This weekend marks the centenary of the birth of a legend – the Third Doctor, Jon Pertwee. And Radio 4 has teamed up with his son, Sean, for an hour-long tribute to mark the occasion
In a world where TV shows often chase the prize of getting to their one-hundredth episode, and seven seasons is considered a good inning, Doctor Who is almost unique. It’s a series that marks out its time in decades, and half-centuries, and multiple hundreds of serials. Yet even for Doctor Who, there’s something unique and noteworthy about this weekend.
Jon Pertwee may have died in 1996, still developing projects and looking to stretch his abilities right to the end, but this Sunday – the 7th of July 2019 – would have been his hundredth birthday. It’s a perfect time to celebrate his life, and that’s precisely what The Jon Pertwee Files does. Anyone looking for even a hint of sensationalism or criticism here will be disappointed. But the celebratory tone here is perfectly judged, and a wonderful sense of genuine love imbues the entire affair. This is doubtlessly in part due to being presented by Jon’s son Sean. Pertwee Jr is himself a much-loved actor thanks to roles like Alfred in Gotham. But here he seizes a welcome chance to tell Pertwee Sr’s story from a unique angle. Blogtor Who certainly came to the end of The Jon Pertwee Files feeling like we had a greater understanding of the man.
Using rare and unique archive recordings, and his personal letters, The Jon Pertwee Files tells a compelling story of a career built as much on hard work as pure talent
The hour-long documentary draws both from his surviving letters and rare and newly discovered audio recordings. It’s a unique opportunity to hear more than just a potted history of Pertwee’s career in his own words. This is his history as it happened. The Jon Pertwee Files would already be essential listening for those who never got the chance to see the actor during his convention circuit days (though those are represented here too – including the very first ever Doctor Who Appreciation Society convention). But we also get a self-portrait of the actor as a young man. To hear him discussing his early career free of the shadows of Time Lords and scarecrows yet to come. It makes this a rare and precious jewel of a program.
The essential element added to his history here is the sense of Pertwee as an eternal underdog. It’s an arresting idea and one that goes against his carefully sculpted public image as a sophisticated, smoothly confident Star with a capital ‘S’. But then that image itself seems to have been part and parcel of his dogged desire to get on. Much of the early portions, once we get past his multiple school expulsions and briefly touched on unhappy home life, reflect his determined efforts to storm the battlements of showbusiness. And his primary weapons in that invasion were disciplined professionalism and an aversion to idleness.
Pertwee’s entire career is covered here, one in which Doctor Who was just one in a string of successes
These early anecdotes include his showing up unannounced as a one-off stand in for voice work. And winding up as the permanent replacement for the missing actor. And, similarly, of his sending letters, even while stationed in the Navy, looking for any and every chance to fill his precious shore leave with acting experience. In another humorous diversion, Pertwee himself tells of how the Navy sent him to spy on a comedian. His assignment was to be on the lookout for jokes disrespectful to the Establishment. Pertwee wound up getting a regular gig moonlighting as part of the show instead.
Entirely properly, Pertwee’s entire career is covered, and only a third of it directly relates to Doctor Who. And either side of those five years, there’s a recurring theme. One of him always pitching hard to get his latest idea off the ground. And in between the successes (turning his supporting role as ‘Postman’ into his own spin-off, the legendary Worzel Gummidge) came the valiant failures. Like the old sitcom that prefigured Up Pompeii! By almost a decade with Pertwee as its lecherous servant anti-hero. Even in those hits, the role of his grit and graft in keeping things afloat becomes clear, as stories are told of how, having fought to get Worzel Gummidge on air, he fought harder still to get it back there once Southern Television ceased to exist.
Sean Pertwee’s role as presenter fills the hour with a tangible sense of love and devotion to its subject
The stories told in The Jon Pertwee Files allow an entirely new image of the great man to emerge. He may have projected confidence, but clearly wasn’t arrogant. Instead, he was an actor who knew that to get what he wanted out of his life and career would only come with work. Hard work, and lots of it.
The other aspect of Pertwee’s character that comes across here brighter than ever before is just how inspiring and amazing he was as a father. To narrator Sean Pertwee he’s “Pa” throughout and for every line his voice is warmed by a deeply held affection. There’s almost a sense of wonder, at points, at how remarkable it was to even know him. To have actually gotten to have him as a father seems to faintly astonish the younger man.
It would be a beautiful and comforting lie to say every son adores their father. It would be an even greater fudging of the facts to say every father would deserve it anyway. But if there’s anyone aspect of The Jon Pertwee Files Blogtor Who suspects will stay with fathers and future fathers long after its hour has ended it’s this. The urge to try and be the sort of dad that, long after we’re gone, will inspire our children to talk us with as much warmth and love as Sean Pertwee talks of his Pa.
A century on, Jon Pertwee is a legend.
In the most striking moment, a familiar incident comes to terrifying life through the power of Pertwee’s own words. He speaks of waking screaming during the war, severely injured and surrounded by dead men in a makeshift morgue. He’d been placed there having been mistaken for a corpse. And it’s tempting to see it as the pivotal moment of his life. He knew, from that night on, what an anonymous death looked and felt like. And perhaps that fuelled his determination to live a life worth celebrating. If so, both as an actor and a father, The Jon Pertwee Files makes his success clear.
So even if you’re not a Doctor Who fan, this 7th of July raise a glass of ginger ale or finest wine. And make a toast to a hundred years of Jon Pertwee: a man who lived a life worth the celebrating.
The Jon Pertwee Files
The Jon Pertwee Files is on BBC Sounds until the 30th of August. It can be streamed free, anywhere in the world, here.
The Jon Pertwee Files is just one of several celebrations of what would have been the actor’s hundredth birthday. This month’s Doctor Who Magazine, on sale now, devotes an epic thirty pages to his life and career, including an interview with Sean Pertwee. While Monday the 8th of July sees the release of Doctor Who: The Collection – The Complete Season 10.