Friday, 29 June 2012

Doctor Who in Jersey

In Jon Pertwee's book "Moon Boots and Dinner Suits", the actor - best known for playing "Doctor Who" in the 1970s - describes how his early acting career took him to Jersey. This was to be a part in  J. Baxter-Somerville's Repertory Players at the Springfield Theatre in Jersey, on the salary of three pounds per week. It was short lived because of the practical jokes he played while there, which led to his dismissal. He stayed sharing digs in a dairy - these were the days before the Jersey Milk Marketting Board, which was only later established by the States of Jersey under the provision of the Milk Marketing Scheme (Approval) (Jersey) Act 1954.

Our landlady, Mrs Le Mesurier (pronounced Ler Measurer) owned the dairy, and tipped the scales at some eighteen stone. One day in a fit of tactless exuberance, I asked her how she came to be so fat, and she replied, 'By laughing, my dear, just by laughing so much.' What a wondrous sight it was, to see all those 250 pounds of her shaking and quaking and shivering and quivering with uncontrollable mirth. Mrs Le Mesurier's theory of laughter causing fatness may well have been true in her case, but with me, it was a resounding failure. I laughed a lot but ended up looking like a beardless Don Quixote.

Also of interest is that it was while in Jersey that he decided to alter the spelling of his name from John Pertwee to Jon Pertwee after it was misprinted this way on a play bill.

Here is the story of his dismissal and the practical jokes he played in Jersey.

Jon Pertwee in Jersey

I'm afraid to say that I didn't last very long with Mr J. Baxter-Somerville's Company, due to a slight coolness that developed between me and the leading man Mr Peter Glenville, son of the famous principal boy Dorothy Ward, and now an eminent stage and film Director. We were performing a Dorothy Sayers 'Peter Wimsey' play, with Peter as Lord Peter and myself as the Vicar. In one scene I had to enter downstage left and warmly shake the hand of Mr Glenville.

It occurred to me that it might be rather droll to have a raw egg in my hand on the first night. I, therefore, with a fresh brown one obtained from Mrs Le M's dairy secreted in my palm, shook Lord Peter's hand and chuckled merrily to myself when the yolk went up his sleeve and the white went down his trousers. The audience roared but Mr Glenville didn't, and thought it to be a very thin piece of fun. Trembling with anger, and without my knowledge, he at once phoned Mr J. Baxter-Somerville in England, and informed him that he would not remain any longer in a Company where he was expected to perform with buffoons.

'J. B.' taking his life into his hands straightway took a flight in a ten-seater twin-engined de Havilland from Croydon Airport, and landed perilously on the sands of St Helier. This was not an error of judgement on the pilot's part, but before the airport was built the beach was the only way of getting in.

That night, quite unbeknown to me, J. B. sat at the back of the Dress Circle to observe unobserved the threatened misbehaviour of this tiresome young man. He and Peter Glenville had been hugely unamused by the raw egg 'business', and were to be amused even less by what was to follow.

On summing up the case at the end of the last act, Lord Peter Glenville demonstrated that the murder had been committed in a most unusual manner. A hanging brass flower-pot containing an aspidistra, and suspended from the ceiling by a long chain, had been pulled back by the murderer and released at the precise moment his victim was passing the bottom of the stairs, the heavy pot swinging across and crushing the skull of the unsuspecting murderee. To prove his point, Lord Peter made a dummy of the victim by use of a large Victorian plant stand for a body and a cabbage for a head. Once released, he said, the brass flower pot would swing fast across the stage and to the horror of all assembled would strike the cabbage head such a blow that it would fly from its 'body'.

To achieve this splendid piece of Theatricalia, it was necessary for the long chain of the flower pot to be tied off in a perfect 'dead'. An inch out on either side and the pot would miss striking the dummy head entirely. That was precisely what I intended it to do. An hour before the show, when no-one was about, I shifted the 'dead'.

'And this, my friends, is how that swine killed poor Mr Arbuthnot,' explained  Lord Peter with panache, and releasing the flower pot, was given the treat of watching it zoom down, missing the 'victim's' head completely and continue swinging backwards and forwards like the giant pendulum in Edgar Allen Poe's classic story. The laughter in the audience was tremendous.

But, as could have been expected, there was no laughter in the dressing room after, only censure and disapprobation. To no-one's surprise, including my own, I was once again summarily dismissed.


James said...

He stayed sharing digs in a dairy - these were the days before the Jersey Milk Marketing Board, which was only later established by the States of Jersey under the provision of the Milk Marketing Scheme (Approval) (Jersey) Act 1954.

A long time before the JMMB - the Airport was opened in March 1937, ending landings on the beach (though Pertwee's Wikipedia article claims he started acting in 1938).

TonyTheProf said...

His Jersey engagement was in 1937. Wikipedia is wrong.

Jon next obtained a place in Hugh McKay and Eleanor Elder's Arts League of Service Travelling Theatre, which travelled around the countryside in a converted double-decker bus. The Arts League disbanded in 1937, and Jon began searching for employment in a good repertory company. Finally Jon's agents found him a place in J. Baxter-Somerville's Repertory Players at the Springfield Theatre in Jersey, a position that was short-lived due to Jon playing practical jokes on the company's leading man which caused his dismissal. Jon's next attachment was to the Rex Lesley-Smith Repertory Players in Brighton, which he joined in April 1938, and appeared in plays including Love from a Stranger and Candida.

TonyTheProf said...

The Airport was officially opened in 1937, but I'd like to know when it was officialy operational.

James said...

10 March 1937 was opening day, and all the indications seem to be that Jersey Airways would have gone straight into business from the Airport at that date. Don't forget that they lost the Cloud of Iona in July 1936 - that did a lot to bring people round to the idea that beach landings were better left to the birds.

Source: Flight in Jersey: the story of Jersey Airport, Chris Lake, 1997 (2nd edition).

TonyTheProf said...

That suggests the date of the play must have been before 10 March 1937.
But it appears to have been later:

PLAYS 6 September to December
John Baxter-Somerville’s Repertory Players at the Springfield Theatre, St. Helier, Jersey
The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse by Barré Lyndon, Peter plays Dr. Clitterhouse
Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers and M. St. Clare Byrne, Peter plays Lord Peter Wimsey

That second one is clearly the one he was in.

I suspect Jon Pertwee heard of the landings on the beach, probably from his landlady, and made use of it - with artistic licence - to make a good story!

Much as David Niven did in places in "The Moon's A Balloon"