Tuesday, 5 April 2011

John le Mesurier: Intensely Relaxed

The great comic actor John le Mesurier would have been 99 today, if he hadn't 'conked out' (in the words of his self-penned death notice) in 1983. I've always admired his languid, good-natured, bemused style since the Ealing comedy days (and I'm old enough to have seen many of them in the cinema when they came out) - and of course his Sergeant Wilson in Dad's Army was a classic performance. The wonderful thing is that, by all acocunts, his screen persona was pretty much the man himself - intensely relaxed, you might say, albeit with the aid of a heroic intake of alcohol and tobacco. When doctors took him off the drink, he very nearly died - picking up the bottle again gave him another seven years of pretty happy life. He had a good war, becoming a Captain in the Royal Tank Regiment, and his innate gentlemanliness extended to taking the blame for the break-up of his marriage to Hattie Jacques in order to protect her name. He also stoically put up with his third wife leaving him for Tony Hancock, then coming back a year later. Intensely relaxed indeed - and a true gentleman.

9 comments:

  1. His hands are marvellous to watch. Along with his eyes they did a lot of work very elegantly.

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  2. Oddly enough, about a week ago I came to the end of watching every episode of Dad's Army from start to end. A couple of things struck me.

    The first was that the writing at the beginning was amazingly strong (I didn't think Croft and Perry had it in them).

    The second was that the eight series was the best and the ninth the worst.

    The third thing I realised was that Le Mesurier is really the heart of the show. His performance was a wonderful balancing mechanism to Mainwaring. I spent more time watching him than any other performer and it was shocking to the point of upset to see the amount of weight he'd lost in that final series. I didn't think he lived much longer but I understood that he did. Perhaps, as you say, because he went back to the drink. I really don't think we'll see the like of him again. This country no longer seems capable of producing actors with his unique gifts.

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  3. Indeed Spine - and perhaps it's because we no longer produce people like that, with that kind of attitude to life, taking nothing too seriously but with great courage and strength of character underneath. (A war helps of course.) I thought Robert Bathurst played him really well in that otherwise rather unsatisfactory BBC4 drama Hattie.

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  4. I confess, Nige, I can't bring myself to watch these shows about my comedy heroes. The 1950s produced such a generation of talent that I suppose it did indeed have much to do with the war but, more specifically, not the war. Milligan’s books about his time in the army were almost too contemporary for my tastes and I think the success of comedy of that post-War period had something to do with getting back to certain well defined limits of behaviour and taste. Galton and Simpson’s writing remains unmatched but I always felt deeply uncomfortable watching the film version of Steptoe and Son from the 70s. On TV, they were self-contained dramas, limited to one set, two men, and the BBC guidelines. The result was not unlike watching Beckett. Without those restrictions, we end up with a parade of grotesques, which, in my mind, were embodied in the very person of Diana Dors who I really couldn’t stand and I think turns up in one of those films. John le Mesurier was the antidote to all that. I remember hearing him playing Bilbo Baggins in the Radio 4 version of Lord of the Rings many years ago and thinking there was more humanity and warmth in his reading that in all billions of pound spent on the film versions.

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  5. I gather the original intention was to have the Mainwaring part played by Le Mesurier as an ex-public schoolboy. Swapping things around was a decision of genius.

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  6. I didn't know that, Gaw, but watching all nine series in order you do become acutely aware of the inconsistencies, as they obviously were discovering these things about the characters as they went along. Of course, by the end they have done it too much and fell into tired patterns and jokes.

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