Obituary: John Percival

Television pioneer
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The Independent Online
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.