Never touch your idols—some of the gilt always comes off on your fingertips. –Flaubert
I seem to be on the circuit of British “celebrity” autobiographies, which are multitudinous and not always of the same quality. Anything Goes by John Barrowman and Dear Fatty by Dawn French were both really enjoyable (and if you count Roberta Taylor’s Too Many Mothers, which isn’t an autobiography per se), but Peter Purves’ is desperately in need of a good editor. His reminisces from his childhood and early, stage-based acting career are interesting, but I have no cultural connection to Blue Peter so most of that section is lost on me. Plus, the main reason for wanting to read it was because of his years on Doctor Who, which are decently covered given the relative shortness in of that time in the span of his professional life. But there are no photos from that time and aside from some delightful Hartnell anecdotes, not much noteworthy there either.
People who have a good sense of chronology, narrative, and the way the past informs the present make good raconteurs of their own tales; perhaps the weaknesses of Here’s One I Wrote Earlier lie in Purves’ own admission: “Now it is all about reminiscence, and I have never been a great one for nostalgia. Writing this book is the first time I have really addressed my past, and it is extraordinary how memories and events and people come crowding back from whichever corners of the mind they have been resting.”
Purves’ happy childhood and its peripatetic threads make for good storytelling; there are tantalizing glimpses of the kind of people his parents were. Boarding school brings cynicism and a rather amusing section on “sexual awakenings”; Teachers’ College and the Cadet Corps bring well-remembered and turbulent times to the fore. The book shines most during the section where Purves was playing over 90 plays in two years at the Renaissance Theatre Company in Barrow. This is also where he meets his first wife, Gilly, whose presence is problematic during the book because she more or less disappears, even before in the narrative it’s admitted their marriage is on the rocks. (I’m jumping ahead quite a bit, and am perhaps not being totally fair, but I get the sense from the war Purves refers to “affaires” with shocking casualness, and from the way he admits that he has been estranged from his adopted daughter, that, though a nice enough guy, his personal life and his professional life didn’t always go hand in hand.)
Life is tough for Peter and pregnant Gilly in London in 1963, but it all ends in serendipitous positivity with his being remembered by Richard Martin for the part of Morton Dill in Doctor Who. This, of course, leads to his being asked by Verity Lambert and Dennis Spooner to take the part of Steven Taylor. There’s one chapter devoted to the ins and outs of Doctor Who. Hartnell’s “most famous line ever,” according to Purves, is “ ‘I am not a Dog, a God,” in an episode of the ‘Myth Makers’ about the siege of Troy.” There’s a wonderful anecdote about Hartnell that seems relevant, being that this is not a professional book review but one done for my own enjoyment, to relate to you in its entirety.
With a decent flat and a very fashionable address, it was a great place to have
a party, to which we invited Bill. Round about this time, Kenneth Tynan caused a
national rumpus by using the word ‘fuck’ on television for the first time. Bill
was visiting us on the Monday after the weekend gaffe, and we were sitting with
him and couple of friends in the living room, and I asked what did anyone think
of what Mr Tynan had said? Bill went off like a bomb. “It was disgusting,” he
ranted, “how dare he use language like that on television in the living room.
You wouldn’t go into someone’s living room and use fucking language like that.”
And we nearly split our sides trying not to laugh out loud. He never realised
what he’d said.
There are several reminisces from “The Myth Makers,” including Francis de Wolf making the following fluff—the line was supposed to be, “Come in Doctor, sit down and have a ham-bone”—he said, “Come in Doctor, sit down, ham, and have a bone.” Of a more sobering nature is Purves’ suggesting reasons why Hartnell didn’t get on with Max Adrian: “Max was gay, which Bill would probably have found offensive, and he was Jewish.”
So that’s it for Doctor Who, as Steven was written out and new companions were written in. Shortly afterwards, Purves starts his career as a presenter on Blue Peter, and rather unfortunately doesn’t do much real acting ever again . These years are full of trips to exotic locales and various anecdotes about the show, which as I said don’t really interest me. This goes on for about 60 pages, and naturally enough since it is his claim to fame for most people. However, eventually he moves on, and it’s his work with dogs on Blue Peter that brings him many years of work associated with Crufts, the dog show. He also acquires various breeds of dogs, plays in many enjoyable pantomimes (including one with Sylvester McCoy), divorces his first wife and marries his second, upcoming actress Kathryn. He dabbles in darts and fronts a film company. He and his family move a lot, though this nomadic lifestyle is never critiqued until the last few pages.
Purves’ life was certainly full, and he makes a point of always saying “Yes” to work when it’s offered—a true jobbing professional. Personally I prefer to see an autobiography a bit more self-aware with more analysis rather than a pleasant, episodic survey, but to each her own.