John Le Mesurier – Turn on, tune in, conk out
Famous for his role as Sergeant Wilson in Dad’s Army, John Le Mesurier’s love of jazz saw him produce a wonderfully chilled and relaxed 1976 album.
John Le Mesurier,
What is Going to Become of Us All?,
Like many of the veteran cast of Dad’s Army, John Le Mesurier had enjoyed a long and successful career before the Home Guard recruiters came calling. John’s familiar resigned, world-weary face and reassuring upper class tones can be glimpsed and heard in literally hundreds of British films from the 1940s onwards. Without ever really being a true star, John Le Mesurier carved out quite a career playing bemused authority figures and jaded members of the establishment. Butlers, police officers, judges, peers, lawyers; John Le Mesurier played them all superbly.
John Le Mesurier was born in 1912 and christened John Elton Le Mesurier Halliley. From birth, he was very much part of the establishment and much more was expected of him than the role of a jobbing actor. His father was a lawyer, there were nannies to tend to the needs of the nursery, and a life of respectability and convention seemed clearly mapped out for John. Without realising at the time, he was surrounded by the very staid and stifled authority figures that he would go on to play in his acting career.
John’s schooldays were by all accounts a dull time enlivened only by the occasional cricket match or stage play. After characteristically flunking an interview for the Royal Naval College, John was instead enrolled at the venerable institution that is Sherborne School, a famous seat of learning beloved my most of its students, with the notable exception of John Le Mesurier . Four years later after a torrid time, largely spent failing to conform in anything he did and growing increasingly disillusioned with rules and conformity, John finally left to take his place in the established order.
Easy going as ever and choosing the path of least resistance, in 1930 John joined a firm of lawyers in Bury St Edmunds, mainly it would seem to keep his despairing parents satisfied. It took another three years of boredom, book-keeping and clock-watching before John finally plucked up the courage to announce to his parents that he was leaving the law firm for ever, and contrary to all expectations and hopes for him, would be journeying to London to join the Fay Compton School of Dramatic Art. After an audition in which he recited a Jack Hulbert monologue followed by a Noël Coward poem, he was in. The former lawyer John Le Mesurier was now free to play the part of a lawyer on stage and screen .
Initial success was slow to come for the young actor. After drama school a succession of provincial repertory companies provided him with gainful and steady employment. A change in name from Halliley to Le Mesurier had little immediate impact on his career. When the Second World War rudely interrupted his acting career, by bombing to oblivion both his home and the theatre in which he was working, John cut his losses and reported to the army to sign up. Displaying his usual reluctance to follow orders or engage in anything more energetic than the ordering of gin-based cocktails, the army made the wise decision to make John Le Mesurier an officer and ship him off to India, well out of the way of Hitler and a place where John would be able to cause little lasting damage to the war effort.
After the war, the roles did start to come. Bit parts and supporting roles galore were John Le Mesurier’s career for the next twenty years, and many a classic British comedy film is brightened up by his languid tones and bewildered air of authority. Marriages to comedian Hattie Jacques and Joan Malin followed and his career seemed steady, predictable and uneventful. Gainfullly and constantly employed but not by any means the leading man he could have been. That is of course, until 1968 when John was offered the role of Sergeant Wilson in Dad’s Army by Jimmy Perry, himself a Second World War veteran of India and the Far East. Fame and acclaim quickly followed and at last, after a mere forty years of trying, John Le Mesurier was a star.
The album is pretty much how I imagine it would be to spend an evening with John Le Mesurier; chatting amiably away, strolling leisurely between Soho jazz clubs, occasionally reclining on a leatherette armchair, nursing a sizeable glass of whisky amidst a languorous fog of cigarette smoke as a saxophone lament plays mournfully in the background.
John doesn’t really travel out of his comfort zone on the record. Not for him the undignified novelty songs and recordings of military marches beloved of his Dad’s Army colleagues. There is jazz naturally, but in true laidback and unselfish Le Mesurier fashion, most of it is sung by Annie Ross (a particular favourite of John) accompanied by pianist Alan Clare. The songs, sketches, monologues and recitals that John Le Mesurier chose for the album are very deliberately and carefully picked, and all are clearly very dear and personal to him.
Having no doubt been gently coaxed into it, John Le Mesurier does manage to contribute a few musical numbers. With his characteristic lack of exertion they are more spoken than sung, but are tuneful and pleasing. On A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, John dismisses the song lightly as one he recently performed in a ‘show, entertainment, what have you’. He modestly fails to mention that the trifling production was the hugely popular Dad’s Army stage show which had run successfully for a year on tour as well in London’s West End. John’s stage version, sung with the assistance of Ian Lavender, can be heard on the original cast recording album. The version here is altogether more whimsical and wistful. It is subdued, sincere, sedate and delightfully warming.
There is a pretty fair and more vigorous stab at singing from John on Thank You So Much Mrs Lowsborough Goodby, a 1934 Cole Porter track that was cut from Anything Goes and remained unpublished in his lifetime. The tale of an awkward and clumsy weekend is perfect for John and he enjoys revelling in the inhibitions and discomfited manners. The themes of repression, inhibition, stifling etiquettes and stuffy convention, is also a major feature of The Awful Fate Of Melpomenus Jones, a dark and sinister comic tale from the English-born Canadian humourist Stephen Leacock. Leacock also inspires another recital from John with My Financial Career, the tale of an awkward boy with his first pay cheque, embarrassed by a bank manager into perpetual avoidance of banks.
Noël Coward provides two more spoken word performances with The Boy Actor, a tale straight from John Le Mesurier’s childhood of nervous auditions and stuttering lines, as well as I Wonder What Happened to Him, a comic vignette of retired Indian officers reminiscing over scandalous gossip from the time of the Raj. It is easy to see how both pieces would appeal to John’s wry sense of humour.
Persuaded to record the album by his close friend and fellow jazz club habitué Derek Taylor, What is Going to Become of Us All? is a deeply personal and touching endeavour. It is an insight into the very personal moods and tastes of a justifiably much loved star. Spending time in the easy-going company of a man as wonderfully affable and relaxed as John Le Mesurier is a pleasure to be savoured. If you doubt me, relax with a choice malt and chill out to the strains of a nightingale, as interpreted by the amiable Mr Le Mesurier: