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Percy Edwards – impersonator, ornithologist and entertainer

Percy Edwards, who lived in my hometown of Ipswich, Suffolk, was possibly the world’s best imitator – his repertoire was enormous. He was able to reproduce the songs and calls of 153 birds as well as most animals from dogs to deer, from lions to sea lions.

Over his long life – he lived to be 88 – he gave his final performance in 1989 at the age of 80 at the London Palladium.

Percy provided the bird and animal sounds for innumerable films, plays and BBC programs. He played a husky dog in Call of the Wild, a bear in Man in the Wilderness, and a parrot in Man Friday. He was the titular star in that excellent movie, The Bellstone Fox. He appeared in such BBC comedy shows as Ray’s a Laugh and played Psyche the dog in the radio series A Life of Bliss. He was heard in the Just William programs and the televised On the Buses.

But I knew Percy long before he became famous. In 1947-48 I worked in the Education Department of the Ipswich Co-operative Society. This department provided staff training courses and, more importantly, all manner of entertainment programs for the Co-operative membership. In those days the Co-op was the largest business in town – any citizen could purchase a share and become a member for one pound. Twice a year profits were returned to members as Dividends.

The Education Secretary, Dick Lewis, was a Welshman and loved choirs. So, in Ipswich we had a Co-op Male Voice Choir, a Women’s Choir, a Mixed Choir, a Youth Singers Choir and a theatrical group known as the Co-op Juniors. The groups would perform in village halls throughout the area in Suffolk County served by the local Co-op. And, as often as not, the Master of Ceremonies would be Percy Edwards.

On one visit to our office in the Fall of 1948 he showed us his first book, a slim volume entitled Call Me at Dawn.

Percy had begun his imitations as a young boy. He was, in fact, as much naturalist as he was an entertainer. When the Second World War began he volunteered to join the Royal Air Force but was rejected as his civilian employment with Ransomes, Sims and Jefferies, agricultural equipment manufacturers, was considered to be essential war work.

Bertram Ilott, the father of my schoolfriend, Trevor Ilott, who now lives in Snettisham, Norfolk, worked with Percy Edwards during the war. Trevor’s father said that Percy’s imitations would frequently entertain the production line.

Percy Edwards’ biography, The Road I Travelled, was published in 1979 and I picked up a copy during a visit to England around 1980. I found it fascinating reading but although he mentioned taking his stage act around Suffolk halls he made no mention of his years with the Co-op. There was a reason for this omission.

For years the Co-op Publicity and Education Departments, together with the Labour Party, organized a major Saturday annual “Fete” at a large Ipswich park. Percy Edwards was the M.C. of the entertainment programs and also provided the commentary for a massive fireworks display that concluded the day’s events.

On one of these occasions – I believe it was in 1956 – Percy was providing a running commentary as the display moved along to its big finale – a number of massive set pieces created with fireworks, the final one usually a portrait of the King and Queen.

One of Percy Edwards’ best friends in the entertainment world was Max Miller, a comedian known as the “cheekie chappie”, well-known for his “blue” jokes. During Percy’s commentary before many thousands of fete visitors, he provided a Max Miller type joke that shocked many of his listeners.

The fete organizers were outraged, the chairman and vice-chairman’s faces turned red, and the organizing secretary quickly arranged for the commentary to be switched off.

On Monday the senior Co-op officials met to discuss how to word the apology that was to be inserted in the local Evening Star newspaper.

However, this episode did not affect Percy’s respected and distinguished career, except he did not appear – at least not for quite a time – in a Co-op Society variety show!

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