Scholars’ Spotlight: Jon Pertwee

Early Years

John Devon Roland Pertwee was born in the affluent London neighborhood of Chelsea on July 7, 1919. His father, Roland, an accomplished writer and actor, and his mother Avice, also an actress divorced when John was very a small child. Jon’s brother Michael was three years his senior and would become a notable writer for tv series including The Saint and Secret Agent.
When he reached school age young Jon was shipped off to Wellington House preparatory school in Westgate-On-Sea in Kent. Pertwee was a rebellious and rambunctious child and was encouraged by the school’s faculty to apply himself to the school’s theatre program based on his familial background.
Pertwee’s antics at the school only got worse and he was eventually expelled. This pattern of misbehavior and expulsion followed him at a few other schools until he eventually settled in at Frensham Heights School in Rowledge.
When it came time to further his education Pertwee applied to the Central School of Speech & Drama but was denied admittance because he had a lisp. Instead, he attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and graduated in 1939.
While studying at school, Pertwee had worked as a circus performer driving a motorcycle with a toothless lion sitting in the sidecar. By the age of eighteen, Pertwee was under contract with the BBC as an actor.

World War II and Beyond

Pertwee began the 1940s in military service for Britain during the Second World War. The actor spent six years in the Royal Navy and performed a variety of jobs during this time. Perhaps the most high-profile job he held during his time in the Navy was working in the Naval Intelligence Division where he worked with James Bond novelist Ian Fleming and reported directly to Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

“I did all sorts (of things at the Naval Intelligence Division). Teaching commandos how to use escapology equipment, compasses in brass buttons, secret maps in white cotton handkerchiefs, pipes you could smoke that also fired a .22 bullet. All sorts of incredible things.”

– Jon Pertwee

When the war ended Pertwee went to work in radio. Known primarily for his comedic roles and mastery of changing his voice and use of accents, by 1948 he was known as “The Most Versatile Voice in Radio.”
Pertwee also became known for striking similarities in appearance to Hollywood legend Danny Kaye and would sometimes be cast as Kaye’s lookalike. This was the case in the 1949 movie Murder at the Windmill.
In 1955, Pertwee married actress Jean Marsh. The marriage wouldn’t last however as the couple divorced in 1960. Later that year Pertwee married Ingeborg Rhoesa. They would go on to have two children, both of which would follow in the family’s show-biz legacy.

1960’s Work

Throughout the 1960s, Pertwee would appear in several plays in London’s West End. His most notable roles were in a 1963 production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum as well as the original 1966 production of There’s A Girl in My Soup. Because of his long tenure in the latter, he turned many roles including the lead role of Captain Mainwaring in the television series Dad’s Army.
Pertwee also appeared in three movies in the long-running comedy series around this time including Carry on Cowboy (1965) and Carry On Screaming (1966). Although Pertwee appeared in these movies he was concerned that they would hurt his reputation as a serious actor. In 1992 he would appear in the final movie in the series, Carry On Columbus.
Throughout the 1960s Pertwee would appear in children’s television shows including Jackanory and Mother Goose. In 1967 he appeared in the Avengers episode “From Venus With Love”, which was the first episode filmed in color for the series.

Doctor Who

In 1969, Pertwee learned that the BBC planned on recasting the iconic role of Doctor Who. He called his agent and asked him to champion him with series producer Peter Bryant. When the agent called, he was told that Pertwee was already on the shortlist of actors being considered for the part. When the first choice for the role, Ron Moody, was unavailable Pertwee won the role.
When production on his Doctor Who tenure began, he was given instruction by the BBC’s Head of Drama, Shaun Sutton to play himself. Pertwee’s run as the Doctor lasted for five seasons from early 1970 to mid-1974, the longest tenure as the character up to that point.

“Doctor Who is me – or I am Doctor Who. I play him straight from me.”

– Jon Pertwee

In 1983 Pertwee returned to the role for the 20th-anniversary special “The Five Doctors”. A decade later he played the role one final time for the Dimensions in Time television special which was a crossover between Doctor Who and the British soap opera East Enders.
Pertwee would reflect near the end of his life that he stayed in the role of the Doctor for too long which led him to state it was a:

“…ridiculous situation of people turning me down for parts because, they say, I am too well known as the Doctor…”

Later Career and Final Years

After departing Doctor Who, Pertwee worked extensively in television with occasional movie appearances over the next two decades. His longest job on television during this time was as the host of the game show Whodunnit? from 1974 to 1978.
After leaving that series he had great success with a two-year run as the titular character on the ITV children’s series Worzel Gummidge. His final role came in 1995 in The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles episode “Attack of the Hawkmen”.
Pertwee would pass away in his sleep at the age of 76 from a heart attack in Connecticut on May 20, 1996. He was cremated and interred at the Putney Vale Cemetery and Crematorium in Southwest London. Upon learning of Pertwee’s death Doctor Who actor Colin Baker said of him:

“…He was a man of such presence and stature. I can’t believe he has gone – it is a great shock. Of all of the interpretations of the Doctors his was the most straight in terms of avoiding comedy…”

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