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Doctor Who Essentials #3: Jon Pertwee

With the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who approaching in November, Need Coffee Dot Com celebrates the legacy of the show by examining all Eleven Doctors. Every Doctor will be profiled as part of the series.

At the end of each overview is a recommended list of commercially available DVD titles from that particular Doctor. For the sake of simplicity only complete stories will be considered.

Jon Pertwee, the Third Doctor


Jon Pertwee was nicknamed “The Tall Light Bulb” by Tom Baker. In a weird way it is perfect since as a performer everything about the actor who played the Third Doctor was bright and beaming. Pertwee, a veteran actor and comedian who dabbled equally in radio, theatre, film and television, who never entered a room quietly–was larger then life. The legend of Pertwee only grew larger when it was revealed that he was involved in high-level espionage in World War II.

He was born into a famous family. His father Roland was a well-known writer and artist. His mother, Avice, whom Jon would later grow estranged from, was also a performer.

[ad#longpost]Born as John Devon Roland Pertwee (a Anglicized version of de Perthuis de Laillevaul–his family surname) in Kensington on July 7, 1919. As a child, he was quite a hooligan. He attended the prestigious Wellington House preparatory school in Westgate-On-Sea in Kent, a school that would give him his first inkling that he wanted to be an actor. He then moved on to Frensham Heights, a co-ed school that provided Pertwee an opportunity to act with girls. After stellar turns in productions of Twelfth Night and Lady Princess Stream, The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts came calling. Pertwee was accepted as a student at RADA in 1936, but his time was short lived there as he was kicked out for refusing to play the part of the wind in a play.

Growing up as the son of a celebrity had its perks and forging a friendship with Christopher Milne was one of them. Milne was the subject of his father’s Winnie The Pooh series. Milne and Pertwee often sent long afternoon together getting into mischief, much to the chagrin of A.A. Milne. Later in life Pertwee would develop a close friendship with Sir Laurence Olivier, whom he was privileged enough to call “Larry.”

Being kicked out of RADA and other prestigious drama schools didn’t help the future Doctor get a lot of acting work. To survive, Pertwee left the bright lights of the West End for the underground and experimental music hall circuit. This experience would prove invaluable to him later since it offered him a chance to develop character voices and improve his improv skills.

Jon Pertwee from the HMS Hood
Pertwee, from the HMS Hood

During this time Pertwee struck a friendship with John Selew, a famed radio character actor of the time. Selew and Pertwee hit it off immediately and became close friends. Pertwee’s luck changed for the better after Selew was unable to make a scheduled radio performance, paving the way for Jon Pertwee to step in. Radio was great for Pertwee. His skillful use of accents and character voices enabled him to find steady work on several programs and variety shows. Eventually he found a regular job with Radio Luxembourg that allowed him to craft his own style.

Like many in his generation, everything got put on hold when the war broke out. Pertwee enlisted in the Royal Navy. Unbeknownst to him, this would really be a good career move. His tenure in the Navy made her determined to make something of himself as a performer after the war. In the Royal Navy, Pertwee worked his way through the ranks until he was eventually promoted as an officer. However fate played a cruel hand in his destiny when Pertwee was stationed aboard the HMS Hood. He served on the battleship until May of 1941 Pertwee when his commanding officer (who saw potential in Pertwee) designated him for officer duty. It was a stunning set of circumstances, which led to his leaving the boat in just the nick of time. Pertwee was already transferred to Naval Intelligence when the German battleship, Bismarck, came calling. The Bismarck sank HMS Hood; only three men survived.

After officer training, Pertwee was vital in gathering information. He also was involved in instructing servicemen on the rigors of espionage. As a British intelligence officer, Pertwee worked alongside the author Ian Fleming and the two remained close friends after the war. As an officer with access to sensitive information Pertwee reported to Winston Churchill directly, whom he also forged a friendship with.

When the war was finished, Pertwee went back to acting. He appeared on radio programming before a stream of steady parts established him as a talented character actor on radio and in films and television. The postwar period was a very busy one for Pertwee. In 1946 he appeared in the Toad of Toad Hall. In 1949, he starred in Murder At The Windmill with Garry Marsh and Peter Butterworth (who starred as The Meddling Monk in the Hartnell era). He also starred in Puffney Post Office in 1950. In 1953’s Will Any Gentleman…?, Pertwee worked alongside William Hartnell.

Jon Pertwee and William Hartnell from Will Any Gentleman...?
Pertwee and Hartnell, together again for the first time

In 1955, he starred in A Yank In Ermine. That same year Pertwee, then 35, married actress (and former Doctor Who companion) Jean Marsh, who was fifteen years younger then Pertwee. They had a tempestuous marriage that ended in 1960. That same year he married Ingeborg Rhoesa, whom he was married to until his death in 1996.

In 1959, after bouncing around in a series of character parts in radio dramas and comedies, Pertwee achieved stardom via his work on The Navy Lark. He continued to work on the show until 1977. Pertwee loved The Navy Lark and often used his own war experiences to flesh out his character. The show opened lots of doors up for Pertwee, who was now firmly established as a versatile stage, screen and television actor.

Pertwee was fortunate to be a part of the Carry On film series, appearing in four of the series films: Carry On Cleo (1964), Carry On Screaming (1966), Carry On Cowboy (1965) and again in 1992 for Carry On Columbus. In 1966, he was part of an amazing ensemble cast (which included Zero Mostel, Buster Keaton and Phil Silvers) for A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. In 1967 he appeared The Avengers, guest starring in the episode “From Venus with Love.” He also was the storyteller for ten episodes of Jackanory from 1966-67 where he costarred with Bernard Cribbins and Judi Dench.

When it was announced that Patrick Troughton was leaving Doctor Who in 1969, Pertwee was urged to take a shot at the vacant role by his friend and co-star Tenniel Evans. Pertwee rang his agent and asked him to set up an audition for the show. What Pertwee did not know at that time is that he was already on the list of candidates for the role. The show’s producers Peter Bryant and Derrick Sherwin knew of his work and thought he would be a good Third Doctor. After another actor turned down the role, fate then led Jon Pertwee to the TARDIS.

Jon Pertwee being menaced

Accepting the role, he traversed time and space from 1970-74–it was the role that would define his career. For the next five years, Pertwee would dazzle audiences as a gadget-loving, stubborn and whimsical Time Lord, whom in reality was not far removed from his own persona. The Third Doctor spent his exile on Earth driving fast cars, tinkering with gadgets and scolding those who got in his way. Like the actor who embodied him, he was a troublemaker and a dashing leading man.

The Pertwee era was a unique one for Doctor Who. It saw an immense amount of change to the program and Pertwee was under a great deal of pressure to put the pieces together and make it all work. For starters, the show was now in color. Another big change was that the Doctor was exiled to Earth, more or less working a regular job as the Scientific Advisor for UNIT. He was frustrated to be away from his TARDIS and felt generally miserable with his banishment. Yet for him the experience was made bearable by the presence of his companions and friends from UNIT.

Thus, his era on the show also saw The Doctor become a deeper and more complex character. The character formed complex relationships with his companion Jo Grant and friend Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. Pertwee’s Doctor also had his own nemesis in The Master. The Master, as played by Roger Delgado, was an unscrupulous equal of The Doctor. As The Doctor, Pertwee’s era also introduced many villains that have permeated into the new series: The Master, Autons, Silurians and Sontarans were all introduced on his watch. In 1973, Jon presided over the tenth anniversary of the show with a special episode, “The Three Doctors.”

Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee and William Hartnell from The Three Doctors

“The Three Doctors” introduced the multi-Doctor story and helped reveal more about the nature of The Doctor. It also introduced Omega as a character. Initially, the onscreen dynamics between Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee did not come easy. There was some dissent in the ranks early on as the two actors worked in completely different ways. Finally they sorted it all out, became good friends and developed a wonderful two-man comedy team that would be popular on the convention circuit in the coming decades.

In 1974, Pertwee decided to leave Doctor Who. He saw a lot of changes coming to the show and was also concerned about typecasting. Leaving the show at that time was an audacious move for him, walking away from the role of his career. He went down swinging, turning in one of his best performances of his time on the series in Planet of The Spiders.

While still making Doctor Who, Pertwee starred in The House That Dripped Blood in 1971. This experience made Pertwee more interested in working on films again. He also continued to work on The Navy Lark while he was fighting evil as The Doctor. His post-TARDIS career also saw a gig as a presenter for Whodunnit? on ITV from 1972-78 and he starred in 1975’s One Of Our Dinosaurs is Missing with Helen Hayes, Clive Revill and Peter Ustinov.

Lightning struck again in 1979, when Pertwee was offered the lead in his own TV series, playing Worzel Gummidge, a role he would enjoy for two stints, (1979-81 and then again from 1987-89). It was a role that Jon Pertwee loved dearly because it enabled him to draw on his comedic experience. When Gummidge returned for a second time it was Jon’s sheer will alone that brought it back. The show was his baby. He had a hand in developing the character: a scarecrow who comes to life and has misadventures. Pertwee also guided the program’s promotion and production. The end result paid off for Pertwee, who was relieved to have avoided typecasting after Doctor Who.

(NOTE: Loud beep at the beginning of this video. Mind your volume.)

But Pertwee still had some Time Lord DNA left in him as he returned to the role in 1983 for its twentieth anniversary special, The Five Doctors, and again in 1989 for a theatrical production entitled The Ultimate Adventure. He also starred in two radio adaptations: The Paradise of Death and The Ghosts of N-Space.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, Pertwee was a popular guest on the convention circuit. His appearances with Patrick Troughton were particularly hilarious as the two actors playfully bickered and jabbed each other. From 1982-86 he voiced Spottyman in the SuperTed animated series. He returned to the show in 1989 for a special. Ever the showman, Pertwee took full advantage of his slapstick comedy for Who is Jon Pertwee?, his one-man show, which featured him reflecting on his career in TV, stage, radio, theatre and film. Doing the show was fun for him since he loved telling stories and he recounting memories from his exciting life.

He had a good year in 1995, providing voices for the Discworld video game and guest starring as General Von Kramer in “Attack of The Hawkmen,” an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. Sadly, “Hawkmen” was his final TV role. Pertwee’s last film role was in a short, Cloud Cuckoo, in 1994.

Pertwee took time to reflect on his time on Doctor Who and his amazing career in two biographies, Moon Boots and Dinner Suits (released in 1984) and I Am the Doctor (written with David J. Howe and released in 1996). Ever the multimedia artist, Jon Pertwee also had success on the pop charts. In 1972 he recorded “I Am The Doctor,” which was basically him speaking over the Who theme. In 1980 he peaked at Number 33 on the charts with “Worzel’s Song.”

Pertwee become the second Doctor to die in America: suffering a heart attack on May 20th 1996, while vacationing in Connecticut. His death happened just days after the Fox Doctor Who TV film aired. Jon’s sense of humor extended beyond the grave when, per his will, his cremation featured a dummy of Worzel Gummidge attached to his coffin.

Jon Pertwee crammed a lot of living into his seventy-six years of life. His legacy as the Third Doctor has helped define the series. His career as an entertainer spanned over six decades, encompassing print, song, stage, screen, radio film and television. He also enjoyed painting. He also was a consummate comedian and dramatist. With the Pertwee years, Doctor Who turned a corner in production styles, plot and character development that secured its standing as an iconic TV show. Amidst an era of change and tumult Jon Pertwee stepped into the breach to cement its longevity and popularity.

Jon Pertwee, the Third Doctor

Essential Viewing

Here are five complete Third Doctor stories that you should watch to get a feel for Pertwee’s Doctor. Pertwee was never nothing less then flamboyant, intense, determined and stubborn. Picking five of his stories is difficult since so many of them were terrific.

Terror Of The Autons

The first story of Season Eight sees the Autons return and more terrifying than ever. Now it looks very silly, but back in the day the special effects terrorized younger viewers. Yes, they had killer chairs and daffodils! Roger Delgado’s introduction as The Master is one of the best debuts of the classic series. The interaction between him and Pertwee revitalized the series. The Master arrives on Earth in a not-well-thought-out bid to take over the planet.

Also after an epic Season Seven where every story was almost film length, Terror of The Autons gets a lot done in four episodes. In this way it reestablished the ninety-minute format. Terror remains one of the most terrifying runs of the classic series. In addition to good acting and a tight script, it relies on the same tricks that made the Hammer Films so appealing. It’s a well-crafted opener, which would serve as blueprint of sorts for the return in 2005. (Click here to buy it from Amazon.)

The Mind of Evil

The Doctor does not believe that The Keller Machine, that cures the mind of all urges for crime, really works. In the meantime, The Brigadier and UNIT are dealing with some serious peace talks that have global implications. It’s on when The Doctor discovers that his nemesis is using The Keller Machine in a fiendish plot to blow up the aforementioned conference. The Master is clearly out of his mind and Delgado brings a cunning darkness and megalomaniacal darkness to the role.

The Mind of Evil is a tad long but it is a fun, over the top romp that sees the program again commenting on world events through the medium of science fiction television. (Click here to buy it from Amazon.

The Daemons

A rousing end to 1971 in Doctor Who. That wacky Master is at it again. He never stops trying. Here he is using black magic to summon Azul, the last of The Daemons. The Master hopes to harness the power of the Daemons for his own machinations but things go horribly wrong for him. Events spiral out of control until only a sacrifice from Jo Grant saves the day.
The episode marks a highwater for the Pertwee years and features him at his best. His Doctor is a moral crusader who avoids the trappings of power in favor of saving Humanity. Nicholas Courtney is amazing in it as well and we see the relationship between the Doctor and The Brigadier solidified. (Click here to buy it from Amazon.)

Day Of The Daleks

The Third Doctor clashed with The Daleks more than any alien. Each time they came back more determined and ruthless than ever. In Day Of The Daleks we learn that, yes, there is another peace conference underway–only this time The Daleks are out to stop it. When an assassination attempt is made on Sir Reginald Stlyes, its organizer, the Doctor discovers that the attack came from warriors from the 22nd century, (a time when The Daleks rule the planet) who blame Styles for starting a series of events that lead to their conquest.

There is no fixed point in time mumbo jumbo here and The Doctor moves about time to save the day. Again. As the first story of Season Nine it did a lot to make The Daleks scary again. It also was a four-parter that packed a wallop in delivering lots of action, political intrigue and dastardly shenanigans in time and space. (Click here to buy it from Amazon.)

The Three Doctors

This episode did something bold. It told a story with three different Doctors in it. This allowed the production team to celebrate a decade of the show while also moving it forward by adding some important backstory for the Time Lords. Patrick Troughton returns and carried the load with Pertwee in the story. The dynamic between the two actors is priceless and makes the entire story so memorable. A renegade Time Lord named Omega is manipulating antimatter to engineer his escape from a black hole. He hopes that switching place with The Doctor will free him.

Opening Season Ten, The Three Doctors relies more on snappy dialogue and comedic elements than most Pertwee era stories. Yet Pertwee goes along with it to create a very fun episode that celebrated the past and future of the program. Katy Manning is terrific in this story and the few scenes with William Hartnell help tie everything together in a pretty bow. The Three Doctors set a high bar for what multi-Doctor stories should be. Forty years on, this is still entertaining television. (Click here to buy it from Amazon.)