Dad's Army favourite John Le Mesurier's dignity and charm depicted remarkably in one-man show

Julian Dutton as John Le Mesurier
Julian Dutton as John Le Mesurier

Nick Le Mesurier reviews Do You Think That’s Wise?, performed by Julian Dutton at the Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford

Everybody loves John Le Mesurier. The genial, slightly eccentric actor who played Sgt Wilson in Dad’s Army, was by all accounts much as he was off screen as on. He had a career that spanned the heyday of British cinema and TV, appearing in hundreds of films and comedies, often in small ‘bit parts’, and only occasionally taking the lead, as in Dennis Potter’s unforgettable TV play, Traitor, for which John won his only Bafta in 1972. He played a man not unlike the Russian spy Kim Philby, and even there he portrayed someone seeking to retain his dignity in a chaotic world, who perpetually sought comfort in alcohol.

John Le Mesurier could drink. On stage, Julian Dutton, who has lovingly recreated his hero to show the stresses that lay beneath the bluff exterior, has him always holding a glass of scotch, which never runs dry. In life, John would go on three- and four-day benders, accompanied by some of the best actors of his generation, most outstanding of which was Tony Hancock, who committed suicide and was an even heavier drinker than John. But not before he’d had an affair with Joan, John’s beloved third wife, who eventually returned to him and with whom he had a long marriage.

It’s unfortunate in a way that John is, apart from his character as Sgt Wilson, largely remembered for his unhappy marriages. That he married Hattie Jacques and lived for a while upstairs in their home while her lover, John Schofield, moved in with her downstairs, is well known; as is Joan’s affair with Tony Hancock, who always remain John’s best friend. It’s that capacity to withhold judgement, never to fall into the trap of public displays of bitterness and recrimination that is in part his charm. It’s a rare thing nowadays, but it’s a key part of the public face of John Le Mesurier, and one which seems to have been genuinely a part of him.

Whatever its roots, it came with a cost. Julian Dutton shows us the pain the man was unable to avoid. “He suffers so well,” said Michael Mills, head of comedy at the BBC, who first suggested John as Sgt Wilson. Indeed he did. Hancock liked to call him Eeyore, after the lugubrious donkey and loyal friend to Pooh Bear. But it was said with affection, which is the feeling John seems to have been adept at encouraging.

It would be cruel to seek to dish the dirt on him, and Julian Dutton’s delightful eulogy never seeks to do so. Whether there really was any is hard to imagine. We know enough about John’s suffering to be satisfied and not to look for more. What we have instead in this warm, affectionate but never sentimental tribute is a glimpse of a complex man and of an era. John knew and worked with everyone in British cinema and TV, and was happiest, or perhaps merely best at, showing their talents for what they were. One might say he gave more than he got, but even that’s not quite the whole picture. Even after watching this remarkably accurate impression of the man and all his mannerisms there are areas one suspects remain uncovered, but we are content to leave them there. John Le Mesurier’s legacy is of something arguably greater than the man himself, and it comes with a dignity which we don’t see often enough.

* The show is on tour until June 2019. For details see www.juliandutton.wordpress.com