Obituary: Bill Pertwee MBE, actor

Bill Pertwee, pictured on a visit to Edinburgh in 1992. Picture: TSPL
Bill Pertwee, pictured on a visit to Edinburgh in 1992. Picture: TSPL
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Born: 21 July, 1926, in Amersham, Buckinghamshire. Died: 27 May, 2013, in Cornwall, aged 86.

For many, Bill Pertwee is unforgettably associated with the put-upon and much frazzled Warden Hodges in Dad’s Army who became the butt of numerous squabbles with Captain Mainwaring. Both were tin-pot dictators and Pertwee’s belligerent character always came off second best to the antics of the Warmington-on-Sea’s Homeguard unit – despite Hodges’ constant shouting: “Put that light out”. But Hodges was a character the audience loved to hate and in Pertwee’s skilled hands he delivered a balanced and restrained performance: carefully never falling into stereotype.

In real life, Pertwee was a gracious and generous colleague. David Croft, the creator of Dad’s Army, wrote in his autobiography: “I shall always be grateful to Bill for being a wonderful booster of morale whenever a bit of a crisis loomed. Bill could always be relied upon to weigh in, saying everything was excellent. It always seemed to be Bill’s lot to fall in the river or sinking into the sea in a small boat. I never heard him complain.”

William Desmond Anthony Pertwee was the son of a travelling salesman who died when he was young, thus disrupting his education as the family moved house often. Pertwee began work in a factory making Spitfire cannons. He was unfit for military service, but joined the Air Training Corps and later worked as an accounts clerk at the Stock Exchange and as a salesman for Burberry.

He began appearing in variety shows that toured the country – notably the Fol-de-Rols that did a Christmas season at the Edinburgh Lyceum in the Fifties. In 1951, Pertwee joined the cast that included Jack Tripp and Ronnie Corbett. He also worked as an assistant to his second cousin, the actor Jon Pertwee, and found work in repertory companies. He was employed as a warm-up comedian before radio shows (notably Hancock’s Half Hour) and in 1959 Pertwee replaced Ron Moody as a member of the hit radio comedy Round the Horne, which starred Kenneth Horne and Kenneth Williams.

But it was the irascible ARP Warden Hodges that made Pertwee a household name. Dad’s Army came to the television screens in 1968 and originally it was Croft’s intention to have a senior officer as an antagonist to Captain Mainwaring. However he changed his mind and cast Pertwee, “a warden” he felt “could be more insulting to the stuffy captain”.

Pertwee played the role in the original television series, the subsequent radio adaptations and the stage version in the Seventies. In the latter, Pertwee did a wonderful impersonation of the music-hall star Max Miller. He also was the hysterical Hodges in the 1971 film version – the year Dad’s Army won a Bafta award for best comedy.

Pertwee’s character delighted in irritating Arthur Lowe’s pompous Captain Mainwaring as often as possible – the on-screen relationship remained strained and decidedly tetchy – and it was not helped by the warden calling the captain “Napoleon”. But that battle of egos provided many opportunities for the characters to chastise each other and undoubtedly provided many of the show’s funniest moments.

In July 2008, he and other surviving members of the Dad’s Army cast gathered together at the Imperial War Museum on the 40th anniversary of the show’s first broadcast.

Other television roles included episodes of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum and Hi-Di-Hi and the police constable in You Rang M’Lord? He appeared in three Carry On films: Carry on Loving (1970), Carry on at Your Convenience (1971) and Carry On Girls (1973). Pertwee appeared in the Ray Cooney farce See How They Run in London’s west end and in Canada.

But those appearances in Dad’s Army as the grumpy greengrocer confirmed Pertwee as a comedian of class who knew instinctively how to time a line and make the most of a dire situation – when a French officer kissed him on both cheeks, or when Hodges co-opted the England fast bowler Fred Trueman to his cricket team or the night there were flashes in the village and Hodges blew his top running round the streets screaming: “Put those ruddy lights out.”

Pertwee loved the sitcom and made many friends within the cast and crew. He wrote a book about his experiences on the show called Dad’s Army – The Making of a Television Legend and an autobiography, A Funny Way to Make a Living. He took much pleasure in researching and writing Stars in Battledress, an account of the stars who served during the Second World War. Pertwee received an MBE for his charitable work and was president of the Dad’s Army Appreciation Society. Bill Pertwee married, in 1960, Marion Rose. She predeceased him, and he is survived by their son, Jon, who is also an actor.

ALASDAIR STEVEN