Lance Percival

Lance Percival

Biography by Brian Slade

Some actors experience the unfortunate situation of being remembered in appearance, but rarely for a specific piece of work or character. While lost episodes and absence of repeats doubtless contribute to such scenarios, one such person who people will rarely cause recall of a character, but is very well-remembered for his looks (a toby jug on a rake, was how The Times recalled them) is the comic performer Lance Percival, who experienced huge success in the 1960s, almost threw his life away in the excess of the 1970s, and died in 2015 after a career that is not the easiest to classify.

Born the son of an engineer in 1933, John Lancelot Blades Percival had the name of somebody who should be involved in the theatre, even if his early days suggested otherwise. He attended Sherborne public school where he developed a love of music that would send him on an unusual career path, albeit interrupted by national service with the Seaforth Highlanders in Egypt. By 1955, Percival had become talented at calypso music, a talent he used in his service to entertain the troops. Once demobbed he moved to Canada in the search for work, touring as Lord Lance while also getting an income from advertising jingles.

Lance Percival

In the early 1960s, Percival returned to the UK and although the income overseas from his musical talents had dried up, he continued to perform at clubs in London. At one such performance in Mayfair he was spotted by Ned Sherrin and brought in for his satirical hit, That Was The Week That Was, quickly to become known simply as TW3. Percival’s musical skills were utilised in routines somewhat ahead of their time as he performed calypso songs based on topic suggestions from the studio audience.

Far from staying true to what he knew, Percival’s skills expanded. His vocal talent for accents and impersonations were plentiful, and he found himself portraying Sir Alec Douglas-Home, alongside Willie Rushton playing the part of Harold Macmillan. His stay with the TW3 crowd was a glowing success, even attracting the scorn of the political world and spawning a moderate hit based on one of his improvised calypso efforts, a variation on Shame and Scandal in the Family.

Percival was becoming ever more recognised. That same year that TW3 surfaced, 1962, he was again fortunate to be spotted, this time by infamous Carry On… producer Peter Rogers, who saw him performing in One Over The Eight with Sheila Hancock and Kenneth Williams. With Charles Hawtrey asking for a pay rise and star treatment, and Rogers renowned for penny-pinching in the series, Hawtrey was sacked and replaced in Carry On Cruising by Percival as the ship’s chef, Haines.

Lance Percival

If life does imitate art, there was indeed scandal to come for Percival. By his own admission, as he enjoyed life in London in the swinging 60s he began to attract a lot of female company, despite having a complex about his looks. ‘Girls get bored with pretty actors whose only topic of conversation is the way they comb their hair,’ he was reported to have said. And the proof was in the pudding as his wit and charm led to four engagements. He believed that broken engagements were better than broken marriages, and he did eventually marry just the once, albeit that marriage also failed.

His life took a dramatic turn in 1970 when he was involved in a high-speed crash in his Jaguar. He was sued for damages for the crash which cost the driver of another car his life. It also injured Percival’s passengers, and he himself needed an operation to save an eye. There were accusations of racing another car, while Percival’s team suggested a slow puncture had led him to lose control in the accident in Farningham, Kent. He was acquitted, although Percival would pay damages, the amount of which was raised on appeal by the deceased’s wife.

Lance Percival

On screen, Percival had his own show after the demise of TW3. Lance at Large was a short-lived sitcom from 1964, while The Lance Percival Show was his more customary sketch-show comedy and ran for two series in the next few years. However, after the car crash and its subsequent trial, Percival drifted away from the front of the camera. He still appeared now and again, notably in Up Pompeii! as the angry soldier Billius, and in the film’s poorer follow-ups, Up the Chastity Belt and Up the Front. As he drifted into writing, Percival created Up the Workers for ITV and then penned the novel game show, Whodunnit, which ran for six years until 1978.

Percival disappeared from screens long before his passing in 2015, his final role coming in 1990 in Jekyll and Hyde. By then, he had had several books published and his early days had seen him rack up seven vinyl single releases. But after 1990, he made his money from after dinner speeches and writing for CEOs of businesses for their own speeches.

Lance Percival

Percival was an interesting character. Typifying the pleasures of London in the 1960s and its satire boom, there is a somewhat burnout feel about his cv. From his discovery in 1962 and performances at the forefront of the viewing public of the time, through to his car crash, he seemed to be at the top of the game, and although his career drifted significantly through the subsequent decades, his face and voice remain well recognised, even if his performances are not so easily recalled.

Published on April 3rd, 2024. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.

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