Jon Pertwee (1990)

This is another transcript, it’s two radio interviews with Jon Pertwee, which I’ve merged. He talks about his family, about being hired to play the guitar and sing ballads in ‘Doctor Who’, and about ‘Worzel Gummidge’.

Q: Do you enjoy travelling?

A: Yes, because I’m a great wriggler. I never stick with one specific thing in show business, I started riding the Wall of Death when I was sixteen, on a motorbike, and I worked in the circus. Then I was in repertory theatre, which took me all over the country. Then I was in the Navy, then I worked in vaudeville. When that died I went into cabaret, and that took me all over the world, I worked in New Zealand, America. I don’t like nightclubs because there are too many people and they’re too ill-mannered.

Q: Is there one thing that really stands out?

A: Well, yes, when you’re getting out there in front of a cabaret audience, you know within half an hour if you’ve got them or not, and if you’ve got them then to hold them for an hour and a half is a great challenge and enormously rewarding. There are no venues left in England for cabaret.

Q: Did you come from a show business family?

A: Yes, indeed, my father was in Hollywood, as a scenarist, my brother Michael Pertwee is a playwright and scenarist, and my cousin Bill – do you have ‘Dad’s Army’ in America? No, I suppose not, it’s too English. It wouldn’t travel very well, I don’t think.

Q: You’ve mentioned that your father was great friend of Leslie Howard?

A: Yes, my father wrote many of Leslie Howard’s early films, and I remember as a small boy living in our home in Devonshire, Leslie Howard came down to spend a holiday with a rather charming lady, staying in a hotel not far away, Merle Oberon. A very beautiful lady, much appreciated by Leslie Howard. My cousin married Laurence Olivier, so I lived with him when I was training as a student, in his house in London. My grandmother was an opera singer, my aunts were with Gilbert and Sullivan. Dame Edith Worth was my aunt.

Q: How did ‘Doctor Who’ come about?

A: My specific role? Well I was involved in a radio show called ‘The Navy Lark’, which was the longest-running radio show in the history of broadcasting, and it went all over the world, including the United States. I’d be interested if you could find a longer-running show, we ran for eighteen and a half years. I know ‘The Easy Aces’ ran a long time, but not that long. We ran eighteen and a half years, Leslie Phillips and myself and an English comic actor called Ronnie Barker who’s now a very big star, and one of the cast said ‘Why don’t you put yourself up for Doctor Who?’. I said ‘Why would they want an eccentric, long-nosed comic to play Dr. Who?’

I called my agent and mentioned it, and there was a very long pause on the other end of the phone. I said ‘I’m sorry, forget it’, and he said ‘No, no, I don’t think it’s a very good idea but I’ll try it’ so he rang up and spoke to the BBC and the producer of ‘Doctor Who’ said ‘Well who are you suggesting?’ and he told them, and there was a long pause, and equally long pause, and my agent said ‘I had exactly the same reaction’, and he said ‘No, the reason I’m so staggered is that his name’s the second on our short-list’, and I had been for two years. They’d been considering me for two years and I didn’t even know it.

I think Dr. Who was more or less me. The first one I did, I played for laughs. I had a dreadfully funny scene where I put on various hats. My original producers gave me the job because they wanted me to play the guitar and sing ballads.

Q: In the programme?

A: In the programme, yes. Pat Troughton played his penny whistle, so they thought I could play ballads, but no, we got rid of all that?

Q: Looking at the enormous popularity of ‘Doctor Who’, is it down to the individuals who played him, or is there a magic we don’t see?

A: No, there’s a magic that you do see, pure escapism. People are sick of the kitchen sink and they want to escape.

Q: And typecasting doesn’t bother you?

A: Yes it does, it bothers me very much indeed. I no longer wish to carry everything on my shoulders, I don’t necessarily want to be a leading man any more. I want to do what my friend Leslie Phillips has done so brilliantly now, he’s stopped being the sort of silly-ass light comedian.

Q: Taking on very challenging and serious roles.

A: Absolutely, and brilliantly too. That’s what I’d like to do, and I’m having a devil’s own job to persuade young director that that’s what I can do. And they say ‘Oh, Doctor Who’ and I say ‘Hang on, what’s the connection between the elegant dandified folk hero science fiction figure and the filthy old scarecrow with a carrot for a nose?’, and you remind them and they say ‘Oh yes, but it’s a cult thing’. Everything I’ve done has been culty. ‘The Navy Lark’ was culty.

When I was making ‘Doctor Who’, if anybody thinks I was making a lot of money, they’re crazy. I think I got £350 for an episode. That’s for a week’s work, and I couldn’t do anything else. When I was doing ‘Worzel Gummidge’ I could do some personal appearances at the weekend.

Q: There’s a wonderful Blue Peter clip from 1973 where you introduce the Whomobile, and it looks so tacky.

A: Oh, but I assure you it wasn’t tacky at all, it was superbly put together. Absolutely magnificent, it was the best-looking thing you’ve ever seen in your life. Everything worked, apart from the ejector seat, the computer worked, enough for photographically, when you pressed the button, all the lights flashed. It did nearly ninety miles an hour, it was very very fast. It was designed by a man named Peter Farris in Nottingham, and he did it in two mouldings, and it stopped the traffic wherever it went. We had to put it on a low-loader because people ran into it while they were looking at it.

Q: Patrick Troughton was obviously a friend.

A: Yes, we did ‘The Three Doctors’ and ‘The Five Doctors’. He was a magical man, he was a kook, he was strange, he wasn’t like other fellows. He was an ad-libber actor. I remember when he came in on my show, and he was a guest, and he was underneath the TARDIS and he was doing something, the cue was ‘I can’t find the circuit’, and he said ‘Oh where is the wretched thing?’, and I said ‘What?’, he said ‘Come on, I’ve given you the line’, I said ‘No you haven’t, he said ‘Well it’s near enough’ (laughs), I said ‘No it’s not, I’m Dr. Who now, I know you did that when you were in it’. He was wonderful, very free, I loved to watch him.

Q: Actors of your generation seemed to be very much larger than life figures.

A: Yes, I suppose they were, well certain types of actors. Roger Delgado was a brilliant actor, very hypnotic eyes. ‘Doctor Who’ is OTT, you can’t be serious, Daleks with sink plunger and egg whisks. It’s very hard work. I didn’t play Dr. Who right over the top, I played him straight.

Q: One of the newest stars of British television is ‘Worzel Gummidge’, isn’t he?

A: About eight or nine years ago I was doing a crime quiz show called ‘Whodunnit?’, which started in America, but you made a terrible mistake in America, you see our programmes, you say ‘That’s good’, you buy the programme, and instead of showing it to your audiences, you put your own people in them and you alter all the dialogue. We won’t let that happen with ‘Worzel Gummidge’. Worzel’s a mangled word, it’s a kind of turnip.

Q: What is the difference between British and American comedy?

A: I think it has heart. It’s not cold. We’re not one-liners, we’re situation comedy people. I can’t tell a one-liner, but I can tell a joke that lasts four and a half minutes.

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