There was so much more to the actor John Le Mesurier than Dad’s Army, as a one-man show demonstrates. Stephen Griffin talks to its creator, Julian Dutton
29 March, 2019 — By Stephen Griffin
Julian Dutton as John Le Mesurier. Photo: Robert Nesbitt
CHARMING. Diffident. Languid. Insouciant. Many words apply to the self-styled “jobbing actor” John Le Mesurier.
Then there’s ubiquitous.
It would appear to have been illegal to make a film in Britain in the 1950s and 60s without “Le Mez”. Giving basically the same soufflé-light performance in everything from I’m All Right Jack and The Italian Job to Ben-Hur and The Pink Panther, it was an enduring joy to find him cropping up as a harassed minor authority figure.
Gaining lasting recognition as Sergeant Wilson in the pensionable yet venerable BBC series Dad’s Army, Le Mesurier (it rhymes with “treasurer”) was a man who wore his talent lightly, invariably playing a thinly veiled variation of himself. The perennial sitcom not only afforded him some kind of immortality but a catchphrase – “Do you think that’s wise?”
And that’s the title Julian Dutton has given to his one-man show about the great man.
“I’ve always been a huge John Le Mesurier fan,” he says. “When I was growing up I was obsessed with sitcoms, especially Dad’s Army, and I began impersonating him from the age of about seven or eight. I was also a massive fan of films from the 50s and 60s, particularly comedy films.
“John Le Mesurier was of that generation of actors who cut their teeth in rep in the 30s. And there were hundreds of films made in the 50s and 60s which was like a huge repertory company of the big screen.
“He was one of those actors who could nurture a successful career just playing bit parts, which you can’t do now.”
Born in London but now based in Wales, Julian began his career as an actor before becoming an impressionist, scriptwriter and stand-up comic.
“I started doing John Le Mesurier as part of my act and I was always surprised at how well he went down in front of young audiences at things like student gigs. It struck me that Dad’s Army had never really been off our screens since 1969.
“It’s quite extraordinary that Le Mesurier, who was born in 1912, is in the highest-rated television comedy programme in 2019.”
And it’s not escaped Julian’s notice that at 53 he is now the same age as Le Mesurier was when landed the part in Dad’s Army.
To appreciate just how good Julian’s impression is may I suggest you search his name on YouTube. It’s a marvellously subtle take on a marvellously subtle actor. He’s not at all showy, so is Le Mez a hard nut to crack?
The key, says Julian, is keeping a (literally) stiff upper lip.
“And the point is that if you do an impression from a very early age it kind of seeps in.”
The current show draws together all the strands of Julian’s career as a legit actor and stand-up. Yes, it is an impression show but he wanted to do something more challenging than a sketch.
“My show tells his story in a fun way, there are funny stories about his life and career, but my aim is to give him an emotional current, which turns him up slightly from the Sergeant Wilson we know.
“There was a wonderful Dennis Potter play called Traitor [loosely based on Kim Philby] in which he rants and raves a lot. And I think that was closer to the truth of Le Mesurier.
“I don’t shy away from the dark side of his life – he confronts his demons, as it were.”
And Le Mez wasn’t short of demons. Beneath the laughs is the inevitable tale of tragedy and melancholy. Cuckolded not once but twice – when he was married to the actress Hattie Jacques she installed her lover in the family home while he lived upstairs, and later his third wife conducted an affair with his best friend Tony Hancock – it’s little wonder he sought solace in the odd “strong cigarette” and all-night session at Ronnie Scott’s.
His devotion to, and loss of, Hattie is particularly heart-breaking. Although she was the guilty party he allowed Jacques to bring a divorce suit on grounds of his own infidelity in order to preserve her reputation.
Neither Le Mesurier’s widow nor his son have seen Julian’s show. “If any member of his family wants to come to see the show that’s fine, but I’m not actively reaching out to them simply out of courtesy,” he explains.
“I’m not dishing out any dirt on Le Mesurier at all. I try to make it an accurate and truthful portrayal.”
Hancock, Steptoe, Tommy Cooper, Kenneth Williams, Norman Wisdom… there’s currently no shortage of one-man shows that pay tribute to well-loved turns from the recent past. It’s almost a theatrical sub-genre. Why is that?
“It’s a generational thing,” thinks Julian. “When you come out of an era you realise how valuable what you grew up with was. It isn’t just wallowing in nostalgia; it’s a kind of celebration of quality that our generation knows about but maybe a younger generation doesn’t. It’s a celebration of a kind of acting and comedy that has gone.”
Gone but certainly not forgotten, Le Mesurier took his leave of us in 1983 – courtesy of a few too many visits to the bar. Stylish to the last, a self-penned announcement in
The Times declared that he had “conked out”; his last words were: “It’s all been rather lovely.”
Now, that’s class.
• Do You Think That’s Wise?: The Life and Times of John Le Mesurier is at Bloomsbury Theatre, 15 Gordon Street, WC1H 0AH (020 3108 1000), April 9 and 10, and the Museum of Comedy, The Undercroft, St George’s Church, Bloomsbury Way, WC1A 2SR (020 7534 1744), May 3 and 4.