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Le Mesurier, John (1912-1983)


Main image of Le Mesurier, John (1912-1983)

There are some wonderful scenes in the post-Bondian spy spoof Where the Spies Are (d. Val Guest, 1965) where John Le Mesurier's air of perplexed foreboding as a harassed MI6 chief (lamenting the incompetence of his department: "We're a figment of modern folklore") helped raise an otherwise light comedy to occasional heights of comic brilliance. His contribution to other films and television often achieved a similar - and hugely appreciated - effect.

In a career which began on television in 1938 and in cinema in 1948, his unique screen persona - a world-weary cynicism coupled with a twitch, or a lop-sided grin, a raised eyebrow or an exasperated heaven-ward look - became warmly familiar to two generations of filmgoers and TV viewers.

To cinema audiences in the 1950s and 1960s he seemed to be everywhere as a reassuring supporting player, in the Boulting Brothers' comedies Private's Progress (d. John, 1956), Brothers in Law (d. John, 1956), Carlton-Browne of the F.O. (d. Roy, 1958), I'm All Right Jack (d. John, 1959) and in the Norman Wisdom-fuelled films, directed by Robert Asher, Follow a Star (1959), The Bulldog Breed (1960) and The Early Bird (1965).

During this period he frequently appeared with Tony Hancock on television, at the height of the comedian's fame (BBC's Hancock's Half-Hour, 1956-60; Hancock, 1961), and had parts in his films The Rebel (d. Robert Day, 1960) and The Punch and Judy Man (d. Jeremy Summers, 1962); memorable in the latter as one of Hancock's fellow seaside-entertainer outcasts, the sad beach sculptor Sandman.

Among his many small screen roles, he was the wealthy employer (with usual deadpan demeanour) of Peggy Mount's bawling housekeeper and Sid James' cunning chauffeur in the farcical comedy George and the Dragon (ITV, 1966-68), although his appearances, under the shadow of featured performers Mount and James, were all too infrequent.

Then, in 1968, came the role of Sergeant Wilson in Dad's Army (BBC, 1968-77), the sitcom series about the British Home Guard during the Second World War now valued as a TV classic. While it was filled with some of the finest British character actors of the time, it was the hesitant exchanges of one-upmanship between Le Mesurier's Wilson, a figure of delicate gentility, and Arthur Lowe's pompous, middle-class platoon leader Captain Mainwaring that added to its finest moments.

In the rare instances where he was allowed to step out of comedy he more than proved himself in essentially serious roles, such as the sad, drunken Kim Philby-like defector in Dennis Potter's Traitor (for Play for Today, BBC, tx. 14/10/1971), which earned him a Society of Film and Television Arts best actor award, and the lascivious vicar in David Mercer's earthy comedy-tragedy Flint (for Play of the Month, BBC, tx. 15/1/1978).

From 1949 until divorce in 1965 he was married to comedienne Hattie Jacques, whose crosspatch matron Carry On comedy roles contrasted with the more subdued parts that he played.

John Le Mesurier, A Jobbing Actor, 1985;
Joan Le Mesurier, Dear John, 2001.

Tise Vahimagi

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Battle of the River Plate, The (1956)Battle of the River Plate, The (1956)

Last of the Powell/Pressburger partnership - a WWII naval drama

Thumbnail image of Carlton-Browne of the F.O. (1959)Carlton-Browne of the F.O. (1959)

Classic Foreign Office satire with Peter Sellers and Terry-Thomas

Thumbnail image of Early Bird, The (1965)Early Bird, The (1965)

Milkman Norman Wisdom tries to save Grimsdale's Dairy from takeover

Thumbnail image of Flat Two (1962)Flat Two (1962)

Compelling 'B' thriller with a fine performance from John le Mesurier

Thumbnail image of Follow a Star (1959)Follow a Star (1959)

Norman Wisdom dreams of pop stardom

Thumbnail image of Hound of the Baskervilles, The (1959)Hound of the Baskervilles, The (1959)

Typically full-blooded Hammer Sherlock Holmes, with Peter Cushing

Thumbnail image of I'm All Right Jack (1959)I'm All Right Jack (1959)

Peter Sellers is a militant trade unionist in this peerless workplace satire

Thumbnail image of Never Let Go (1960)Never Let Go (1960)

Grimy, brutal thriller with a strikingly vicious performance from Peter Sellers

Thumbnail image of Our Man in Havana (1959)Our Man in Havana (1959)

Alec Guinness is out of his depth in pre-revolution Cuba

Thumbnail image of Punch and Judy Man, The (1962)Punch and Judy Man, The (1962)

Tony Hancock stars in a tragi-comedy set in a small seaside resort

Thumbnail image of Rebel, The (1960)Rebel, The (1960)

Tony Hancock's big-screen debut stars him as a talentless but ambitious artist

Thumbnail image of School for Scoundrels (1959)School for Scoundrels (1959)

Alastair Sim teaches Ian Carmichael how to be a cad like Terry-Thomas.

Thumbnail image of Christmas Carol, A (1977)Christmas Carol, A (1977)

Michael Hordern stars as Scrooge in this BBC Dickens adaptation

Thumbnail image of Dad's Army (1968-77)Dad's Army (1968-77)

World War II sitcom about the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard

Thumbnail image of Doctor Knock (1966)Doctor Knock (1966)

Leonard Rossiter and John Le Mesurier unite in a vintage French farce

Thumbnail image of Last Train Through the Harecastle Tunnel, The (1969)Last Train Through the Harecastle Tunnel, The (1969)

A trainspotter's day trip becomes a voyage of discovery

Thumbnail image of Ripping Yarns (1976-79)Ripping Yarns (1976-79)

Blissfully funny parodies of Boy's Own adventure stories

Thumbnail image of Traitor (1971)Traitor (1971)

Dennis Potter's imaginative exploration of the Cambridge spies story

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Thumbnail image of Jacques, Hattie (1922-1980)Jacques, Hattie (1922-1980)