I seem to go to a lot of funerals. I went to Lance Percival’s funeral last week, on a bitterly cold afternoon, at Putney Vale Cemetery. But this won’t be a sad story, because Lance was a man who made me laugh.
We were friends for nearly forty years. In the 1970s we used to go to Chelsea football matches together, and we used to create joy from despair.
At the time Chelsea were at a very low ebb, struggling to survive in the second tier of English football and most of the games we attended were dire struggles for our team, and made for disheartening viewing. I particularly recall a dismal away draw at Oxford.
As we had a few bob between us at the time, we used to make sure that before every game we enjoyed a big lunch at the poshest restaurant we could find in whatever town we were visiting – and we travelled to some grim places in those years.
I had some tales to tell as I was working in the music business, but it was Lance, quite some years older than me, who had the natural gift of a raconteur and who had our table wheezing with laughter every time we met. I can remember another terrible game in Shrewsbury (we lost 3-0; I still have the programme), where we lunched at a hotel, from the Tudor period in the centre of the town, and I recall that the lunch may very well have been from Tudor times too.
It was this lunch that nearly caused us to commit the terrible sin of missing the start of the match (in retrospect it would have been a blessing), but it was these stories of Lance’s time in repertory theatre that I asked him to tell again several times over the years.
After the stardom years of ‘That Was The Week That Was’ everything cooled down for Lance during the latter half of the 1960s. He found work in revues, recording, and, for a while, in the dying days of repertory theatre – known as ‘rep’.
Rep was a form of slave labour for actors. At that time, twelve quid a week for a minimum of eight performances, rep was a home for up and coming juvenile leads, long term stage professionals, and hammy old fellows and women coming (reluctantly) to the end of their careers. With the unceasing rise of television in particular, repertory theatre was on its last legs – literally in the case of many of the actors.
Lance told me his experience of two years of national service in the 1950s helped him survive rep in the late 1960s and early 70s.
The touring repertory company were expected to perform, for example, a Shakespeare play for the denizens of Margate for a week, whilst learning, perhaps, an Agatha Christie mystery, or a comedy, which they would then perform the following week.
Each week followed a pattern: Monday morning, dress rehearsal for that week’s play, then in the evening, perform that play; Tuesday morning, ‘block’, or walkthrough, the play they were learning for the following week, learn the lines for the new play in the afternoon, but perform that week’s production in the evening.
The subsequent days followed the same format, and then on Saturday evening after the performance, the set was dismantled. On Sunday, the set for the next week was constructed, leaving Sunday evening as the only free time of the entire week. In 1960s England, everywhere was closed on a Sunday evening.
This routine of performing one play whilst learning and rehearsing another often led to confusion and one might see one of the witches in Macbeth stride on stage to announce she knew who murdered Roger Ackroyd.
However, I remember Lance Percival telling me about his very last engagement in rep; indeed it was this experience that led him to move away from the theatre and drove him to construct a television game show, ‘Whodunnit!’
It was a Shakespearean week, and they were performing an abridged version of Twelfth Night. Charles was an actor in the company who had a keen thirst. Lance reckoned he was about eighty years old. Charles had played in the West End, about forty years previously, alongside Donald Wolfit and held himself in similar high esteem.
Age withers our ability to remember lines, and as Charles also tended to turn up for each evening’s performance already smelling strongly of alcohol, it was no surprise that he often found it hard to recall what he was supposed to say next. But Charles had a foolproof way of dealing with this issue. He kept a book of the text of the play, just out of sight in the wings. No matter whether the play was Chekhov, Chaucer, or Christie, he would bellow out to his fellow thespians, “Let us pause a while and reflect!”
As his colleagues were left to look at each other, Charles strode to the wings as if it was all part of the plot, read up his next lines, and return to the stage, delivering them with confidence.
However… by the time the play was reaching the final act, Charles would be so inebriated he was prone to become weary of ambling to the wings. Consequently, he had to rely on Joyce.
Joyce was the ‘assistant stage manager’, some thirty years younger than Charles, but they were clearly well acquainted to the point that they shared digs…
One of Joyce’s duties, apart from that sharing digs business was to act as the stage prompt.
As the play reached its climax and Charles forgot every other line, he moved to the apron of the stage, banged his stick and yelled “PROMPT!” at poor Joyce, who was expected to whisper the next line.
Unfortunately, over the years, Joyce had also formed a friendship with the bottle of brandy that Charles provided for his own fortitude, and by the time Malvolio was due to deliver his pièce de résistance, Joyce was slumped over the side of her chair, in a deep slumber.
With Charles snarling, “PROMPT!” and Joyce snoring peacefully below, poor Lance Percival found himself being pushed on stage by the manager of the theatre, often being told, “Just get on there and do something!”
Many theatregoers of the late 1960s must have been surprised to learn that Shakespeare or Wilde had decided that the climax of their play should be the introduction of Lance Percival, complete with a guitar, performing an ad-libbed calypso about Duke Orsino or Lady Bracknell.
No wonder he gave it up and went to football with me, instead. Although there must have been times, watching Chelsea in the 1970s, when he might have felt less stressed being yelled at by alcohol-fuelled actors.
I’ll miss the old boy, but I’ll always treasure his stories.
Terence Dackombe – January 2015