Guest Actor Biography
Page 69 of 127

   

John Le Mesurier

Dr. Macombie, Mandrake
Benson, What the Butler Saw

by Pete Stampede

The wonderful John LeMesurier remains one of those performers you're always pleased to see, and retain affection for. His role as the mild-mannered Sergeant Wilson, upper-class but with a benevolent and vaguely distracted manner (when required to order the platoon around, he'd always say, "Would you mind falling into line, please?") in Dad's Army (BBC, 1968-77), one of the most popular and most frequently repeated British sitcoms ever, ensures that his face—lined, tired but crumpling into a charming smile—and hesitant delivery remain familiar. But it wasn't the only high spot of his career: he was easily one of the most prolific British film actors, with scores of credits ranging from Ben-Hur (1959) to modest, black and white British comedies. He starred as a detective in The Drayton Case (1953), the first of an endless series of crime shorts hosted by the sinister Edgar Lustgarten, was the butler Barrymore in Hammer's version of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1958), was a lawyer in the original Pink Panther (1963) and had occasional Hollywood outings like In the Cool of the Day (1963). I particularly recall his head waiter whose ears perk up at the sound of Terry-Thomas rustling a pound note in School for Scoundrels (1960), his twitching, incompetent industrial spy in I'm All Right Jack (1959) and his pleasantly melancholy seaside artist, who befriends Tony Hancock 's The Punch and Judy Man (1963). He was a friend of Hancock in real life, although understandably, Hancock's alcoholism, affair with LeMesurier's second wife, and eventual suicide caused a strain all round. Le Mesurier's first marriage was to outsize Carry On star Hattie Jacques (bizarre but true: one of their sons was later a session musician for Rod Stewart amongst others), and they remained friends after their divorce, her premature death in 1980 upsetting him greatly.

LeMesurier was reputedly a bit of a hippie in the late 60s/early 70s, and as he admitted in his posthumous autobiography A Jobbing Actor (out of print), after being told to give up alcohol by his doctor, he took up what he euphemistically described as "extra strong cigarettes". In fact, his second wife Joan claimed he was smoking one at the BAFTA Awards for 1971, when he was presented with the Best Television Actor award by Princess Anne! The award was for Dennis Potter's Traitor (1971), in which he was thoroughly convincing as a defector, now living in a state of drunken reverie in a state flat in Moscow (Potter made no secret of having based the character on Kim Philby). LeMesurier's other "straight" TV plays included Harold Pinter's Tea Party (1965) and the title role of a rebellious clergyman in David Mercer's Flint (1978), while he later played a priest in Brideshead Revisited (1982). Before Dad's Army, he played a dozy retired colonel in another sitcom, George and the Dragon (ATV, 1966-68); his countless guest appearances included Hancock's Half Hour (1957-61), "The Lawyer," "Lord Byron Lived Here," "The Cold" and "The Lift," Danger Man, "An Affair of State" (1960) and Ripping Yarns, "Roger of the Raj" (1979). He worked for Brian Clemens again in "File It Under Fear" (1973), an episode of Clemens' anthology series Thriller, shown late at night in the US under the Wide World of Entertainment banner. But whatever brought him to his "guest appearance" in the soft-core embarrassment Au Pair Girls (1972, along with Gabrielle Drake, Norman Chappell and Ferdy Mayne), I'll never know.

LeMesurier's second or third wife, Joan (depending on your source), wrote an autobiography of her own, later in the 80s, called Lady Don't Fall Backwards! (also out of print, I'm afraid). The title is an in-joke from a Hancock's Half Hour episode in which Hancock was driven mad trying to find an intact copy of a detective novel with a missing final page. There's a nice story in A Jobbing Actor about a great-uncle of LeMesurier's who "went West" and achieved solidarity with the Native Americans, to the extent that they presented him with a totem pole with his name engraved on it. Many years later, this wound up in a California junk shop, and was bought by none other than Vincent Price! When filming with LeMesurier once, he introduced himself by saying, in his sepulchral tones, "At home, when I look out of the window, I see your name." LeMesurier was bemused, until Price added, "It's on a totem pole." Now that, believe it or not, made sense. After his death from an abdominal illness in 1984, his self-written death notice in The Times stated that he had, regrettably, "conked out." David Niven once said (after a routine secret agent yarn, Where The Spies Are, 1965) that working with LeMesurier was more like seeing a familiar face at a favourite club; whether they went to clubs or not, many audiences felt the same.

Autumn Downey, a cousin of John LeMesurier (Canadian branch of the family), writes: "That little anecdote about the totem pole is interesting, though I do find myself wondering... All three of John's uncles came to Canada to the English settlement of Cannington Manor, (in Saskatchewan). Paul, the youngest died at an early age down east. My grandfather stayed on at Cannington and farmed there—or sort of farmed there. He was a real character and enjoyed life considerably. Both he and Cecil, the middle brother, were on good terms with the local Cree, and could speak a little of the language. Cecil went so far as to compile a small dictionary which we still have. However, he left this area about 1906 and moved to Victoria where he was employed at a boys school—a sort of Mr. Chips character, my mother says. (So, I can't imagine that he had much to do with native peoples there, though we really aren't too knowledgeable about his life in B.C.) I have heard the he was into spiritualism and after his first wife died and he remarried; the marriage lasted a very short time because he continued to communicate with his first wife. As there were no children, there's not really a lot to go on, but he would most likely have been the uncle that John was referring to. There are great pictures of the three brothers decked out like frontiersman. Cannington, the village, has pretty much disappeared, existing now only as a Historic Park."

[Editor's Note: The number of times LeMesurier has been married seems to be a point of contention, with visitors claiming certainty of his having had two or three wives, depending on the source.]

Links: It really is touching to see how much interest there still is in Dad's Army, as shown by the number of related sites. The Dad's Army Appreciation Society's site is, if anything, even more comprehensive, with full listings of episodes (including, sadly, the ones that ended up being wiped), articles on spin-offs, like the forgotten radio sequel It Sticks Out Half a Mile (I thought I was the only one who remembers that!), and reports on the Society's conventions and activities; several of the surviving cast and production team have been in touch. Of the several unofficial sites, I like Andy's Dad's Army Web Site, which has some very rare interviews with the stars, from the time the show was first broadcast.

All materials copyrighted per their respective copyright holders.
This website Copyright 1996-2017 David K. Smith. All Rights Reserved.
Page last modified: 5 May 2017.

Top of page
Table of Contents