Born in Bedford in 1912, John Elton Le Mesurier Halliley was a British comedy and drama actor. He originally intended to be a lawyer, but he felt his calling to be an actor and so, with the backing of his parents, he went to the Faye Compton School of Dramatic Art and embarked on a career in acting. According to screenonline.org, his television career began in 1938, but then was interrupted by the war, during which he served in India. Fortunately, he was able to return to acting once the war was over and in 1948, he was introduced to British cinema.
More commonly known by a short version of his name, John Le Mesurier had regular appearances in film and on television throughout the 1950s and 1960s, most notably in films by the Boulting Brothers. The Boultings were responsible for bringing a number of character actors to the fore, including Le Mesurier himself, Terry Thomas and Peter Sellers. He also had the advantage of being good friends with Tony Hancock and appeared in a number of Hancock films in the late 60s.
The character for which Le Mesurier is most remembered is that of Sergeant Arthur Wilson in Dad’s Army. Le Mesurier was perfect for the role with his craggy good looks and gentlemanly air. He worked particularly well with Arthur Lowe, as Captain George Mainwaring, the bumbling, often patronising leader of the local Home Guard. Wilson often inspired the viewer’s affection for his constant attempts to smooth things over without causing a fuss. The series was so popular that it ran for nine series and still regularly enjoys re-runs on the television today.
When Dad’s Army came to an end in 1977, Le Mesurier was considered to be one of the bastions of British comedy. Although well into his sixties by that point and suffering from ill health he still continued working and had a number of small roles in British sitcoms, including Hi-de-Hi, and films. In all, he appeared in 150 films over his acting career. Fittingly, his final acting role was on radio, in which he played Sergeant Arthur Wilson for one last time in an epilogue to the television show set after the war.
Le Mesurier’s private life was almost as interesting as his acting one. He was married three times. He married June Melville in 1939 and they remained together for 8 years until their divorce. His second marriage, to another stalwart of the British comedy scene, Hattie Jacques, lasted much longer, from 1949 to 1965. The marriage was initially a happy one and the couple had two children together. However, according to a Daily Mail interview with one of their children, Robin, Hattie Jacques was plagued by weight issues and didn’t get the reassurance she needed from her husband. As a result, she met a much younger man, John Schofield and eventually moved him into the household, something that John agreed to because he just wanted his wife to be happy.
Hattie’s affair was kept secret from friends and family for some time, but the relationship with John unfortunately ended in tragedy when he left her for another woman, leaving Hattie devastated. It was too later, however, for her to return to John. By that time, she had already introduced John to Joan Malin, who would become his third wife. That marriage didn’t start out too well, however. The Le Mesurier/Hancock friendship led to an affair between Le Mesurier’s wife, Joan, and Tony Hancock just six months into her marriage with John. In a Telegraph interview, Joan described her feelings for the two men:
“John was a lovely man, a gentleman. He was born looking old, with his long face and big soulful eyes. But he wasn’t exactly passionate. He wouldn’t tell me he loved me. He would pat me on the head and say, ‘I’m awfully fond of you, my little friend.’ Tony was different. He swept me off my feet.”
After Hancock’s tragic suicide, however, Joan and John reunited and remained together until Le Mesurier died. Tony Hancock was known for his drinking habits, but Le Mesurier also drank heavily, although no-one saw him lose control in the way that Hancock did. However, the drinking eventually caught up with him and, after years of ill health, he died at the age of 71 in 1983 of complications caused by cirrhosis of the liver.
Before his death, he asked Joan to put a notice in The Times saying: “John Le Mesurier wishes it to be known that he conked out on November 15th. He sadly misses his family and friends.” With his typical sense of humour, John also wanted that message put on his gravestone, but the local vicar wouldn’t agree to it. Instead, his tombstone in a churchyard in Ramsgate, Kent, reads: “John Le Mesurier. Beloved actor. Resting.” He may be resting, but fortunately his talent is still available for the world to experience today.