Meeting Your Heroes
Imagine your worst nightmare… Imagine it’s something you couldn’t wake up from because it wasn’t a dream… Imagine it’s something so emotionally disturbing that you never told a living soul for ten whole years… And then, and only then, imagine that after another decade has passed that you find a home video of it for sale on eBay… A blog post twenty years in the making: You should never meet your heroes.
Amongst the childhood dossier I recently turned up was a drawing I made at the age of five. It’s a drawing I remember doing as it got given a golden star by my schoolteacher for extracurricular achievement. It was a picture of the scarecrow Worzel Gummidge and little could I have known then how our lives were destined to become entwined. Worzel Gummidge was a legendary children’s TV series from the eighties about a dysfunctional scarecrow, always getting into trouble, who could change his head depending on the situation. The title scarecrow was played by the late actor Jon Pertwee who is perhaps even more famously remembered from playing the third incarnation of Doctor Who.
Interestingly one of those stories, The Mind of Evil (1971), featured a machine that turned your greatest fear upon you. When the Master, the Doctor’s nemesis figure, turned the machine on Jon Pertwee his nightmare was revealed to be fire. Whereas the greatest fear of the actor who played the Master, Roger Delgado, was being driven by others, and so he always drove himself everywhere… until he arrived to shoot a film in Turkey and the guy sent to pick him up from the airport went and drove them all off a cliff. Which just goes to show you that your greatest fear, be it spiders, wasps, or foreigners, will always do for you in the end. Although, for Jon Pertwee, fire wouldn’t get to become his downfall. He’d meet me first.
And so it’s safe to say that from an early age that I was a big fan, and when a group of adults that I’d become associated with, who held monthly Who-related gatherings in a city centre pub (another blog post, for another time), organised one of the biggest unofficial Doctor Who conventions there’d ever been on my metaphorical doorstep… Well, how could I not go? I was fourteen.
I’m making my excuses now: It was 1991, I was young, not greatly outgoing, and certainly not used to hanging around in Manchester. I also wasn’t an early riser by choice and so to get to a posh city-centre hotel for the time the doors opened I had to be up unnaturally early. But still, getting there on time meant I secured a great seat near the stage that was practically the front row. It always pays to be early.
As I remember it Jon Pertwee was the first up in a weekend schedule. He was therefore the first celebrity I ever came face to face with. He came in costume, looked as great as he did in the seventies, and was practically at touching distance. What’s not to love?
And this is it: I was tired, whilst enthralled, and saw Jon Pertwee as the highlight of the weekend. He started an hour interview/Q&A at nine and the incident soon to become etched on my very soul happened roughly between 9.40 and 9.45. I didn’t want him to end. I looked at my programme to see he finished at 10.00, and looked at my watch to see how much we had left of him…Only, in isolation, the great man turned to his right at that exact moment, and he saw me looking at my watch, and he saw me yawning, and he stopped what he was saying to a two thousand-plus crowd, and instead he addressed me directly with disdain: “I’m terribly sorry if I’m boring you!”
I could have died.
Never meet your heroes.
In theory they’re supposed to disappoint you, but in this case it was the other way around. Later the actor Jon Pertwee, turned on by his disrespectful fan, died of a broken heart… just four short years later. I think they kept me out of the inquest.
As I referred to in the preamble this incident caused me so much childhood trauma that I never told anyone of this incident until the year 2000. It affected me that badly, and I can remember the exact night when I did recant this to someone for the first time. It was kind-of like therapy.
In more recent years I found an eye-opening account of how some other fans saw Jon Pertwee in a book of collected fanzines called Licence Denied – Rumblings from the DOCTOR WHO Underground (Virgin Books, 1997). In an article titled Pertwee by Amada Murray she wrote about him:
“The accusations [of fandom] have been wide-ranging, swinging from the sublime to the ridiculous – everything from chauvinism, sexism, bad acting, and imperialism to meanness, Toryism, arrogance and even making little children cry.”
I started to wonder if I hadn’t been alone in tasting Jon Pertwee’s ire.
And then, a few weeks ago, I was taken aback to find after twenty-one years that someone was selling video footage of the Jon Pertwee Manopticon convention panel on eBay… For eight pounds-fifty! Steep, but I had to buy it, didn’t I? Daemons to wrestle with, dragons to slay, etc. Memory cheats, I know that. Particularly over twenty years, and so I got down the above account as I remember it, as I’ve always remembered it, before I watched the DVD that arrived in the post. I thought it’d be interesting to see if I jumbled his words, or if I’d get them spot on having had them seared into my subconscious.
And so I watched…
Well to be honest I didn’t watch it all as it was really bad quality, with bad sound, and I knew what I was looking for and I fast-forwarded to near the end of his hour… then rewound it, zipped about, and… I couldn’t find it. Nothing like that was there. And I came to the startling revelation, the one I’d least expected to make, that perhaps I’d made it all up… and invented the whole thing.
I know of a psychology experiment where a young child is asked repeatedly about the time he/she was stung by a bee, even though they never had been, and eventually the child not only came to “remember” it but embellished the story with extra details as they re-tell it. And they believed.
I spent a confused couple of days going all Sherlock and finding that the printed 1991 programme doesn’t back up my timetable of events, but then I know there were alterations to that on the day, however even my own photographs show that Jon Pertwee wasn’t first up on the Saturday, nothing close, or even that I was sat in the front row seat during his solo panel.
Another DVD of the same convention that the eBay seller also gave me for free (nice bloke!) contained other footage including a group panel Pertwee did about the 1989 stage show The Ultimate Adventure and, eventually, I found it. It did exist. I wasn’t crazy. But, it wasn’t how I remembered it. It wasn’t how I remembered it at all.
And so with his fellow cast beside him, with the now-famous author Steve Lyons interviewing, then came the dreaded nightmare from my childhood. And now I’ve wrestled with technology to open myself up to the world, as usual, so that you can see it too.
He said “I don’t mind you looking at your watch, sir, but when you shake it…” and added after all the laughter “That was a good ‘un!”
I remember the laughter of the audience now, as I sank in my seat and wanted the world to swallow me, but… he doesn’t look miffed in the slightest. He actually seems greatly amused that I’ve just set him up for a great gag about being on for so long that someone was checking their watch to make sure it was still working.
All those years worrying. I always felt that if I ever came across his wife Ingeborg, or his famous actor son Sean, that I would have tried to explain the misunderstanding above, but I guess there’s really no need. No need at all.
As it happens, I did get to meet Jon Pertwee once more before his death. March 1992: I was fifteen, and it was at a midweek signing for his new video The Pertwee Years at WH Smith in Manchester. Why wasn’t I in school?
I arrived early enough to be one of the first in the queue and I finally got to get his autograph through the medium of the nastiest unreadable thick blue marker pen available. I do remember him saying to the stationary shop staff, just after I’d had my turn and he’d shaken my hand, with further words that immediately began to haunt me: “Do you think you can find me another pen from your establishment”. It always pays to be early.
At least, I’m pretty sure that was what he said.
The site of this meeting was lost to posterity four years later when the IRA parked the biggest British peacetime bomb (3,300 pounds, 1,500 Kg) right outside and blew it, and much of the city, to smithereens. I remember hearing it: I was about seven miles away at the time. It produced a billion pounds worth of damage.
Still, as this led to a city-wide regeneration, posterity has judged this act of mainland terrorism to be a great boon for the city.
It’s funny how, looking back, things aren’t always as dark as they seemed at the time.