It is fifty years since Jon Pertwee became the Doctor and 100 years since his birth. He is the first Doctor I remember and even though I became a big Tom Baker fan I still hold his predecessor in high regard. I took much too from the stories of his era, a linear method that may seem strange in today’s climate but which I still like. The abiding memory that I have of Jon Pertwee is that of a mega star. His appearance was once the climax of many an event and always announced with the appropriate fanfare. Then Pertwee himself, sporting some variation of the third Doctor costume, would stride up the central aisle occasionally pausing to acknowledge the tumultuous applause. He’d arrive on stage, turn to the crowd, his cloak outstretched to grandly announce; “I am the Doctor” to even more cheers and camera flashes. Then with a swish of that cloak he would sit down to survey his followers. Many politicians would do anything for such an appreciative response. It’s unclear who was the more thrilled by this entrance – the actor or the audience.
At some point later on this ritual started to seem a little stale. Both sides still played it out as if it was what they wanted but the scenery had changed. A cadre of fans had decided the third Doctor era wasn’t quite as good as established fan lore had previously decreed. Also the glamour of seeing their childhood idol in the flesh had paled amidst the plethora of guest strewn events. Meanwhile the actor himself was trying to establish himself as a character actor aiming to secure a similar niche to that of Leslie Phillips. It was to be a mostly fruitless endeavour apart from a guest appearance in Virtual Murder and a run in a new stage version of Scrooge, he didn’t really fulfil those latter day ambitions. Ultimately touring a one man show Jon Pertwee was able to place Doctor Who into some sort of context and seemed to have come to terms with the fact that it would be what he would most be remembered for.
Out of all this emerged a new respect for the man and his period of the series which may sometimes seem one dimensional but has a story telling brio and a moral core. Thus in the Nineties Pertwee’s credibility was restored and his appearances became less stately and more homely like your favourite uncle visiting. And what a raconteur he was even if the tales became taller with each telling! The labyrinthine origins of his name! The lion on the wall of death!! Being chased by a cheetah on Hampstead Heath!!! Being mistaken for Margaret Rutheford in Waitrose!!!! There were still controversies. His practice of charging for autographs and reputation for being a bit awkward at time remained though could simply be because he refused to be taken advantage of. At close of play then a strange situation emerged. He wasn’t as popular as he had been or perhaps thought he was but fans liked him more than they were willing to admit.
When he left Doctor Who in 1974 it was big news. His five years had brought both the series and actor enormous success and whereas his predecessor’s departure had allowed the show “one more chance” the panic on Pertwee’s resignation was just how someone so popular could be replaced and it would be naïve to imagine he didn’t realise this himself. In a way it seemed like he didn’t really want to leave- and later confirmed he did so partly due to a dispute over his salary- and this must have been worse afterwards. Popular though he had been it was to be his successor Tom Baker who would garner the programme’s highest ratings and become the Doctor whose image became synonymous with Doctor Who. No doubt Pertwee found this irksome especially as his immediate post Who work was high profile but gave the impression he was dabbling, biding his time. Comments he made in the late 70s to the effect that the series hadn’t been the same since he left seem, in the face of the huge success the show was having, churlish at least. Rather like Star Trek’s Leonard Nimoy and Mr Spock it seemed like the role of the Doctor was one that for a long time he loved and hated in equal measure. Even as late as the mid 80s cancellation crisis, a decade on from his departure he suggested that each of the former Doctors could take it in turns to reprise the role. On the other hand he was to find another signature role in Worzel Gummidge. While ostensibly a kids teatime show it’s a surprisingly mature work and in Worzel we surely see Pertwee’s finest acting hour. He plays it with a magic twinkle and a bittersweet air that is so effective.
What he brought to the role of the Doctor was sometimes a peculiar mixture though in assessing any Doctor we should always remember the actor didn’t write the role. Nonetheless there are contradictions in the way the third Doctor was portrayed and the values he espoused. A lover of the finer things- check his threads – the third Doctor had the manner of an upper class landowner yet fought for the oppressed and was ready to verbally put down the political class even though he resembled a member of the establishment. There was certainly a chauvinistic streak to this incarnation together with a propensity to patronise those around him. Odd behaviour you’d think for a children’s hero but he also offered certainty. In those simpler days we never really saw the deeper fears of the Doctor the way we have more recently. When we did in `MInd of Evil` it seemed out of place. He was cut from the same smart cloth as James Bond or John Steed dressed as if on the way to a dinner party but ready for action. This fitted in well with the speeded up programme and the emergence into colour after the slower black and white years. To younger viewers he was a father figure, a protector with a cloak that was more symbolic than practical. For some female viewers he was even a sex symbol. As someone once pointed out Jimi Hendrix was the only other famous person who could get away with so many frills and ruffles!