p17: article entitled 'An
Eternal Child' by Gordon Campbell, profiling Jon Pertwee, with two photos (b/w)
of Jon Pertwee [main photo from Whodunnit?]
An eternal child
Staff writer Gordon Campbell looks into the adventurous
and sometimes hazardous life of Jon Pertwee.
"RELAXATION", says Whodunnit's Jon Pertwee is
"riding a motor cycle, a bit of water-skiing, or a nice burn-up in the
jet-boat. My wife thinks I'm demented."
For a man touching 60, Pertwee does seem a little on the
hyper-energetic side. But his hankering after all kinds of athletic and
mechanical excesses showed itself very early in life. During his early teens,
for instance, he got carried away - quite literally - over a craze for motor
cycles: his first ride on his father's machine ended up with him going at high
speed straight into a stone wall on the family estate!
From that inauspicious beginning Pertwee has graduated to
racing cars, then go-karts, followed by more motor bikes, 10-speed bicycles,
jet-boats and finally, in some sort of climax, to the Who-mobile. Viewers of Dr
Who will probably remember the machine; it looked like a cross between a
speedboat and a benevolent shark, but it won a permanent place in Pertwee's
affections. So much so that when he severed his connections with the series he
took the Whomobile with him. Nowadays he uses it for the odd shopping jaunt
around Barnes, Surrey, where he lives with his German wife, Ingeborg, and his
two teenage children. He gleefully remarks how other road users in the area
drive almost right off the road whenever he hoves into sight.
Pertwee looks like a cross between the Count Of Monte
Cristo and Dan Dare. There's something about the tattooed forearms, the hooked
nose, and the wild, perpetually jet-streamed white hair that suggests both the
classic romantic adventurer and the slightly silly comic-book hero. The
similarities extend beyond mere physical appearance and his seemingly boundless
energies; like some superannuated eternal child, Pertwee takes an obsessive
interest in new gadgets and toys.
His town-house in London is littered with adding
machines, rowing machines, an electronic treasure hunting machine for combing
tropical beaches, tape recorders and stereo gear; but he's not entirely
chauvinistic in his pursuit or pleasure through the wonders of 20th century
technology. Ingeborg's kitchen hums, whirrs and whizzes with a multitude of
automatic blenders, juicers, mincers, fruit-crushers and the like. "I have,"
says Pertwee, "a perpetual need to be astonished."
Such an adventurous, gadget-strewn existence does have
its occupational hazards. Once, while water-skiing on the Hawkesbury River,
near Sydney, Pertwee was challenged to a test of bravery (or stupidity) by some
Ocker friends. With all involved being fairly well smashed on the picnic wine,
Pertwee lashed his water-ski tow-rope onto a shark-spotting plane that someone
had brought along for the party. He then took off behind the plane in an
attempt on the "World Speed Record While Drunk on Skis."
"We got to about 60mph," he says, "and then we came to a
bend in the river. At the same time the pilot hit an air pocket and shot
straight up into the air. This presented a problem. Should I let go, and risk
breaking every bone in my body, or should I hang on, take off, and take my
chances on touching down on land around the bend? I chose the river, let go and
bounced for about a mile. To my considerable surprise, I survived."
All this may sound as if he is trying very hard to live
up to someone, or something. And if there is any such person, Pertwee concedes,
it is his writer father, the late Roland Pertwee.
"He was an overpowering man. As well as his acting and
writing abilities he knew all sorts of quaint, unexpected things. He was a keen
fisherman - he invented his own imitation fly, which is still sold
commercially. I admired him intensely, but he was a lousy father. Rotten. He
seemed to find it terribly difficult to show love."
In some ways time has tempered the younger Pertwee's
impression of his famous dad. Once, Pertwee Snr indicated that the two little
Pertwees (Jon and his brother Michael) should go on a fishing holiday to the
family fishing hut, and that all lines, bait and other gear would be waiting
for them there. On arrival, however, they found nothing - only the implements
with which to make their own fishing gear. It is a lesson in survival that he
claims never to have forgotten, however belated his appreciation.
His own theatrical career goes back to 1936 when he
played in a production of Candida on Brighton pier. He has been in
television since 1945, though since then he has spread his work fairly evenly
between radio, television and the stage.
In this part of the world he was probably first known for
his role in the crazy "left hand down a bit" world of radio's The Navy
Lark. Through the 60s he was also a regular in the Carry On films,
and picked up cameo roles in such film milestones as One of Our Dinosaurs is
Missing and Africana 2000. The big breakthrough, however, was his
part as the second Dr Who in the long-running science fiction series.
Looking back over his career Pertwee says his favourite
roles were that of Andrew in There's a Girl in my Soup, a play which
also carried him on tour to New York; and Lycus in A Funny Thing Happened on
the Way to the Forum. He describes Whodunnit? variously as either "a
real mind bender" or more practically as "my bread and butter". The real
purpose of the show, he says, only half jokingly, is to give him lots of useful
ideas about how to murder his tax man.
But even after the tax man, has called, Pertwee still has
enough for his, beloved machines and gadgets, along with two houses in England
and a villa at Ibiza, on the Mediterranean, where he indulges another pet
obsession - scuba diving.
"All actors are schizophrenic," says Ingeborg, "but maybe
Jon is more so than most. For an audience, or for people who he doesn't know
very well, he'll still play the buccaneer. But though it sounds a little corny
to say it, his real love is for his home and, his children. When he's not 'on'
he spends a lot of time at Ibiza, just sprawled in front of his TV set."
Not a bad life. And the perpetually astonished and
astonishing Mr Pertwee knows how to enjoy it, whether it's scaring the
daylights out of the good burghers of Surrey in his Whomobile or powering his
jet-boat around in the Mediterranean sunshine. In one sense his manic cravings
for speed, sun and thrills, and for the vicarious power that his gadgets
provide may seem childish and a little shallow in a man of his years. But
Pertwee lives by a more interesting moral - one that translates roughly as
"with the right breaks, you don't ever have to grow up".
WHODUNNIT? TV1, Monday December 18, 8.20pm.
Jon Pertwee chairs the panel of "crime investigators"
in the TV programme Whodunnit? Inset: The actor in his younger days
cracks a funny for a radio programme.