Obituary: 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.

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 Neal, 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.

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

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Keith Fraser says we should give Isis sympathises free flights to join Isis (AFP)
news
Life and Style
Google celebrates the 126th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower opening its doors to the public for the first time
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
News
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
music
Sport
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
  • 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: Senior Web Designer / Front End Developer

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast expanding web managem...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor