On this day in history : 5th April 1912 – The birth of English character actor John Le Mesurier – perhaps best known to us for his role as Sergeant Arthur Wilson in ‘Dad’s Army’….
Born John Elton Le Mesurier Halliley in Bedford, Le Mesurier was the son of a solicitor and spent his early childhood in Bury St. Edmunds, West Suffolk – before attending boarding school in Kent and then later Dorset…. After leaving school he was encouraged to follow in his father’s footsteps….but he had hankered after a career on the stage since an early age…. So he joined an amateur dramatic group – and then in September 1933 he left the legal profession and enrolled in the Fay Compton Studio of Dramatic Art…. A fellow student was Alec Guinness – who became a lifelong friend….
Le Mesurier made his stage debut at Edinburgh’s Palladium Theatre in 1934, with a part in the J.B.Priestley play ‘Dangerous Corner’…. During the War years he was commissioned in the Royal Tank Regiment and in 1943 was posted to British India where he spent the remainder of the War…. After being demobbed in 1946 Le Mesurier returned to Britain to resume his acting career, making his film debut in 1948 in the short mystery film ‘Death in the Hand’….
Although Le Mesurier preferred comedy his versatility saw him in a variety of roles, from ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ to ‘The Italian Job’…. The role of Sergeant Arthur Wilson in ‘Dad’s Army’ came about in 1968…. He based the character on himself – upper-middle class, softly spoken, polite and forgiving in nature…. He was an unassuming man – playing down the BAFTA he received in 1971 for Best Actor of the Year for his role as Adrian Harris in Dennis Potter’s Play For Today ‘Traitor’….
Behind the scenes Le Mesurier had a turbulent and perhaps tragic personal life…. He had married his first wife, June Melville, in April 1940….However, on returning home from India, after being demobbed, he discovered she had become an alcoholic…. They divorced in 1949…. In the November of 1949 he married Carry-On star Hattie Jacques and they had two sons, Robin and Kim…. But in 1962 she began an affair with her driver, John Schofield – even going as far as moving him into the family home, whilst Le Mesurier was still there…. Le Mesurier desperately tried to repair the marriage – but became quite unwell, collapsing whilst on holiday in Tangier in 1963 and needing hospitalisation…. When he returned home to find his wife and her lover still together he suffered a relapse….
Eventually Le Mesurier and Jacques divorced…. He even took the blame for the breakup of the marriage to save her reputation…. He had met Jean Malin by this time and in March 1966 she became his third wife…. Only a few months later she was to begin a relationship and move in with his friend, comedian Tony Hancock…. But being an alcoholic Hancock was to behave in an abusive manner towards her…. A year or so later she attempted suicide; she left Hancock and returned to her husband….
From July 1983 Le Mesurier’s health noticeably deteriorated, he was hospitalised after suffering a haemorrhage…. Six years before he had been diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver on account of his prolonged heavy drinking…. Later in 1983 he was to have a recurrence of his condition, he was admitted to Ramsgate Hospital…. Before slipping into a final coma he reportedly said to his wife “It’s all been rather lovely”…. Le Mesurier died on the 15th of November 1983…. He left behind his own death notice to be printed in The Times the following day – saying that he had “Conked out” and he ‘Sadly misses family and friends”…. His ashes were later buried at the Church of St. George the Martyr, Ramsgate…. The following year his autobiography ’A Jobbing Actor’ was published posthumously….