Obituary: Percy Edwards
Monday 10 June 1996
It was a long road to the top, or a winding lane as he might have preferred to describe it, but without a doubt Percy Edwards was the finest animal and bird impressionist British show business ever knew.
He was born in Ipswich in 1908, one of eight children fathered by a master tailor who made uniforms for the Royal Naval College in Greenwich. The children attended Dorking Street Infants School, where Percy played his first part, in the Christmas play of Old Mother Hubbard. He was the dog. "Very good, little Edwards," commented Miss Wilding.
His first interest in nature came when he built an aquarium out of old glass batteries, filling it with water beetles from nearby Roshmere Heath, while his education in bird life came from collecting the set of "British Wild Birds" from his father's Gold Flake cigarette cards.
Percy made his first public stage appearance at the age of 11, imitating a chicken at the Church Lads Brigade concert. In 1922 he heard the wireless for the first time over a crystal set built by his friend, an old man who ran the local bookshop. Next year he brought number one of Radio Times, priced 2d. He was a cook in a small cafe at the time, a job he soon changed for one at Mesa's Oil Mills. It was from here that Jack Connell, an amateur comedian, ran the Regina Concert Party, and persuaded Percy to take part by stringing a sequence of his animal and bird impressions together into a 10-minute continuity. Percy did so, went down quite well, and, more importantly, found his signature tune. The baritone Jack Reeves came on dressed as a gypsy and sang, "I travel the road, who cares". Percy fell in love with the song and promptly adapted it into his act.
In 1928 Percy Edwards wrote to the BBC for an audition. At their studio in Savoy Hill, the producer John Sharman, mastermind of the newborn Variety Department, gave him a chance. Edwards's willow warbler was so piercing it practically wrecked the microphone. Sharman told him to turn his back whilst whistling.
In 1929 Edwards made two broadcasts in one week and thought his future was safely assured, especially as he met his broadcasting idol Stuart Hibberd, radio's original "Golden Voice" who announced the shows. It was a year before he was invited back. But when he was, he met Max Miller, the very popular "Cheeky Chappie" who would remain a good friend throughout his life.
In 1932 Edwards applied for an audition at the Windmill Theatre in Piccadilly. Not yet the famous "We Never Closed" theatre of wartime memory, this was an all-day non-stop revue featuring pretty girls (not yet in the nude) and newish comedians. Vivian Van Dam, the producer, liked Edwards's bird imitations and signed him on to play Goofy the Village Idiot, six shows a day, six days a week, for a fee of pounds 4.
Laura Henderson, who owned the Windmill, told Edwards he had lost her 10 shillings, a bet she had placed with Van Dam that his whistling act would not "go".
In 1936, after six years' courtship, Percy married Cecily, an apprentice dressmaker, and three years later volunteered for service in the Royal Air Force on the outbreak of the Second World War. He was rejected; his day job making ploughs was considered more important than flying, as it was work that could not be carried out by a woman replacement.
After the war he wrote once again to the BBC, suggesting his special talent might make for a suitable interview on their Saturday night special In Town Tonight. Roy Rich, a disc- jockey, not yet the head of Light Entertainment, interviewed him, and he was promptly picked up by Joan Gilbert, the somewhat bossy blonde interviewer of the television programme Picture Page. His television debut led to a meeting with "Fishhawk", otherwise known as David Wolfe Murray, a much- admired authority on British wildlife. Fishhawk held the post of Television Liaison Officer and suggested that he and Edwards combine their talents for a series of wildlife programmes to be entitled Today in the Country. The success of this led to more series, first Birds of a Feather, then - with the ornithologist Jack Fisher - Birds of London.
A slot on the Carrol Levis Discoveries show gave him a new billing line "The Pied Piper of Suffolk", and a regular slot followed on the top Sunday night radio series Variety Band Box. Programmes now came thick and fast: Vic Oliver gave him a chance but spoilt it by insisting that Edwards wear evening dress instead of his usual countryman's clobber. Music-hall dates came in, often with Max Miller at the top of the bill, cementing their old friendship. Edwards championed Miller for the rest of his life, insisting that the comedian's reputation as a mean man stemmed purely from those that knocked him.
In 1953 came the radio date that made Percy Edwards's reputation. Leslie Bridgmont, the producer, booked him for a new situation comedy entitled A Life of Bliss. It starred David Tomlinson as David Alexander Bliss, the BBC's permanent bachelor boy; Edwards was billed as the voice of Psyche, Bliss's dog. After six shows Tomlinson bowed out in favour of a theatrical tour. In came George Cole, and the series ran and ran, transferring to television in 1956. A huge success with over 100 shows, it only ran down because its creator, Godfrey Harrison, was unable to cope with the pressure of writing a weekly half-hour.
Radio seemed to be Edwards's future now. He played Tiny the retriever in the serialised soap opera Waggoners Walk, a cat in Educating Archie, and a horse in Ray's a Laugh. As the surprise guest celebrity on What's My Line he provided animal noises to represent the television team: a blackbird for Lady Barnett, a dove for David Nixon, a kookaburra for Barbara Kelly and a stag at bay for Gilbert Harding. Television also made a documentary about his life, The Man Who Talks to Animals, which was introduced by a young Esther Ranzen.
In the world of cinema, producers found Edwards's special abilities not only perfect for sound effects, but money-saving too. He was a husky dog in Call of the Wild (1973), a bear in Man in the Wilderness, the titular star of The Belstone Fox (1973) and Peter O'Toole's parrot in Man Friday (1976). He added a totally new voice to his repertoire when he created the howl of a monster troglodyte in Joan Crawford's comeback picture Trog (1970).
As a veteran of variety he now turned up on Morecambe and Wise, as a quiz-setter in Bruce Forsyth's Generation Game and as the roar of a lion in a commercial for Campbells' meatballs. His last long run was back on his beloved radio where for five years he appeared on Charlie Chester's Sunday Soapbox, answering listeners' questions about his beloved countryside.
When he guested on my own television series Looks Familiar (1981) he turned up one week early! "Never mind, bless your heart," he said. "I'll go down to Regent's Park and teach the birds to whistle."
Percy Edwards, animal impressionist: born Ipswich 1 June 1908; married; died Hintlesham, Suffolk 7 June 1996.
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