Saturday, 21 May 2016


This week, it's been twenty years since actor, showman and raconteur
Jon Pertwee died. When I was little, for me he was Dr. Who.

Jon Pertwee, Nicholas Courtney (The Brigadier) and Katy Manning
(Jo Grant) with young admirers at the BBC TV Special Effects
Exhibition in December 1972. (Image copyright: Getty)

‘There’s a Starman waiting in the sky
He’d like to come and meet us but he thinks he’d blow our minds.’

The cloak, the velvet jacket, the white hair, the rich voice, the yellow car, the Venusian karate, UNIT... how could a 6 year-old not fall in love with Jon Pertwee as Dr. Who?

I was at primary school throughout Jon’s run. Funnily enough, when he left in 1974, I left to go to middle school, just in time for Tom Baker’s ragamuffin intellectual, who turned out to be the ideal companion through adolescence. But the early 1970s was a special time Doctor Who-wise: everyone was of an age when they loved the programme unconditionally. We’d run around the playground being Sea Devils, Ice Warriors and, of course, Daleks.

There’s a marvellous arc to the Third Doctor’s character. Initially avuncular, by the 1971 season he’s titanically pissed off at being stuck on Earth, assaulting Captain Yates and short-tempered with establishment figures like Professor Kettering and Chinn. By the next year, he’s no longer critical of the Brigadier’s methods; at the end of the next, his hearts are broken when Jo leaves UNIT. Completing the transformation from exile to defender of the Earth, in his final moments he tells Sarah Jane and the Brigadier that ‘the TARDIS brought me home.’ No wonder I cried when he died.

Jon’s reign was the first time I went to London, at the tender age of 8. I’d entered the 1972 Win-A-Dalek Radio Times Competition but hadn’t got as far as getting one of the winners’ certificates with its stylish Frank Bellamy illustration. Nevertheless, when I found out there was going to be a display of competition art and Doctor Who monsters at Kensington’s Science Museum, Mum and Dad indulgently organised a minibus for me and my friends to come down from Lowestoft to see the BBC Special Effects and Tutankhamen exhibitions. I can still remember Dad trying to zap the Daleks with the controls in the TARDIS you were allowed to operate (the console was barricaded off, retaining the mystique). All these years later, I’ve still got the ‘TARDIS Commander’ badge.

Pertwee comics were brilliant, too. Countdown/TV Action always seemed to have Doctor Who on the cover, perhaps because artist Gerry Haylock did a fantastic likeness of Jon.

Roll the moviola to 1978 and the second Doctor Who Appreciation Society convention. I returned to Kensington six years after my first visit to see Jon Pertwee walking down the steps of the lecture hall, haloed by flash bulbs and loving it. It was Tom Baker’s comment from Whose Doctor Who, ‘Jon’s like a tall light bulb – he glitters’ to the life. It brings a tear to the eye now to remember that when he took to the stage, he knelt down and bowed to the assembled fans. That guy knew how to play an audience.

For me, his best ever convention appearance – and the last time I saw him in person – was at one of the DWAS Panopticons in Coventry in the 1990s, when he talked engagingly and amusingly about his long career. Obviously lashed up to a few large vodka and tonics in the green room beforehand, his anecdotes took a risqué turn with a story about his posterior becoming stuck to a toilet seat. Said toilet seat was unscrewed and an embarrassed Pertwee retired to bed face-down while his very gay GP was summoned. ‘Have you ever seen anything like this before?’ Jon sheepishly inquired. The doctor replied without hesitation, ‘Yes, but never framed.’

Importantly, there isn’t a bad Jon Pertwee Doctor Who story. OK, if you’re going to be harsh and cynical and if you have to choose one with an arm twisted up behind your back, it’s probably ‘The Monster of Peladon’, but by the standards of Jon’s era, ‘bad’ still means committed performances, great film sequences and a galloping narrative pace. Even at this late stage, everyone involved still cared. We’re not talking ‘Timelash’ here.

My favourite of Jon's Doctor Who series is his first. Watching it now, it’s very striking how there’s no mention at all of his Time Lord background. If you’d never seen ‘The War Games’, you’d think the Doctor was an evolved super scientist who’d invented a time and space machine that’s broken down. Being more than human makes him an outsider among them, and in the British establishment UNIT works for: in short, he’s a man who fell to Earth. I still wonder if producers Derrick Sherwin and Peter Bryant and script editor Terrance Dicks had read Walter Tevis’ novel (which, curiously enough, was first published in 1963).

Postscript: I was never a huge fan of Jon’s Worzel Gummidge, but I could see how good it was. The scarecrows, ship’s figureheads and Aunt Sallys come-to-life are like grown up, selfish children, and that’s brilliant material for actors to work with – just look at Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills (1979). Pertwee’s commitment to the lead role is evident in every frame and shows what a talented  and underrated  character actor he was.

‘There’s a Starman waiting in the sky
He’d like to come and meet us but he thinks he’d blow our minds.’

Dear Jon – you did.

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