Action man, comedy star, raconteur and Time Lord – Jon Pertwee was born on 7th July 1919. To mark his centenary in 2019 we’ve been scouring our archive for highlights of his long association with Radio Times. In fact, his credits spanned his entire adult life from the age of 18 to his death at 76 in 1996 – with countless mentions since.
It’s also 50 years since Jon Pertwee joined Doctor Who. Although his first episode aired on 3rd January 1970, he was actually contracted as the Third Doctor on 21st May 1969. Radio Times photographed him in the role many times – on location and in the BBC studios – and our photos from his era have been published far and wide. So here are just a couple from our first shoot by house photographer Don Smith, taken in October 1969 during the London filming of Pertwee’s debut adventure, Spearhead from Space…
Young “John” Pertwee
But where did Jon Pertwee’s career in radio and television actually begin? The earliest Radio Times credits date way back to 1938.
Many profiles – as well as Pertwee’s autobiography Moon Boots and Dinner Suits (1984) – record his BBC radio debut as a show called Lillibulero. Indeed, “John Pertwee” (as the 18-year-old was then known, before he dropped the H) was listed as one of its three narrators. Made in Northern Ireland and billed in Radio Times as “A Diorama of the Great Siege of Londonderry”, Lillibulero was broadcast on regional BBC radio on 30th March 1938 and repeated on the national network the next day.
We’ve now established, however, that John Pertwee’s earliest Radio Times credit appeared a few weeks earlier. On 13th March 1938, he footed the cast-list of Voyage to the Sun. This “feature programme” may have been forgotten in the mists of time – even by Pertwee – but Voyage to the Sun sounds a far more fitting debut for a future helmsman of the Tardis!
It would be another seven years before Jon Pertwee materialised in Radio Times. The Second World War intervened and young Jon signed up for action in the Royal Navy – narrowly escaping death on several occasions.
For anyone tuning into the wireless in the postwar years, Pertwee’s voice (or rather his wide range of voices) became highly recognisable in hit comedies. In late 1945, he was talent-spotted by the radio star Eric Barker, who enlisted Pertwee for his variety show Merry-Go-Round. They recorded dozens of editions over the next five years as the series morphed into a comedy spin-off, Waterlogged Spa.
BBC television, still in its infancy, soon came calling too. On 1st November 1946, aged 26, Pertwee debuted on live TV introducing an hour-long variety slot called Little Show. Then on 29th December he took his first TV acting role as the Judge in the BBC’s Toad of Toad Hall. Among the cast was Kenneth More as Mr Badger.
In October 1947 he was in at the start of Up the Pole, a popular radio entertainment show starring Jimmy Jewel. Two years later Radio Times was hailing him as “the versatile Jon Pertwee – a brilliant comedian”.
Star of the 50s
Such was Pertwee’s popularity that by 1950 one of his characters from Waterlogged Spa, a wacky postman (with the catchphrase “It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you tears them up”) was upgraded to a village postmaster and bagged his own spin-off. Puffney Post Office began on the Home Service on 21st April 1950. It was a radio show but the star still went to the effort of visualising the character for some Radio Times publicity.
Throughout the 1950s the Radio Times feature pages ran profiles of Jon Pertwee, as the magazine took a shine to his eccentric and colourful lifestyle in London’s Chelsea. In 1955, the Light Programme launched another comedy vehicle, Pertwee’s Progress. “Almost everyone’s a character,” he told RT. “I just exploit people’s idiosyncrasies.” The show featured Dick Emery and Fenella Fielding early in their careers.
The realms of science fiction still eluded the future Time Lord. In October 1955, straight after episode two of BBC Television’s seminal sci-fi Quatermass II, terrified viewers could unwind with the launch of Jon Pertwee Goes Round the Bend.
By 1957 Pertwee was, bizarrely, fronting a TV daytime magazine for older ladies called Mainly for Women, but the main attraction remained radio, and The Navy Lark was born on 5th April 1959. This gentle sitcom about antics aboard HMS Troutbridge was billed in Radio Times as “a weekly and surely fictitious account of events in a naval detachment only loosely connected with the Senior Service”. Co-starring Leslie Phillips, Richard Caldicot and Ronnie Barker, it became a huge hit and ran for 15 series and some 240 episodes until 1977.
In October 1959, Radio Times’s Don Smith photographed the cast larking about on a ship moored in the Thames.
Who is the Doctor?
Who better to launch the 1970s for Radio Times than Jon Pertwee? On the cover dated 1st January 1970, he struck a magnificent pose as the brand-new but soon to become immensely popular third Doctor. He would be the only incarnation of the Time Lord in the 20th century to have all (five) of his seasons promoted with a Radio Times cover.
Heroic, twinkling with charisma and gravitas, Pertwee’s Doctor brought the action and chills down to Earth, as he encountered Autons, Silurians, a devilish Daemon and giant maggots – aided by Katy Manning as Jo Grant and Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith. Pertwee spoke to Radio Times about the role many times. We’ve selected a piece from RT’s 1973 Doctor Who Tenth Anniversary Special, in which he confided: “I hadn’t really found myself before Doctor Who. I was always scared of myself… Doctor Who gets into your blood.”
He was talking to Radio Times’s long-term contributor David Gillard, who recalls: “I spent a few days with Jon Pertwee at his holiday home in Ibiza. He very kindly invited the photographer and me out there and we stayed in a hotel but he had us as his guests for a couple of days. He was there with his Swedish wife and family. He was hospitable and very pleasant, so that was a good job to do.”
The photographer dispatched to Ibiza in 1973 was Allan Ballard. In the event, none of his images were ever published – and for decades it remained a mystery what had become of them. Until this year! Derek Handley, an expert on Doctor Who’s photographic history, has finally unearthed them.
Here, for the first time, we present a selection of images of Jon Pertwee and his family on holiday in Ibiza in 1973…
Also from the archive…
Post-Doctor Who, Pertwee had a part in the madcap BBC TV comedy, The Goodies. In an episode shown on 3rd March 1975, he played Reverend Llewellyn Llewellyn Llewellyn Llewellyn, a Welsh caricature that might be frowned upon now – captured here by Don Smith in photos that have never been published before.
The role that gave Pertwee greatest pride was scarecrow Worzel Gummidge – but that was an ITV series, so beyond the scope of Radio Times, which only covered BBC programmes in the 1970s and 80s.
On 8th July 1984, a strange piece of casting saw Pertwee in a docudrama for the BBC1 arts strand Omnibus as James McNeill Whistler, the American in London artist born 150 years previously. (Photographed by John Green)
Pertwee happily returned several times to the role of the Time Lord on TV and radio. In January 1996, promoting his Radio 2 serial, Doctor Who: The Ghosts of N Space, he told Radio Times about his likes and dislikes.
Only a few months later (on 20th May 1996), he was holidaying in America when he died suddenly of a heart attack. He was 76. Radio Times asked Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah Jane Smith) to pay tribute to her former Doctor Who co-star.
Jon Pertwee’s legend lives on. Vintage editions of The Navy Lark can still be heard on Radio 4 Extra. And those who grew up in the 1970s enthralled by his brand of Doctor Who can relive those adventures via repeats and DVDs, where he’s captivating a whole new legion of fans. A Blu-ray set of Doctor Who The Collection Season 10 is released on 8th July 2019.
Our thanks to Derek Handley for rediscovering the 1973 Radio Times photoshoot.