Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Percy, Hal (1898–1949)

by John Rickard

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Hal Percy (1898-1949), actor and writer, was born on 2 October 1898 at Moonee Ponds, Melbourne, and named Percy Ewart, son of Australian-born parents Vernon John Montague Henry, accountant, and his wife Amy Fanny Elizabeth, née Gardiner. He attended All Saints Grammar School, St Kilda, and worked as a motor driver. On 1 July 1918 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. Reaching England after the Armistice, he served in France before being discharged from the army on 28 November 1919. Concert parties for the troops had stimulated his interest in theatre, but, on his return to Melbourne, he bowed to his parents' reservations about such a career and trained as a commercial artist. In 1920 he succumbed to theatrical temptation and joined Phillip Lytton's travelling tent-show company. His two years with the company gave him the broad experience which was to underpin his professional career.

Throughout the 1920s 'Hal Percy' (as he styled himself) was in demand as an actor, often playing in J. C. Williamson Ltd's companies; among the 'stars' in whose productions he appeared were Maurice Moscovitch, (Sir) Seymour Hicks and Leon Gordon. When the Depression, combined with the advent of 'talkies', devastated professional theatre, he and Brett Randall founded (1931) the Melbourne Little Theatre, envisaged as a repertory company to bridge the gap between amateur and professional theatre. Percy's practical and artistic skills were important in making the best of primitive conditions at the Fawkner Park Kiosk, South Yarra, the theatre's humble premises from 1932. The Little Theatre was cautious in choice of plays, but was committed to the development of Australian drama.

On 23 December 1933 at St Paul's Anglican Cathedral, Melbourne, Percy Henry married Peggy Alice Maud Benson Mitchell, a 28-year-old, London-born beautician who was a member of the company. Deciding to make a career in radio, he became a studio manager for 3UZ and was soon devising variety programmes. He moved into the production of serials and set up his own company, Hal Percy Productions; later he was involved with another company, Legionnaire. The subjects of these popular serials ranged from Lawrence of Arabia ('The Broken Idol') to (Sir) Winston Churchill ('Imperial Leader'). From time to time Percy returned to the Little Theatre to direct and act.

During World War II Percy concentrated on variety. He appeared regularly in the Australian Broadcasting Commission's 'Merry-Go-Round', creating a segment called 'Canteen Capers' in which he played a 'Dinkum Digger'; he continued in this genre in another programme, 'Rola Radio Newsreel', on radio 3XY. Many of his verses, written in a style reminiscent of C. J. Dennis, were later published in Here's Hal Percy in Verse (1941) and Radio Rambles with Hal Percy (1945), the latter with his own illustrations. While celebrating the decency and humour of the digger, Percy also had a patriotic agenda which emphasized Imperial loyalty and encouraged recruiting.

Hailed by his peers as 'a trouper', Hal Percy—like many professionals of his generation—developed the versatility necessary for economic survival, but was particularly renowned for being equally at ease on radio and the stage, and in variety as much as drama. Cheerful and vigorous in manner, he was solidly built, his gruff voice lending itself to character roles.

In 1945 Percy joined the A.B.C., working first as a variety producer and then as head of 'light entertainment' in Victoria. He was twice acting federal director of variety, in Sydney. Survived by his wife and son, he died suddenly of heart disease on 23 July 1949 at the King's Cross Hotel and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Lane, The Golden Age of Australian Radio Drama 1923-1960 (Melb, 1994)
  • Bulletin, 9 Dec 1931
  • Listener-In, 23 Oct 1937
  • Herald (Melbourne), 9 Jan 1932
  • Age (Melbourne), 3 Dec 1931, 25 July 1949
  • Argus (Melbourne), 25 July 1949
  • Melbourne Little Theatre scrapbook and H. and P. Percy files (Performing Arts Museum, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne)
  • H. Percy papers (National Film and Sound Archive).

Citation details

John Rickard, 'Percy, Hal (1898–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/percy-hal-11368/text20309, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 11 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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