John Percival

Television pioneer

Looking at today's family of reality shows from
The 1900 House to
Big Brother,
I'm a Celebrity to
Survivor, it's hard to imagine that all these programmes share a common ancestor. But as Alex Graham, the independent television producer and originator of the "House" series, admitted, they all owe a debt of gratitude to John Percival's groundbreaking 1978 BBC programme,
Living in the Past.

John Edward Percival, film-maker: born London 25 May 1937; married 1963 Jacky Gillott (died 1980; two sons), 1984 Lalage (one daughter); died London 6 February 2005.

Looking at today's family of reality shows from The 1900 House to Big Brother, I'm a Celebrity to Survivor, it's hard to imagine that all these programmes share a common ancestor. But as Alex Graham, the independent television producer and originator of the "House" series, admitted, they all owe a debt of gratitude to John Percival's groundbreaking 1978 BBC programme, Living in the Past.

Over 12 episodes, Living in the Past followed a group of volunteers as they struggled to build, stock and successfully farm an authentic Iron Age village for one year. Cut off from the outside world, the villagers were expected to survive with nothing but the resources available to an average Iron Age community.

What made Percival's concept so radical was that it combined archaeological experiment with a real-life tale of survival. The soap opera of conflicts and triumphs it provided made it the "water-cooler" television of its day, drawing an audience of around 18 million viewers a week. The series caused nationwide scandal for showing full frontal nudity (bath-time), and the slaughtering of a much-loved pig - neither of which would be tolerated by today's more squeamish prime-time broadcasters.

Looking back, it's clear that the creation of this Iron Age village was the culmination of Percival's guiding passions - anthropology, the environment and a desire to find alternatives to what he saw as the ecological and human cost of the industrial, mass-consumer economy.

John Percival was born in north London, the son of Edward Percival, managing director of Beresfords Sugar, three years before the Blitz. His family home was destroyed when he was six and a V1 doodlebug bounced off the roof and exploded in a mansion block across the street. From early on Percival seems to have been driven by a need to explore how we survive, physically and emotionally.

After Bedford School and Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where he read Archaeology and Anthropology, Percival worked for the United Nations as a junior plebiscite officer in Cameroon. His journeys "up country" into remote tribal areas were formative. There, in the traditional villages, he encountered a culture living in balance with nature. He also witnessed at first hand the negative impact on Africa of so-called "Western development".

Percival's pioneering contributions to British television began in 1965 as one of the original reporter/producers of the landmark Man Alive programme - the first documentary series to report on social issues by interviewing "real people" rather than experts. But it was with his anthropological series The Family of Man (1969), which controversially compared life in the Home Counties with tribespeople in New Guinea and Africa, and Rich Man Poor Man (1972), exposing the devastating consequences of globalisation long before it became received wisdom, that Percival found his voice as a film-maker. Provocative and polemical, his reporting paved the way for the style of documentary film-making now more associated with the likes of John Pilger and Michael Moore.

In 1972, with his first wife, the novelist and broadcaster Jacky Gillott, and two young sons, Percival turned his back on London life to set up a smallholding in Somerset. His dream, shared by many at that time, was to reject consumer society by creating a self-sufficient life in rural England. His sons grew up surrounded by goats, pigs, sheep, chickens and the enthusiasm of a father whose joy at building his own pork-smoker from clay knew no bounds. The family's shared life and experiences on the farm were published in Gillott's book Providence Place (1977), which was serialised on the radio. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Percival dreamt up his Iron Age project while struggling to manage his own experiment in self-sufficiency.

But in 1980, following a long battle with depression, Jacky Gillott killed herself. Percival returned to London, and went back to the continent he loved to make the acclaimed series Africa (with the historian Basil Davidson), for the newly launched Channel 4. And in 1984 he married his second wife, Lalage, with whom he had a daughter a year later.

Percival's frustration diminished as he grew more contented and at peace with the world. He continued to make challenging and enquiring programmes ( The Great Famine, Living Islam and All Our Children), but he also began to focus his career on one of his greatest passions - horticulture. As series producer of Gardeners' World and later Channel 4's Real Gardens, he brought pleasure to millions of viewers.

For those who knew Percival he will probably be best remembered for his integrity, humanity and non-judgemental tolerance. As a communicator he challenged us all to think more deeply about the world around us and our place in it. Kate Rossetti, one of the 12 Iron Age villagers who remained a close-knit group in contact with Percival, described that period as "a year that shaped my value system and beliefs".

John Percival was the author of three books on the documentary subjects of his programmes, Living in the Past (1980), For Valour (a history of the Victoria Cross, 1985) and The Great Famine: Ireland's potato famine, 1845-1851 (1995).

With his retirement in 2004 Percival returned to Cameroon to discover what had happened to the people and the way of life that had so inspired him 45 years ago. He finished the manuscript for a book about his experiences two weeks before he died.

Daniel Percival

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own