investigate the Naval version of Eric Barker's services radio comedy show, Mediterranean Merry-Go-Round which was believed to be going too far with some of its jokes aimed at Government ministers, Jon stood in for an absent cast member at the performance and was subsequently invited by Eric Barker to join the cast, which Jon did three weeks later in early 1946.

Jon remained with Eric for the next five years, playing dozens of characters in Merry-Go-Round and later in the civilian spin-off Waterlogged Spa which began in September 1948. The most famous of Jon's characters in the latter series was the Postman, whose catch-phrase was 'Well, what does it matter what you do, as long as you tear 'em up?' The Postman later got his own series, Puffney Post Office which began in April 1950, and was followed by two further radio shows that showcased his talent, Pertwee Goes Round the Bend and Pertwee's Progress.

After leaving the Navy, Jon joined a vaudeville troupe and performed in a revue entitled Up the Pole which became a radio show running from 1947 to 1952. He appeared in a number of films, and his first star billing was for Will Any Gentleman...? (1953), in which he appeared alongside William Hartnell. It was while working on this film that Jon met Jean Marsh (later to become a famous actress and writer - as well as appearing in Doctor Who), and they married in 1955. Jon was an uncredited stand-in for the American comedian Danny Kaye, to whom he bore a strong resemblance, in London based scenes for the film Knock on Wood (1954).

Jon's marriage to Jean Marsh was short-lived, and by 1958 they were separated. Holidaying at a ski resort in Kitzbuhel, Jon met a German woman, Ingeborg Rhoesa, whom he married on 13 August 1960, shortly after divorcing Marsh. Jon and Ingeborg had two children, a daughter, Dariel and a son, Sean.

In 1958, the Head of BBC Radio asked Jon to come up with a new radio series. Drawing on his wartime experiences, Jon came up the initial idea for a Naval comedy programme which became The Navy Lark which ran for eighteen years and 240 episodes. The series starred Jon as Chief Petty Officer Pertwee with co-stars Leslie Phillips and Dennis Price. Price was replaced by Stephen Murray after Series Two. Other regular performers included Ronnie Barker, Michael Bates, Tenniel Evans, Richard Caldicot, Heather Chasen, Judy Cornwall, Norma Ronald and June Whitfield. After the sixth series, Jon expanded his repertoire of characters, adopting different voices for each one. One of these was the self-styled evil genius, known as 'The Master'. The series temporarily ended in 1962, and returned in 1963 as The TV Lark, a radio show featuring the same characters which only lasted for ten episodes before reverting to The Navy Lark. Jon continued to work on the show whilst appearing in Doctor Who in the early seventies.

In the sixties Jon focused on his film career, and among the many productions he appeared in were three of the Carry On films: Carry On Cleo (1964), Carry On Cowboy (1965) and Carry On Screaming (1966). Many years later, Jon also appeared in Carry On Columbus (1992). In 1969 he had a lead role in Hammer Films' The House That Dripped Blood, which was released in 1970.

In addition to his radio and film appearances' Jon continued to appear on stage in a number of productions, most notably in the Broadway hits A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and There's a Girl in my Soup.

While performing in The Navy Lark, Jon was informed by fellow actor Tenniel Evans that Patrick Troughton was leaving Doctor Who. Evans told Jon that he would make a very good replacement. Jon got his agent to approach the BBC, only to discover that his was the second name on the short list put together by producers Peter Bryant and Derrick Sherwin. Ron Moody was initially offered the part, but he turned it down. Jon however accepted the role and was advised by Shaun Sutton, an old friend of Pertwee's, who was Head of Drama at the BBC, to play the Doctor as himself. Jon was presented to the press as the new Doctor on Tuesday 17 June. He played the Third Doctor for five years and a total of 128 episodes. His departure was announced to the press on 8 February 1974. Various reasons have been offered for his departure; in recent years Jon (perhaps jokingly) claimed that he asked for more money than the BBC were prepared to pay him. Jon was concerned about becoming typecast in the role of the Doctor and the departure of several of the show's regulars of his era seems to have prompted his decision to leave the most famous role of his career.

Shortly after leaving Doctor Who, Jon replaced Edward Woodward as the host of the television quiz show Whodunnit? for Thames Television. He returned to the stage, most notably in the highly successful Irene, and took roles in films such as One of our Dinosaurs is Missing (1975) and Adventures of a Private Eye (1977).

Whilst still appearing in Doctor Who, Jon had been approached by two writers, Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse, who had written a film version of Worzel Gummidge from the books by Barbara Euphan-Todd. Hall and Waterhouse envisaged the character as being very similar to Jon's famous Postman character and therefore believed the actor was ideal to play Worzel. Jon believed the film would be a hit, and spent five years trying to interest companies in making it before finally getting Southern Television to agree to make a television series, which debuted in 1979. The show was indeed extremely popular, running for several seasons and numerous one-off specials. After Southern Television lost its franchise in 1981, Jon managed to secure a co-production deal for two further seasons to be made in New Zealand. Entitled Worzel Gummidge Down Under, these were produced from 1987 to 1989 and screened on British television, but ironically have never been seen on New Zealand television.

Jon Pertwee returned to the role of the Third Doctor several times in the eighties and nineties. In 1983, he appeared in the twentieth anniversary television special The Five Doctors, and in 1989 again played the Doctor, this time on stage in Doctor Who - The Ultimate Adventure. In 1993 he appeared on screen once more as the Third Doctor in the two part charity skit Dimensions in Time, and also played the Doctor on radio for the five-part audio Doctor Who story The Paradise of Death. The success of that production led to a sequel, the six part The Ghosts of N-Space, made in November 1994 but not transmitted until early 1996. Jon made appearances at numerous Doctor Who conventions, invariably appearing in a version of the Third Doctor's costume which he'd had made especially for such occasions.

Jon's contact with British fans led him to be invited to appear in unofficial spin-off productions. In 1989 he was interviewed by Reeltime Pictures for their Myth Makers series of video documentaries featuring Doctor Who personalities and Return to Devil's End, released in 1993, saw Jon reunited with some of his co-stars for another Reeltime Pictures video documentary, this time focusing on the making of The Daemons. In 1993, Jon appeared alongside fellow Doctor Who actors Colin Baker, Peter Davison and Sylvester McCoy in the Bill Baggs video production of a science fiction thriller called The Airzone Solution, and the cast reunited in 1994 with Baggs to make The Zero Imperative.

In the mid eighties, after a long absence from the theatre, Jon began to appear in stage productions once more, including Super Ted (1985), Worzel Gummidge (1989), Dick Wittington (1989), Aladdin (1990-91, 1991-92) and Scrooge - The Musical (1992-93, 1993-94). He also appeared in the film Carry on Columbus (1992).

In 1995, Jon began a tour of his one man show, Who is Jon Pertwee? in which he recounted anecdotes from his life. The tour continued at intervals into 1996. In recent years, Jon was dogged by ill health, and following a spinal operation in 1994 to try and relieve his continuing back pain - the result of an war injury - had to cut back on some of his numerous outdoor pursuits such as water and snow skiing.

The first volume of Jon Pertwee's autobiography, Moon Boots and Dinner Suits, covering his experiences up to the end of the war as well as memories of working on The Navy Lark, was published in 1984. A second volume, focusing primarily on his Doctor Who years, I am the Doctor! was co-written with David J Howe in 1995-6 and is due to be published by Virgin in November 1996, and a signing tour had been planned to coincide with the book's release.

In the weeks before his death, Jon was as active as ever. His last television appearance was Cilla Black's Surprise Surprise! television show, in which he appeared in costume as the Doctor to present a small boy with a life-size Dalek replica, which was broadcast 21 April 1996. On Saturday 27 April, Jon took part in a fan-organised event, The Daemons Revisited, held at Aldboume, at which he was reunited with several of the cast from his era of Doctor Who.

Jon Pertwee died of a heart attack in his sleep on 20 May 1996 in Connecticut, USA He was on holiday with his wife Ingeborg, taking a break from performing his one man show Who is Jon Pertwee? He was 76.

Doctor Who - The Seventies by David Howe, Mark Stammers & Stephen James Walker (1994).
Moon Boots and Dinner Suits by Jon Pertwee (1984).
Doctor Who Magazine Issue 241 (July 1996)
Celestial Toyroom Issue 231 (June 1996)
Data Extract Issue 120 (June 1996).

This item appeared in TSV 48 (August 1996).