❉ In the ’90s, Jon Pertwee was the public face of Doctor Who.
As we have recounted many times in many articles on this site, Doctor Who – both the series and its titular hero (Look, it IS his name – WOTAN and Missy say so, and that’s good enough for me) – enjoyed a prolonged break from our screens, having strolled off into the sunset on 6 December 1989, not to darken terrestrial schedules on a regular basis for another sixteen years.
Up until the moment he handed over the TARDIS key to Paul McGann in 1996 Sylvester McCoy was, to all intents and purposes, the current Doctor. Of course he was. After all, it was his likeness that continued to grace Marvel’s ongoing Doctor Who Magazine comic strip, it was his characterisation that saw Virgin Books’ bold range of New Adventures pick up where the series left off with stories “too broad and too deep for the small screen” to quote the back cover blurb, and like Herman Melville’s Bartleby, he was still there in character for 1990’s Search Out Science and 1993’s Dimensions In Time.
Sequentially, chronologically, Sylvester McCoy remained the face of the Doctor du jour for the first half of the 1990s. But in the public consciousness, the answer to the question of “Who is the Doctor?” is usually determined by whoever Mr & Mrs Joe Public most strongly associate with the role as opposed to cultural currency.
To middle aged viewers in the 1990s, that would have been William Hartnell or Patrick Troughton, although with so few of their stories ready available on VHS back then – and a scary quantity seemingly wiped forever – they slept in the memory, only invoked in hallowed, mythic tones; but to the twenty- and thirtysomethings that were then key opinion-formers in the geek pop culture media (Select, Sky, TV Zone, Cult TV etc.), not to mention penning DWM strips, New Adventures and fanzines, naturally it was Jon Pertwee or Tom Baker. Both actors had led the show through some of its most consistently popular periods, enjoying a phenomenally high profile, and their screen exploits could then be enjoyed on a regular basis on UK Gold’s weekend ‘Vortex’ slot, or as they surfaced on VHS as BBC Video ramped up its release schedule for the series’ thirtieth anniversary in 1993.
Of the two living ‘elder statesmen’ of Doctor Who back then, Tom Baker was still keeping his association with the series at a cautious, arm’s length, in stark contrast to his current profile with Big Finish Fourth Doctor Adventures currently in the can up until mid-2018 whereas his predecessor, Jon Pertwee, a man who was so showbiz he probably went into his cabaret act every time he opened his fridge door at night, enjoyed a much more codependent relationship with the fans and the public.
Pertwee embodied the showbiz ethos of “Give the public what they want” and could be dependably relied upon to turn up at the opening of an envelope to throw back his black cape, declaim “I am the Doctor!” and dust off his repertoire of well-polished anecdotes to a captive audience. And the 1990s provided many an opportunity for Pertwee to turn on the razzle-dazzle and (Time) Lord it as if he had never been away.
Let’s take a look at how, in the first half of the so-called ‘Wilderness Years’, Jon Pertwee continued to be the face of Doctor Who – not least during the series’ thirtieth anniversary year: With Baker’s involvement in the show’s ruby anniversary limited to a brief cameo at the front of Dimensions In Time, and McCoy’s Doctor less embedded in the public consciousness save for a derisory reference from Harry Enfield’s Little Brother (This is no real failing on McCoy, with his last season starved of publicity and shunted off against ratings-beater Coronation Street, poor old Percy Kent Smith didn’t stand a chance) Pertwee saw the leadership void, and in that interim period, he was the Doctor.
Wogan (BBC, March 1989)
Here’s JP, supporting Red Nose Day 2, in full regalia, cape ahoy, with his clutch of weapons-grade anecdotes, and arriving complete with the traditional ‘Wogan’ TARDIS entrance. Broadcast while McCoy was still essaying the role, this clearly shows that Pertwee was recognised by a larger part of the audience as the Doctor than the Scottish ferret-wrangler: This appearance was in support of…
Doctor Who – The Ultimate Adventure (stage show, 1989)
From March to June 1989, Pertwee took on the role of the Doctor in a live theatre setting, Pertwee’s natural environment as a lover of the limelight and a seasoned stage performer – once again proving his bankability as the face of the Doctor – treading the boards up and down the country, in an all-bells-and-whistles Doctor Who stage show, replete with laser lighting and, um, showtunes.
His understudy was Cyberleader David Banks, and Colin Baker squeezed back into his technicolour dreamcoat to see the show out until it closed in August.
On The Waterfront (BBC, 1989)
JP, once again plugging The Ultimate Adventure, gamely sends himself up as the Doctor receiving a psychiatric grilling (“No, I don’t go to.. Margate”) from Going Live off-season replacement On The Waterfront. The writer of this sketch? One Russell T. Davies. Whatever happened to him?
Return To Devil’s End (Reeltime Pictures, 1993)
This straight-to-video documentary, reuniting the cast of fan favourite The Daemons in its quintessentially English location setting of Aldbourne, Wiltshire, saw Pertwee resplendent as ever in velvet jacket, frock coat and immaculately couffered bouffant, alongside his old muckers Nicholas Courtney, John Levene, Richard Franklin and director Christopher Barry.
It’s worth noting that roughly around this time, the Pertwee era was coming in for a right old drubbing from fanzines written by angry young men offering a revisionist take on the period and in the pages of the more forward-looking New Adventures – but for the more unashamedly nostalgically inclined, this docu was catnip.
Dimensions In Time (BBC Children In Need, 1993)
Leaving the actual bite-sized two-part charity-fest to one side (probably the best place for it), let’s consider for a moment the introductory preamble for the first episode of this fundraising beano, broadcast as part of Noel’s House Party, in the bowels of Crinkley Bottom. It’s a real insight into the high regard viewers of a certain age still had for JP, and his scene-stealing charisma, dwarfing the no less self-serving ego of the exiled Oompa Loompa and cosmic orderer, Noel Tidybeard.
When yer man Tidybeard answers the door, there’s JP, framing the doorway and looking – let’s be frank – slim, trim and cool as fuck, to a warm welcome of whoops and a rogue “Oh, YES!” from the excitable audience. JP and Tidybeard enter into a dialogue of carefully-scripted banter with some wonderfully sassy barbs at Noel’s expense (complete with proto-Miranda look-to-camera). It’s a delight, and almost makes it worth enduring the ensuing, 3D-afflicted, EastEnders-augmented panto biz of the main event.
The Paradise of Death (BBC Radio, 1993)
It’s Doctor Who’s thirtieth anniversary. It’s been four years since our last televised adventure with the Doctor. What to do? Bring in the then-current stars and script editor for a hiatus-sweetener, as with 1985’s Radio 4 serial Slipback, for some ‘new’ Doctor Who in sound but not vision? Or do you take the smart money and reunite a former dream team for something comfortingly familiar, and with names recognisable to the average Radio Times reader? In ’93, BBC Radio plumped for the latter – reuniting Season 11 leads Pertwee, Elisabeth Sladen and Nick Courtney with former majordomo Barry Letts for headscratcher The Paradise of Death.
Although not exactly “number one in the hit parade” as Pertwee claimed in a typically self-deprecating interview, for a few weeks in 1993 it was Saturday teatime 1974 all over again, and the drama’s popularity surprised the Corporation, who swiftly commissioned a sequel – the equally baffling The Ghosts of N-Space, broadcast in 1996, of which Mark Campbell cruelly opined: “Pertwee sounds ancient.”
More Than Thirty Years In The TARDIS (BBC, 1993)
Kevin Jon Davies’ anniversary documentary-cum-tribute was a very special event for Who fans, the kind of expertly-researched, well-produced and affectionate retrospective that a brilliant series that had become the butt of cheap jokes well and truly deserved, even moreso in the extended edit released by BBC Video. Amongst those past cast and production members holding forth on the series’ enduring appeal, inbetween a wealth of archive footage and nostalgic reenactments of iconic moments, was, of course, Jon Pertwee – naturally, the cosmic kid in full costume, and even reprising a cliffhanger from Invasion of the Dinosaurs in a shiny Whomobile.
Good Morning with Anne & Nick (BBC, 1994)
Even out of character – or rather, “under his green umbrella” as JP would have said – Pertwee could be relied upon for some telly gold, such as in this clip, once again pressed into service as the public face of Doctor Who and making a researcher’s day utter hell by throwing a spanner into the works of a harmless quiz competition with some good-natured pedantry, which allows the world’s most boring man, Nick Ross, to demonstrate a latent humorous streak with his sardonic, “Well I’m delighted you came along, Jon…” and some hilarity from the offscreen tech ops.
Vodafone Advert (1996)
Jon Pertwee made an enigmatic cameo in this none-more-90s advert for Vodafone (there’s even a modish X Files reference), playing up to the Doctor Who links…
Surprise Surprise (LWT, 1996)
On 21 April, 1996, Jon Pertwee made his last TV appearance shortly before his death, on unlamented mawkish schmaltz-fest Surprise Surprise, hosted by Liverpudlian foghorn Cilla Black. If you haven’t seen this clip before, prepare to have a snotrag at the ready, as Pertwee makes a young fan’s dream come true, appearing completely in character in full gear. “Don’t fiddle with anything! Otherwise we’ll end up in the fourth century!” What. A. Dude.
So, that was Jon Pertwee. Always flying the flag for the national institution that had endeared him to a generation, further embedding himself into fans’ and the nation’s affections at a time when it was seen more as the mad woman in the BBC’s attic rather than the prodigal son of the 2005 comeback.
It’s fair to say that Jon Pertwee’s eager, active participation with anything involving the show’s public profile, as well as meeting his needs as a seasoned vaudevillian, made him a superb ambassador for the series during those so-called ‘wilderness years’. And, who knows, somewhere in a parallel universe, we’re probably onto our twentieth season of Big Finish Third Doctor Adventures!
❉ James Gent has contributed to several acclaimed publications devoted to cult and popular television including 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die, You & Who: Contact Has Been Made and Blake’s Heaven: Maximum Fan Power. In 2014, he wrote the biography for the official Monty Python website. James is Editor-in-Chief of We Are Cult and digital marketing & design officer for Torch Theatre.