Tuesday 28 May 2013

Bill Pertwee RIP

Bill Pertwee obituary
Actor best known for playing the officious ARP warden William Hodges in Dad's Army

Dennis Barker
Monday 27 May 2013

In his early days as a cabaret artist, the actor Bill Pertwee, who has died aged 86, did a manic cricket revue sketch at a fashionable club in central London. A haughty and inebriated diner kicked over his stumps and shouted: "How's that?" Pertwee punched him in the stomach and was escorted out by the head waiter, who informed him that the customer was always right. "As far as I'm concerned, he isn't!" retorted Pertwee.

This bubbling belligerence was successfully incorporated into the bossy character that made Pertwee famous: ARP Warden William Hodges in the celebrated BBC television series Dad's Army (1968-77), written by Jimmy Perry and David Croft. As Hodges, he perpetually clashed with Captain George Mainwaring (Arthur Lowe) of the Home Guard.

The inspiration for the way Pertwee played the warden came from his boyhood during the second world war, when an air-raid warden habitually ran down his family's street shouting: "Get down the shelter, there's a raid on." His mother would shout back: "We're already in the shelter." The reply was usually: "Don't argue! Get down the shelter."

The series nearly did not get made. The BBC top brass, including the otherwise perceptive Bill Cotton – son of the bandleader Billy Cotton, with whose band Pertwee had toured – doubted that any programmes made about the Home Guard could hold the public's attention. Pertwee, when offered the part of Hodges, believed he was on to a winner. Sure enough, he was soon unable to get on a bus or a train without someone shouting his character's catchphrase: "Put that light out!"

It was altogether appropriate that Pertwee, a cousin of the more clownish comic actor Jon Pertwee (star of Doctor Who and Worzel Gummidge), should have made his reputation playing an officious functionary from the past. He belonged in spirit to a different era and later made public his discontent with modern-day Britain. "Things began to disintegrate in the later 1950s," he said. "It was when we stopped communicating with each other. The wealth rollercoaster of the 1980s made it worse. It's a great country, but we've lost our way a bit."

Pertwee was more sensitive than his imposing eyebrows, sloping eyes and boxer's nose suggested. He was taken to see the pantomime Cinderella as a child but asked to be taken home after 10 minutes because he didn't like the ugly sisters. Pertwee was born in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, the youngest of three sons of a Brazilian mother and an English father with French ancestry.

The family seldom lived in one place for long, relocating after Pertwee's father was made redundant and again after he died. On one occasion, the bailiffs arrived to take away their furniture because they were in arrears on the hire purchase payments. He was evacuated to Sussex during the second world war; one of his older brothers died while serving in the RAF.

Pertwee worked for a farmer until he drove a tractor into a brick wall and was sacked. Various other short-lived jobs followed. As a a salesman for Burberry, he found himself serving a raincoat to the famous comedian Sid Field, who gave him tickets for his show at the Prince of Wales theatre, London.

In 1954 Pertwee met the actor Beryl Reid, and wrote her some material for a show at the Watergate theatre. He appeared in Reid's revue for two months, and events were moving him steadily towards full-time acting. His cousin Jon was in a radio show, Waterlogged Spa, and Bill was offered a part in the programme's double or quits cash quiz.

Pertwee credited the scriptwriter Eric Merriman, whose hits included the series Beyond Our Ken, with changing the course of his career. "In the late 1950s I had a short solo spot on the radio show Variety Playhouse, compered by Kenneth Horne, and it was then that I met [Merriman]. From this programme came Beyond Our Ken. I joined the cast after the first series." He also appeared on Round the Horne, with Horne and Kenneth Williams.

Pertwee had also developed his skills as a variety artist, appearing in Jon's touring shows and others. In 1955 he appeared at a show in Gorleston, Norfolk, with the performer Marion McLeod; they married later that year.

During the Dad's Army years, he appeared in the films Carry on Loving (1970) and Carry on Girls (1973) and series such as Love Thy Neighbour (1972-76). He later joined Jon in Worzel Gummidge (1979-80). He also had parts in It Ain't Half Hot Mum (1981) and Hi-de-Hi! (1986) and a regular role as PC Wilson in You Rang, M'Lord? (1988-93) – all three series were written by Croft and Perry.

On stage Pertwee appeared in a number of highly successful Ray Cooney farces and there were also various pantomimes, including Babes in the Wood at Chichester in 1984, directed by the comedy actor Dennis Ramsden. His one-man show, performed at festivals, was entitled A Funny Thing Happened. His autobiography, A Funny Way to Make a Living, was published in 1996 and Pertwee was the subject of This Is Your Life three years later. He was made an MBE in 2007.

His great passions were cricket and writing. He wrote books about seaside entertainment (Promenades and Pierrots, 1979; Beside the Seaside, 1999), the history of Royal Command performances (By Royal Command, 1981); military entertainers (Stars in Battledress, 1992); and an account of the making of the series which made him, Dad's Army, published in several successful editions.

Marion died in 2005. Pertwee is survived by their son, Jonathan, and his grandchildren, Jake and Michaela.

• William Desmond Anthony Pertwee, actor, born 21 July 1926; died 27 May 2013