Twenty years ago, John Devon Roland Pertwee (pictured above with William Hartnell in the 1953 comedy film Will Any Gentleman...?) born in July 1919 in London, the son of actor and playwright Roland, died in the USA at the age of 76.
In his youth, Pertwee had been expelled from a number of schools. Even at RADA, despite positive reviews from Noel Coward, he was dismissed for refusing to play a Greek wind. Pertwee joined the Royal Navy and became a member of the crew of HMS Hood, escorting Russian convoys during the Second World War. He transferred from the ship just three days before it was sunk with the loss of all but three hands. He next became a member of Naval Intelligence, working alongside James Bond creator Ian Fleming and reporting directly to the Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a fact which wasn’t known until a later interview:
I did all sorts. 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.
After the war, he became an actor and comedian on the radio, where by 1948 his talent for accents had earned him the billing ‘The Most Versatile Voice in Radio’. His longest running role was as Chief Petty Officer Pertwee in The Navy Lark, from 1959-1977. Small roles in feature films followed, including parts in four Carry On films, as well as a flourishing stage career, including the 1963 London production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and the Broadway production of There's a Girl in My Soup In 1967 he was offered the role of Captain Mainwaring in the BBC comedy Dad's Army, a role eventually taken by Arthur Lowe.
Then in 1970 he was offered the role of the Third Doctor. The first choice had actually been the Oliver! actor Ron Moody, but Pertwee's interpretation of the role was part of the almost complete ‘rebooting’ of Doctor Who. Instead of being a time-travelling adventurer, righting wrongs wherever he found them across all of time and space, the Doctor was to be bound (partly due to the BBC's economic considerations) to one planet and one time-zone, 20th century Earth. He was to be UNIT’s scientific advisor and was limited to dealing with local threats. Pertwee, Katy Manning as Jo Grant, Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and Roger Delgado as the Master basically re-invented Doctor Who during this period, guided by the production team of Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks.
In terms of the three pillars of Doctor Who - how the role of the Doctor itself is interpreted by writers and producers; the shape of the story; and the way in which times change around the show - there was almost no constant retained. Even the police box Tardis was left in the background, disabled for most of this period. Troughton’s Doctor, who had clearly evolved into the programme’s unquestioned protagonist, with no trace of the potential antagonist he had been in 1963, was grounded in many ways: Pertwee played him much like the heroic James Bond as created by his old colleague Ian Fleming. This was further reinforced by Delgado’s Master, devised as a classic counterpart antagonist for Pertwee’s Doctor. Stories became centred around political, global or scientific conspiracies in time with the social climate at that time.
It was a strong period in terms of popularity with viewers, supported as it was by these foundations. Things began to break up when Katy Manning decided to move on, which was followed by the accidental the death of Roger Delgado, killed in a car crash while filming in Turkey. When producer Barry Letts and Scripts Editor Terrance Dicks announced they were also leaving, Pertwee, who had appeared in 52 hours of Doctor Who, 128 episodes, also decided to depart, going on to capture a new generation of children as the star of the Southern TV series about the scarecrow Worzel Gummidge. By this time, the Earth-bound stories had been strained to the limit and the Doctor had once again been granted the ability to use the Tardis to travel in time and space, though he was still very much centred around operations in contemporary Britain and remained connected to the para-military organisation, UNIT.
With the arrival of Elisabeth Sladen as companion Sarah Jane Smith, a new energy entered the show. This transition time, Season 11 of the programme, between ‘The Time Warrior’ and ‘Planet of the Spiders’, can be seen with hindsight as a bridging season between the ‘political conspiracy’ kind of stories of seasons 7 to 10 and the upcoming ‘Gothic horror’ period of seasons 12 to 15. Again, those things which had apparently been constant were in flux: the Doctor was once again becoming a galactic saviour rather than a Bond-like agent; stories were gradually centring themselves upon his character in the action, rather than him being an outsider who intervened in ongoing situations; and, as Britain emerged into a divisive 80s, it became harder to make the show overtly political as had been the case throughout the 70s.
Pertwee’s decision to move on opened the door once again to a new era for Doctor Who which could use the opportunity presented by a new incoming lead actor to modify itself yet again.