A REAL TROOPER!
GLEN KING talks to Topsham resident and veteran actor, Bill Pertwee MBE aka Chief Air Raid Warden William ‘Put that ruddy light out!’ Hodges from the vintage BBC sitcom ‘Dad’s Army’….
Born in 1926, William Desmond Anthony Pertwee is best remembered for his legendary role as the local greengrocer who rises up through the ranks to become a member of the Home Guard, set in the fictional seaside resort of Walmington-on-Sea during World War II. Each week families across the length and breadth of the country would huddle in front of the ‘telly’ to watch yet another bumbling attempt from the haphazard Platoon unravel as they tried gamely to protect England from invasion by the ‘Jerries’!
The much loved comedy classic ran for 80 episodes from 1968 – 1977 and re-runs are being enjoyed by a new generation. Written by the late, great David Croft and Jimmy Perry, the timeless one-liners created by this talented duo will go down in television history. The unforgettable scene for most is when Ian Lavender, portraying the hapless Private Pike, was being interrogated by a German officer and ordered to give his name; Captain Mainwaring’s (pronounced ‘Mannering’) quick-fire response; “Don’t tell him Pike,” still makes me chuckle. The endearing Lance-Corporal Jack Jones (the local elderly butcher) played by Clive Dunn OBE is famous for saying; “Don’t panic Mr Mannering” and ‘They don’t like it up ’em!” Clive now sadly totally blind, lives in Portugal and is one of only a handful of the cast still alive today. “He couldn’t see very well and started bumping into things so eventually they got him a guide dog,” says Bill. “I met up with him and he had a bandage on his forehead so I said, ‘Clive you’ve now got the dog to help so what happened?’ He told me, ‘I tripped over the bloody lead’! Bill’s character, the antagonist ARP Warden, enjoyed wonderful dialogue such as; “now look ‘ere, Napoleon” and “ruddy ‘ooligans”. Although the ARP Warden and local Bank Manager, turned pompous Captain Mainwairing, were arch rivals on screen; (and to be honest at times it was difficult to believe that they were both fighting on the same side), Bill confides that off camera, Arthur Lowe was one of his closest friends. “Arthur had a boat and we had lots of fun and parties.”
Bill a surprisingly sprightly and articulate 85 year old, was born in Amersham, Buckinghamshire and the family constantly travelled around the country as his late father was a salesman. “He was a road surveyor and every six weeks or so would get a call and we had to move on again. I didn’t go to school because there wasn’t the time.” When he and his two brothers eventually settled in a beautiful Old Rectory located in Erith, Kent, Bill attended a Convent School. “At the end of the first term my mother said, ‘we’ve just had a look at your teacher’s notes on how you’re doing and it’s pretty hopeless isn’t it? It says here that he doesn’t take anything in, just looks out of the window picking his nose and pulling funny faces!’
Bill’s first paid work was at the tender age of eight when the resourceful youngster asked a local builder if he could help by moving some bricks and was paid the handsome sum of sixpence. A string of jobs followed including farming and working in Burberrys in London in the sports department. After nine months he went into the stock exchange spending his time writing out copies. “I met a lovely old chap who was always betting and gave me a ‘dead cert’ – I won quite a few bob! He got me into racing and because I was bored at work I started doing impressions of people especially sports commentators. I used to answer the phone and say, ‘Good Morning, this is Raymond Glendenning here. We are just waiting for the infantry to come out on the pitch.’ One day a voice said, ‘Who’s that?’ and I replied Mr Pertwee. The caller responded… ‘Take a fortnight’s notice,’ so I was really quite pleased about that.”
In 1954 Bill discovered the world of entertainment when he met his second cousin the late Jon Pertwee for the first time. Famous for playing the lovable character Worzel Gummidge and the third Doctor Who, Jon was a big name on radio. “We got together for half an hour and discussed our family connections as our fathers were first cousins. He invited me to a party and Beryl Reid was there and she said to Jon, ‘I’m doing a revue at the Watergate Theatre to try out some material for a television programme’. I interrupted and said ‘excuse me I could write you some very funny material.’ So she gave me the name of the producer and I sent him one or two pieces. He rang me and said, ‘we’re definitely very keen on one bit you’ve written for Beryl. You will get 2 pounds a week.’ And I said ‘good Lord, that’s marvellous just for writing a few lines.’ Then one Sunday I got a call from the producer saying the chap who was doing my piece had gone down with the flu and couldn’t talk so could I take his place? I rehearsed with Beryl who was very impressed and I did six weeks. They raised my money to 3 for the script and another 5 for the performance.”
By this time Bill had been well and truly bitten by the acting bug and went on to do a summer show at Gorleston near Yarmouth. “I had to talk very loudly to be heard over the noise of the waves crashing against the sea-wall,” he reminisces. There followed a number of jobs in variety shows, a pantomime and comedy radio. During his illustrious acting career he also appeared in two Carry On films.
Eventually he was contacted by Bill Worsley who produced Midday Music Hall for the BBC. “I did three programmes for Charlie Chester and then one called ‘Beyond our Ken’ with Kenneth Horne and Kenneth Williams.” After a few more summer shows he received an unexpected call from an agent regarding a new and exciting television show written by Messrs. Croft and Perry. “Mr Perry couldn’t make the meeting, but David did and he was absolutely charming and said there is a part of an air raid warden. They hadn’t really sorted everything out but he told me it would probably just be a couple of lines to start with and the money was about 8 pounds a week.” Initially the show was called the ‘Fighting Tigers’ but Michael Mills, the Head of Light Entertainment did not like it. Bill takes up the story… “Michael telephoned David Croft and said ‘I’ve got it! ‘Dad’s Army,’ I did just two lines and it was away from there.” And the rest as they say is history!
A keen railway enthusiast and the vice-president of the ‘Railway Ramblers’, Bill moved to Topsham from Surrey three years ago. “I came down to see some friends for four days and rather liked the place as it was chummy and so forth. When I returned home I thought I would love to go down there again and that was it; I was hooked. I think that Exmouth is a wonderful place and Topsham certainly.” The move also meant he was closer to his son Jonathan and two teenage grandchildren who live in Cornwall. Upgrading from Grockle to local, Bill has embraced the community spirit by getting actively involved in events such as giving talks at Topsham Library about his book, ‘Dad’s Army, The Making of a Television Legend’ and judging the 22nd Festival of Winter Ales in Exeter.
Awarded an MBE in the Queen’s 2007 Birthday Honours list for his services to charity he still continues to work tirelessly to help good causes. Today we meet at Station House, the Head Quarters of Devon in Sight which provides support and equipment to the visually impaired people across the County, conveniently located around the corner from his home. Bill’s close association with the charity developed following a ribbon cutting ceremony he carried out in July last year to officially open the newly refurbished and larger Resource Centre. He has now been invited to be Vice Patron of the charity, a role he will take up with energy and vigour as he uses his influence and fame wherever he can to ‘open doors’ and fundraise for those less fortunate. “I was asked to help Children’s Hospice (SW). The charity was being charged rent for their place in Cornwall which was an absolute dump so I went to see the Council and managed to get it for free for them,” he laments with a shake of his head. “I also spent some time with a couple of people from the charity to go round collecting money from businesses. We popped into one company in Plymouth and the chap agreed to speak with me and then just handed over a substantial cheque for several thousand pounds.”
I personally have had the privilege of working with this outstanding gentleman on a number of occasions at charity events including the 170th anniversary of Exeter hearing specialist Broom Reid & Harris which raised funds for ‘Hearing Dogs for Deaf People’. I watched spellbound as he held the audience captive with his lively anecdotes. “I was in a cab on the way to catch the train back to Exeter after filming in London and just wanted to quietly read the newspaper to relax and unwind,” he tells them. “The taxi driver, however, was a lifelong fan of Dad’s Army and didn’t stop talking for the whole journey. He told me he had all the books and videos … as I was getting out of the car at the station he said, ‘course you won’t be making any more now though… ‘cos you’re all dead!’
Yet the extraordinary Bill Pertwee still marches on… at the 90th anniversary of The Royal British Legion held at Exmouth Pavilions he was the special celebrity guest and helped to raise much needed funds for The Poppy Appeal. Proudly wearing his trademark Air Warden’s tin hat (which is armour plated and weighs a tonne) with the original hand painted ‘W’ on the front, he was instantly recognisable. Although leaning heavily on a stick for support whilst awaiting a long overdue operation for an old injury to his foot, he walked with quiet dignity down the aisle towards the stage. Accompanied by the sentimental and emotional Dad’s Army theme tune “Who Do You Think You Are Kidding Mr Hitler” the audience started to applaud as they got to their feet to give this legend a much deserved standing ovation.
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