Obituary: Lance Percival, humourist and actor

Comedy actor who made his name in That Was the Week That Was. Picture: Getty
Comedy actor who made his name in That Was the Week That Was. Picture: Getty
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Born: 26 July, 1933, in Sevenoaks, Kent. Died: 6 January, 2015 in Kent, aged 81.

With his toothy grin, crooked nose and facility with funny voices Lance Percival became a leading figure of the Swinging Sixties. He was in the era’s iconic satirical programme fronted by David Frost, That Was The Week That Was (TW3), and appeared in fashionable West End revues and starry movies. One of his first films was a cameo in The VIPs with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and others included Darling Lili with Julie Andrews and There’s a Girl in My Soup with Goldie Hawn. Percival also did voice-overs in the quintessential movies made about The Beatles.

Percival had the knack of recording catchy songs – often calypsos. He was an upper-class tramp to accompany Herman and the Hermits recording, Mrs Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter.

John Lancelot Blades Percival (always known as Lance) attended Sherbourne School in Dorset. He went to London to try his luck on the cabaret circuit and established himself as a ready wit and entertainer at such venues as Quaglinos and the Blue Angel. He also appeared in the West End in a popular revue called One Over the Eight starring Kenneth Williams and Sheila Hancock.

In fact, that revue played a pivotal role in Percival’s early career. Not only did he get on well with Williams – Williams recorded in his diary, “Lance is very good” – but the television producer, Ned Sherrin, was putting together his ground-breaking Saturday evening show TW3 and immediately offered Percival a contract after seeing the show.

TW3 rapidly became compulsory viewing and Percival joined John Cleese, Ronnie Barker, Ronnie Corbett and a host of others to create an innovative Saturday evening television show. He sang topical calypsos whose lyrics captured the general irreverence of the show.

But on the Saturday of President Kennedy’s death Sherrin completely changed the show and within 24 hours created a programme that has become legendary. It was alltogether more sombre and serious. Percival contributed a song which tellingly saw JFK, “simply and superlatively as a man of his age who understood his age”.

Percival was a natural fit for the satirical skits and he soon became a household name. His combination of wacky charm and biting calypsos also found him in demand for some high profile voice-overs.

His first film dated from 1962 when he took over a role in Carry On Cruising at very short notice and that led to appearances in The VIPs as a BOAC officer, The Yellow Rolls Royce and spots in the popular television revue programme The Dickie Henderson Show.

His voice-overs for the cartoon film – initially a television series – The Beatles (1967), brought him wide recognition. Percival provided the voice for both Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. The surreal Yellow Submarine, with its stylish animations, was not widely welcomed but Percival and Dick Emery provided fine voice-overs that have helped the film gain a cult status over the years.

In 1965 he had a hit record with his calypso-style ditty called Shame and Scandal in the Family. He recorded it with The Beatles’ recording guru George Martin. Such was his wide popularity he wrote and performed an advertisement for the TV Times which had the line: “The TV Times for 20p – it’s got all the details of ITV!”

In 1970 he was in a star-studded First World War spy movie, Darling Lili, with Julie Andrews and Rock Hudson. That year Percival was also in the hit movie There’s a Girl in My Soup which starred Goldie Hawn and Peter Sellars.

At the end of the year Percival was involved in an unhappy car accident near Brands Hatch in Kent. He lost the sight of one eye and had to contend with lengthy court appearances.

He returned to the studio in 1971 and was in the film version of Up Pompeii, which followed on from Frankie Howerd’s successful TV series. Percival played the villain Bilius attired in full Roman military uniform and gold breast-plate and helmet.

He also appeared in the sequels, Up the Chastity Belt and Up the Front, which moved the action to the First World War.

In the 1960s Percival had his own BBC light entertainment show on two occasions – The Lance Percival Show and Lance at Large, a sitcom which co-starred Bernard Bresslaw and Eric Barker.

In the late 1970ss he presented the Thames Television game show, Whodunnit! – a murder mystery game show. Percival’s ability to chat away flippawntly and humorously made him an excellent member of the team of Radio 4’s Just a Minute throughout the 1980s.

He also wrote two books of verse, Well-Versed Cats and Well-Versed Dogs. Subsequently he gained a reputation as a witty after-dinner speaker.