Do You Think That’s Wise? The Life & Times of John Le Mesurier
In Julian Dutton's warm and endearing tribute to British actor John Le Mesurier, the pretext for his reminiscences is preparing for an interview with a newspaper journalist.
We find him backstage, knocking back whisky, waiting to be called for a camera rehearsal for an episode of Dad's Army, Jimmy Perry and David Croft's super-successful comedy which ran for nine series, with various radio and film spinoffs.
A televisual national treasure, this BBC sitcom now celebrating its 50th anniversary, has lodged itself firmly within popular culture. Anyone of a certain age will know it as the source of "Don't tell him [your name] Pike", "You Stupid Boy" and the titular "Do You Think That’s Wise?".
To me, John Le Mesurier is someone instantly recognisable but unfamiliar.
It was not until Dutton's show that I realised how little I know about him, as against say Tony Hancock, who had an affair with Le Mesurier's third wife. Despite this disloyalty, the pair remained friends until Hancock's suicide some time later.
Professionally, Le Mesurier brushed up against the good and the great from his training at drama school and throughout his early time in rep, his career largely steady but underwhelming whilst the others—Alex Guinness and James Mason to name just two—enjoyed greater things.
Le Mesurier credits his agent and second wife, the prolific Hattie Jacques, rather than any endeavour of his own, for his eventual progression into B-movies and supporting parts in now classic films such as I'm Alright Jack and popular television shows such as Hancock's.
In spite of his first marriage ending when Le Mesurier returned from the Second World War to find his wife had become an alcoholic, he succumbed to excessive drinking, often in the company of journalist and notorious drinker Jeffrey Bernard and Hancock, disappearing for daylong benders and ruining a personal and professional idyllic period that ran across the 1950s.
Despite such dissolute behaviour and private pain, that Dutton's show fails to deliver a real dramatic punch is all bound up with the temperament of Le Mesurier himself rather than a deficiency in the script, which can only reflect the man himself.
Dutton the playwright keeps the timeline moving along, mixing biographical information with anecdotes and a good sprinkling of name-dropping, which last night's audience greeted with mumbled approval.
The difficulty is that even at the most emotionally traumatic moments Le Mesurier appears to have reacted with more of a whimper than a bang: when Hattie Jacques installed her boyfriend into the family home, he moved to an upstairs bedroom to suffer and cling onto the hope that the marriage could be rescued.
It couldn't, and were it not for the death of Hancock happening when it did, perhaps Le Mesurier wouldn't have retrieved his third marriage either; he seems a character without vitality to whom things happened.
Aged 56, Dad's Army landed in his lap and provided him with a family when he needed one. He played the role of Sergeant Wilson as himself, a performance, if you can call it that, which led to non-comedic roles, one of which won him a BAFTA.
As we run out of reminiscences, Le Mesurier, swaying under the influence of the many whiskys, recalling past colleagues like a dying man seeing his life pass before him, the effect is more sad than wretched.
Dutton is an excellent mimic and exudes the charm and easy, genial style of his subject. In so doing, he pulls off a clever trick, showing us a man who is essentially pathetic and alcoholic whist never ruining our fond memory of Le Mesurier as the helpless and hugely funny Sergeant Wilson.
Do You Think That’s Wise? The Life & Times of John Le Mesurier continues to tour, visiting the Museum of Comedy London, Jokers Southend, Darwen Library Theatre Blackburn, Brindley Studio Theatre Runcorn, The Plough Arts Centre Torrington, Acorn Theatre Penzance and The Lamproom Barnsley.