“Spies on British Screens” Day 1: Lucky eyes, communist maths teachers and the politics of quiche

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This piece is a fuller, more rambling expansion of the piece I have written here for Literary 007. I wasn’t quite sure they were so interested in the 1950s boffin, ‘Father Stanley Unwin’ and Glasgow locations standing in for Czechoslovakia (and there was a word limit)!

On a pleasant Friday morning (17/06/2016), the Spies on British Screens Conference commenced in a small lecture room, housed in a building that was less than ten years old. Most of Plymouth was suitably early Cold War in its look – plenty of concrete shopping precincts and 1950s-60s tower blocks.

Alan Burton (Klagenfurt University) provided a chronological survey of the British spy film cycle, from 1964-73. He applied genre-theorist Steve Neale’s formulation of a film ‘cycle’ to a group of films made in a ‘specific and limited timespan’, in the wake of the success of From Russia with Love (1963). The focus was initially on the 1960s; Burton quoted Alexander Walker’s description of James Bond as ‘man of the decade’. He argued that the cycle’s high-water mark was in April 1965, when Films and Feelings magazine declared a state of ‘spy mania’: the year of the stratospheric box-office success of Thunderball and the anti-Bond complexities of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Ipcress File.

WHERE THE BULLETS FLY

Many films in the cycle couldn’t escape the shadow of Bond: Where the Bullets Fly (1966) even promoted Tom Adams’ Charles Vine as the world’s ‘second best’ secret agent! Among the many obscure films in the cycle that Burton mentioned (and, for many, it sounded like this status was entirely deserved!), some particularly interesting ones were Where the Spies Are (1966) and Otley (1968), with Tom Courtenay as a small-time antiques dealer, left floundering and bewildered in the world of espionage. Danger Route (1967) and Innocent Bystanders (1972) were given as examples of the more violent end of this cycle, with adjectives like ‘vicious’ and ‘unpleasant’ used.

otley

DANGER ROUTE

The compendious Burton, who has recently had published A Historical Dictionary of British Spy Fiction, rounded off his enlightening survey with mention of the spy spoofs – Morecambe and Wise, Carry On, Modesty Blaise (1966) – and the anti-Bond sub-cycle of Deighton and le Carre adaptations. Despite spoofs kicking in early, and a July 1966 Guardian article which asked ‘Is the spy bubble about to burst?’ Burton was able to trace a lineage of films through to 1973, though the cycle had long since ceased to be economically or critically valued. Bond operated on a different level commercially; even if its critical acclaim dwindled from You Only Live Twice (1967) onwards.

Felix Thompson (University of Derby) effectively did the same for TV spy dramas as Burton had done for films, though his paper included analysis of how a smaller range of examples demonstrated the dissolving of national boundaries in the era of mass tourism: another popular cultural practice of the 1960s and 70s of equal significance to James Bond. He analysed series’ such as Danger Man, and mentioned how Patrick McGoohan was very critical of James Bond.

THE PRISONER
THE PRISONER (1967-68). The Bond-like tale of ‘The Girl Who Was Death’ is revealed to be a children’s story book… with clear connotations of the yarn being pacifying false consciousness for the kiddies.

Thompson gave an overview of TV drama in the age of long series, contrastingly to today in Britain where serials such as The Night Manager dominate. He explained how series 2 of Danger Man was both a ‘panorama of cosmopolitan encounters’ and strongly connected to news discourses at the time. Even The Saint, to an extent, was concerned with Britain’s loss of Empire and the increase in globalisation, trade and migration. He explained John Drake’s unique status as simultaneously working for the UN, the CIA, MI5 and NATO, and how narratives included ones such as ‘The Galloping Major’, where the goal is to prevent a coup in a new post-colonial democracy. He analysed how Drake figures as the ‘colonial hero transforming into the tourist’. The Saint’s airport sequences – very common! – were linked to the very 1960s aspiration of jet-setting lifestyles. This show also depicted international cooperation and summitry, with Simon Templar going to a Geneva Conference in an episode ‘The Russian Prisoner’; though this was said to contain national stereotypes and paranoia.

Callan

Thompson went on to discuss the more ‘procedural’ spy series’ like Special Branch, Callan and The Sandbaggers, set in a more everyday world and more likely to contain complaints about working conditions. Settings were again dissected: Callan with the shabby suburban controller’s office far from the world of Bond or even Smiley. He discussed Callan’s theme of class tensions and exploitative relationships, with the hierarchy of upper classes exploiting and giving Callan orders, who, in turn, exploits and gives Lonely orders. Special Branch was said to contain some focus on immigration discontent and racism and made the ‘defence of national boundaries’ into a problematic issue. Thompson concluded by tackling that most widely popular of Cold War British spy shows, The Avengers, with ‘The Charmers’ identified as a rare episode in including a Russian character: a renegade KGB officer, who trains gentlemen to be sleeper agents – something in the vein of the Cambridge Spies.

In the Q&A, Burton mentioned Tightrope (1972), a children’s spy series which included a communist take-over of a school, with a ‘particularly suspect’ Maths teacher involved! To even more amusement, there was discussion of Gerry Anderson’s The Secret Service (1969), ‘only ever shown in Birmingham’ (!), which featured the eccentric Stanley Unwin as ‘Father Stanley Unwin’, a puppet vicar secret agent!

Tightrope2d Secret Service

A profound question was considered: ‘Why is there so much light-heartedness in spy dramas?’ This seemed to be the particularly 1960s mood, with more seriousness (The Sandbaggers), blandness (The New Avengers) and ‘macho’ aggression in relation to terrorism (The Professionals) characterising the 1970s. Out of the Q&A came a fascinating educational summary of the spies:

  • James Bond = public school, fee-paying, socially established.
  • Harry Palmer = grammar school, selective on ability, socially mobile.
  • David Callan = secondary modern, practically focused, socially proletarian.

Ben Wishaw

The second panel began with Claire Hines (Southampton Solent University) analysed the current film archetype of the tech geek, through the portrayal and representation of Ben Whishaw’s Q in recent Bond films. This as a mainstreaming of the ‘nerd’ character was mentioned, with the example of Whishaw’s Prada photo shoot and GQ magazine’s Bond special featuring the character heavily. The archetype was briefly located as a development of the earlier WW2 ‘boffin’ figure, a significant presence in the early Cold War, as best exemplified by Barnes-Wallace in The Dam Busters (1955).

1985omelette1

Next, Stephanie Jones (Aberystwyth University) gave an analysis of Bond and the ‘New Man’ – a cultural archetype recorded by the OED as first appearing in discourses around the 1982 film Tootsie. Jones explored the myths of Dalton’s Bond as being the ‘New Man’, and popular memory of him making quiche for a romantic meal with a female character. This memory is false, Jones revealed, showing the scene as actually from the late-Moore era film, A View to a Kill (1985). Jones further questioned the perceptions of Dalton as a more progressive, cultured Bond; arguing this was more to do with his persona off-screen – Shakespeare actor and partner of Vanessa Redgrave – than anything to do with his performance as Bond.

TEL

Moving on from the politics of quiche – and false memory – Matthew Bellamy (University of Michigan, not the Muse singer!) tackled the relation between Bond and Cambridge spy, Guy Burgess. He placed the defiantly “leak-proof” Bond as designed by Fleming in opposition to the more effeminate and sexually ambiguous figures in British espionage and culture from the 1920s onwards: T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom was used to contextualise the Cambridge Spies. Bond was seen as an unambiguous figure, able to redeem and refresh the establishment. The Q&A discussion revealed that recently released files show that the British secret services thought they could get Burgess not for his spying activities but for his homosexuality, in a Britain that had yet to see the liberal reforms of the 1960s. The Q&A also contained interesting discussion of where the ‘007’ of Bond came from: it isn’t just the UK dialling code for Russia, but was also seen as a lucky number by a spy of a somewhat different era: John Dee, Queen Elizabeth I’s spy who saw the 0s as representing eyes: “I am your lucky eyes”, as he said to the Queen. The absorbing Q&A also took in the dandyism of Roger Moore’s Bond and how the shock at Bond cooking quiche seems odd in that Bond is so often depicted cooking in Fleming’s novels.

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The third and final panel of the day began with an analysis by James Mason expert Sarah Thomas (Aberystwyth University) of the 1966 film, The Deadly Affair. This was an adaptation of the first George Smiley book, featuring Mason as Smiley, renamed, for copyright reasons: ‘Albert Dobbs’. In contrast to the exotic vistas of Bond films, this film was analysed as having ‘unromanticised’ and ‘drab’ everyday London settings such as an East End boozer. As with the other papers on this panel, the focus was on setting, use of locations and analysis of how films use mise-en-scène to create specific impacts on the audience.

tinkertailor

Douglas McNaughton (University of Brighton) used television theory to analyse how director John Irvin and the BBC production team made the acclaimed 1979 serial version Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, explaining the ‘Oratic power’ of when productions use actual locations that the audience would recognise. He gave the example of the serial’s opening shots of the Cambridge Circus, with its cinematic presentation of the actual Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road junction. The production’s ingenuity was also shown in how they used Glasgow for scenes that were supposed to be Czechoslovakia. McNaughton’s paper formed an argument that the TV version of TTSS was more writerly and more cinematic than the 2011 film version.

JOHN HURT

Jane Barnwell (University of Westminster)’s following paper focused on the 2011 film adaptation, being based on extensive interviews with set designers. She explained how the set design of Control’s messy, disordered flat helped John Hurt ‘get’ just how unhinged and crazy his character, Control, was. Interiors with their elaborately thought-out and researched period décor, were described as having a character of their own. The Q&A reflected how the 1970s aesthetic ‘look’, with oranges, browns and pinks connoting drab austerity, is now a British ‘Heritage’ look comparable in familiarity to how country houses regularly appear in Merchant-Ivory films or Downton Abbey. There was an interesting debate, which could not end conclusively, on whether places (i.e. sets or locations) in films represented people (i.e. characters in the diegesis), or whether they said more about the geographical locations represented.

Sean Connery - Vince's

The ‘Keynote’ lecture was delivered, in interactive and entertaining style, by Pamela Church Gibson (London College of Fashion), an extensively published analyst of the cultural history of fashion and cinema. She discussed Sean Connery’s early job as a model and how he bought his clothes at Vince’s Men Shop in Soho – which was also frequented by influential cultural types such as George Melly and Peter Sellers. She attacked the ‘dangerous myth’ of social mobility: of being able to move up the social class ‘ladder’, as most glaringly exemplified by the ‘insufferable’, upwardly-mobile Joe Lambton in Room at the Top (1959).

ROOM AT THE TOP - UK Poster

Church Gibson then compared Bond with the unnamed narrator in The Ipcress File (Harry Palmer, of course, in the film), saying that in the novel he possesses a cultural capital that Bond lacks, reading books and the New Statesman, stripped away in the Michael Caine film, which just leaves the cooking. She mentioned Caine’s Palmer’s ‘enormous’ appeal to women at the time, despite his use of the colloquial “birds” for women. Discussion of the film developed into the director Sidney J. Furie’s The Leather Boys (1964) as a ‘really interesting film’ and discussion of London: St James’ Park is ‘always where spies meet’ in spy films!

time magazine

The April 1966 issue of Time magazine on London as the ‘Swinging City’ was critiqued. The associated mythical ‘silliness’ of the 1960s as Swinging London – embodied in a film mentioned in the Q&A, Smashing Time (1967) – was unfavourably contrasted with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) film, starring Richard Burton as Alec Leamas in a crumpled mac. Church Gibson contrasted this veracity with the recent BBC-1 adaptation of John le Carre’s The Night Manager, ‘which could be a fashion shoot’, highlighting the difference in backgrounds between Connery, Caine and Burton and the cast of that serial, the main three of whom – Laurie, Hiddleston and Hollander – were all ‘Eminent Dragons’, alumni of the same Oxford prep school. This wasn’t the last in SOBS that we were to hear of casting and social class: Rosie White’s paper on Leslie Howard, Tom Hiddleston and national identity was to explore this further on Saturday…

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The wistful hedonist: John Le Mesurier and Englishness in the Cold War

JLM - DAD'S ARMY 03.14

Biographer Graham McCann refers to the sort of parts Le Mesurier (1912-83) played: ‘His absent minded aristocrats seemed a little envious of any less class-bound, but still subtly sybaritic, kind of modern democratic lifestyle. Few actors, in short, were better at embodying that peculiarly English brand of wistful hedonism that opened the eyes while pursing the lips.’[1] This article will discuss John Le Mesurier’s role in the 1971 Play for Today ‘Traitor’. It provides greater background and context to my paper about this TV play at Spying on Spies at the Shard on 5th September.

LIKE CARY GRANT AND GOLDEN AGE HOLLYWOOD STARS, IS LE MESURIER ‘ALWAYS THE SAME’?

According to Peter Coles, who directed him in a 1958 TV version of Czech playwright Karel Čapek’s The Makropulos Affair[2], Le Mesurier’s ‘playing was unique – but forever the same’, ‘he had depths unrealised through the mechanical pieces in which he generally appeared’.[3] Coles refers to him as playing a range of professional types; critic Philip French describes him as ‘essentially the representative of bureaucracy and officialdom but with a ‘complex […] feeling of exasperation [and] anxiety [that] lurked behind that handsome bloodhound face’.[4] French describes his role in Traitor as taking his ‘British screen persona to the point of destruction’.

John le Mesurier’s casting for ‘Traitor’ was refreshing; his wife Joan saw it as his ‘chance to get shot of the problem of typecasting’.[5] He would have been best known for playing Sergeant Arthur Wilson in Dad’s Army. ‘Fallen Idol’ (TX: BBC-1, 18/12/1970) was the last time he’d been seen as Wilson before ‘Traitor’, and, in counterpoint to Potter’s play, Captain Mainwaring is suspicious of Fraser, asking Wilson whether he might be a subversive: “You don’t think he’s a communist, do you…? I’ve noticed he doesn’t play monopoly with the other men…”

This is despite Mainwaring’s somewhat socialist claims earlier in the episode:

“This is a democratic platoon […] We’re all equal here…”

Also worth considering is series 3’s final episode, ‘Sons of the Sea’ (TX: BBC-1, 11/12/1969), a typically gentle fantasy of old men as small boys on an idyllic and absurd excursion. We have here a nation’s peculiar self-image of ‘muddling through’ amateurism – one wonders how much Croft and Perry contributed to the national myths of shambling, anti-technological improvisation that David Edgerton has critiqued. In this episode, Sergeant Wilson shows technical expertise in creating the mock-up boat, skills inculcated by his nanny. It is notable that Arthur Harris in ‘Traitor’ also had a nanny as a boy – as shown early in the play – which emphasises his similar social background to the languid Arthur Wilson. Dad’s Army invariably conveys that reflective mid-twentieth century British belief in the necessity of social consensus between classes: fostered in contrasting ways in Millions Like Us (1943), The Way Ahead (1944), In Which We Serve (1942) and Listen to Britain (1942). ‘Traitor’ shatters any sense of social togetherness, for a picture of class antagonism far more apt to the 1970s context.

Impact is increased by casting JLM as such a ‘haunted’, tormented character. Not just known for his diffident, urbane Sergeant Wilson in Dad’s Army, but for roles as the gently out-of-touch military man in These Dangerous Years (1957) and in the complacent Boulting Brothers-helmed colonial ‘satire’, Carlton-Browne of the F.O. (1958). He appeared uncredited – mercifully – in the wretched Terry Southern adaptation The Magic Christian (1969) as Sir John, again Cambridge-associated as in ‘Traitor’. TMC makes anti-materialist points in as trivial and gauche a manner as possible; one can only imagine the extent of Dennis Potter’s basic ethical agreement but utter disdain for the execution, had he reviewed it. Le Mesurier has an excellent role as a lonely bachelor artist in the Tony Hancock vehicle, The Punch and Judy Man (1963), a melancholy and irreverent seaside comedy that is the closest British cinema got to Le Mez’s beloved Les Vacances de M. Hulot.

Le Mesurier appeared in many quota quickies like A Time to Kill (1955). In this, he is a puritanical father, blundering into the courtroom declaiming: “I am the father of the unhappy Madeline Tilliard!” as if he was in a Victorian theatrical melodrama. We don’t get to hear that much more from this character, speaking of “the devil’s brew” and his sinful daughter; a shame, it’s a mediocre film and the past-master at raising the bar within such films, Le Mesurier, does just that!

Defiantly non-mediocre was The Pleasure Garden (1954), an eccentric and idealistic 37-minute fantasia from American avant-garde director James Broughton, made amid the ruins and statuary of Crystal Palace Terraces, which had been closed to the public since 1937. This ode to sexual passion and desires, ironically features JLM – a lover of the good life and far from puritanical – as a Lord Chamberlain-like moral arbiter, an official whose job is to stamp out licentious behaviour and, basically, fun. It was intended by Broughton as “a valentine to the land of Edward Lear, Shakespeare and pantomimes” and seems to utilise the spirit of Jacques Prevert and Oscar Wilde. Rather like Powell and Pressburger, we have a subtle antipathy to such signifiers as typewriter sounds, offices and bureaucracies and city streets. However, this 1954 film has none of the stultifying, shorthand usage of these of signs – ‘grim tower blocks’ invariably included – that pervaded Britain in the 1970s as a form of anti-socialist propaganda. Lindsay Anderson appears in this film. There are characters called ‘Lord Ennui’ and ‘Lady Ennui’. It is a brilliant one-off!

Like in Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball, the phrase “stop this nonsense!” is uttered by censorious types. Le Mesurier’s black-clad Col. Pall K. Gargoyle seems to embody centuries of moralistic cant and soullessness: “This is indecent and PUT SOMETHING ON!” He uses verbs like “unhand”, and repeats “Dignity!” as a deadening mantra. It has a greater pungency when we consider Le Mesurier’s own laid-back personality and his love of jazz music and pubs.

Merrie Albion (Hattie Jacques) transforms some of Gargoyle’s underlings into statues and decrees “You shall be as dead as official art.” This focus on the inertness of sanctioned, propagandist art – perhaps taps into concerns over the increased role of state subsidy for the Arts, post-WW2: represented by the Arts Council in the 1940s and significantly increased Arts spending under Labour Minister Jennie Lee in the 1960s. It may, however, be a much more pointed and direct broadside against communism and ‘Socialist Realism’, which was perceived in just this way: lifeless and inert, when judged against US abstract impressionism or pop art.

Other significant roles include his appearance in David Mercer’s Flint as the wild vicar, as a rather less wild clergyman in Brideshead Revisited (Granada, 1981) and alongside Anthony Hopkins in A Married Man in 1982: this latter, remarkably, JLM on Channel 4!

Raiding my DVD archive, I have uncovered JLM as a minister of finance in a corrupt South American state vied over by the Soviets and the Americans: the very so-so early Danger Man episode, ‘An Affair of State’ (TX: 13/11/1960). There is novelty in Le Mesurier playing a man called ‘Alvardo’, putting on a truly odd accent and engaging in a spot of ‘desperate’ brawling. There isn’t novelty – in terms of British telly in the 1960s – in how the script has a grown woman referred to as “child”… A “poor child”, at that. In the night-club, Fenella Fielding gets to be objectified. McGoohan is in tame mode, compared with The Prisoner (much more on that, anon!).

Rather better is Roger Marshall’s ‘Mandrake’, a Cathy Gale era episode of The Avengers (ABC, TX: 25/01/1964).There is vaguely mournful jazz music that wouldn’t be out of place in a certain later Patrick McGoohan ITV venture… There is uneasy bliss, gallows humour and sardonic use of leftist rhetoric from Annette Andre: “Hopkins? Oh, what’s he? A fat decadent, bourgeois capitalist, exploiting the proletarian masses! No, he’s actually rather nice!” JLM is a villain, posing as a doctor, with an acolyte resembling Luke Haines – all appropriately cooking up corrupt schemes in an English graveyard. There are oddly gritty references to “children educated on Congo blood money”. There’s arsenic in the soil and literary allusions abound: to Richard III and John Donne. Honor Blackman is marvellously resourceful and unusually attractive. Patrick Macnee is one of the few Old Etonians you don’t resent. It all feels very different to the colour Diana Rigg episodes I’ve seen far more of – this is less stylised, mordant Englishness, rather than somewhat bolted-on eccentricity for the overseas market. Le Mesurier is perfect for this sort of superior hokum.

Le Mesurier gives an enjoyable performance in the Adam Adamant Lives! episode ‘The Terribly Happy Embalmers’ (TX: 04/08/1966) as the supercilious psychiatrist Velmer. This was watched by 8.2 million people, though only received an Audience Appreciation Index figure of 44, rather low.[6] It doesn’t quite have the wit of a good Avengers episode, but is a reasonably affable run-around, traversing the series’ usual ground of anachronism and culture clash. Adamant poses as an ‘Adam Smith’, who is “worrying about his tax problems” as Velmer observes. Some may see this as proto-neo-liberalism uttered by a mock-up of the Market Liberal supremo himself: “I have money enough, but not if I pay my taxes”! Le Mesurier is excellent at smugly condescending: “Still fighting your duels, Mr Smith!?” and uttering grandiose Leavisite lines like “Modern man has forgotten how to breathe…”

I also watched an episode of Jason King, an ITC adventure drama I had never seen before. ‘If it’s Got to Go – It’s Got to Go’ (TX: 16/02/1972). It was dreadful. As Dr Litz, Le Mesurier half-heartedly tries out a German accent, which is barely perceptible by the end of the episode. The pre-credits sequence at least promises garish ham: “The treatment has been successful. He is totally… utterly… INSANE!” Even that dubious promise isn’t delivered upon. Maybe it was the low-rent YouTube version I watched… But maybe it was just a dull, trivial narrative that didn’t hold my attention for a second. Taking this role was clearly an indication of the dearth of good quality scripts in the early 1970s that biographer McCann identified.[7]

Cold War-related roles on radio for JLM include: I Was A Communist (TX: 08/02/1952) and Stoppard’s espionage play The Dog It Was That Died (TX: BBC R3, 09/12/1982) – playing an MI5 doctor. Show Me a Spy from 1951, which I’ll be honest I know nowt about! I am also quite intrigued by his appearance in a presumably lost (?) take on the Sellar and Yeatman satire on reductive ‘island story’ history 1066 and All That, transmitted over Christmas 1952. He was in Val Guest’s Where the Spies Are (1965), which was playing in hospital when he was dying in 1983.

His first film role following ‘Traitor’ was Au Pair Girls (1972), also directed by Val Guest; according to Graham McCann: ‘a cheesy nosegay of pendulous breasts, drooping bottoms, and flaccid jokes accompanied by the sound of clinky-clank guitars, patty-pat bongos and dozy saxophones, which obliged John to stroke a prostrate young woman’s bare chest: a task that he exerted with all the enthusiasm of someone searching for something edible on a tray of soggy canapes.’[8] Truly, symbolic for the state of mainstream British cinema at that time that Adrian Harris was followed by Mr Wainwright…

“WHAT IS GOING TO BECOME OF US ALL?” – FAMILY, POLITICS, CHARACTER…

When they were married, Hattie Jacques pushed John into doing “the odd active thing” for the Conservative party and voting the ‘right way’ on Equity matters when they were married, but he was, as his widow Joan has said, generally a moderate ‘One Nation’ conservative.[9] Joan: “I’ve always been left-wing so he got no encouragement from me at all! I remember one time in the 1970s, Saatchi and Saatchi called, trying to get him to do some commercials for the Conservative Party in a lead-up to a General Election […] I told him, “John, you can’t possibly do that! […] No, you mustn’t!” He was far from as parochial, and his favourite film was Jacques Tati’s exquisite comedy Les Vacances de M. Hulot (1953). His good judgement extended to an incident Joan recounts in her afterword to his autobiography. They are in Margate, waiting for their bus to Herne Bay, and John sees a giant billboard with Jimmy Savile’s face on it and utters a single “Cunt”.

Le Mesurier is an evocative figure in British culture, and dabbled in other areas than TV and film. In theatre, he was in Moliere and Ayckbourn; Priestley as well as Coward. He also released a wonderfully titled LP, What Is Going to Become of Us All? (1977) that is seemingly almost impossible to find! In this, he was assisted by Derek Taylor, who was press officer for The Beatles and The Beach Boys in the 1960s and worked with Vivian Stanshall, Nilsson and George Melly in the 1970s. Taylor turned him onto the writings of Stephen Leacock, some of which he recorded. It may be an album worth hearing, from an era of actor interventions in recorded sound: Richard Harris, Patrick Cargill, Peter Wyngarde and David Hemmings, to note just four. ‘There’s Not Much Change’, recorded in 1982 – with Clive Dunn – however, is dreadful, but was at least fun for those who made it. Not by many though; Joan commented that it “enjoyed the dubious distinction of being one of the lowest selling records of the year”.

He son Robin toured with Rod Stewart in his rather ghastly late-70s era. His other son Jake was intriguingly involved in playing and writing material with The Dream Academy, Yazz and The Orb: contributing more of worth than a good many more prolific musicians. This “lovely guy”, as he is described in Graham McCann’s JLM biography, was found dead in a squalid London flat in October 1991, heroin in his body.

STARRING IN DENNIS POTTER’S ‘TRAITOR’

He worried to Joan that there were ‘too many words’ in ‘Traitor’, yet he got down to work with Potter’s complex, verbose script and turned up for the rehearsals word perfect.[10] He doesn’t so much break his typecast image as use its diffidence and gentleness to produce a richly textured, troubling Adrian Harris, who you can empathise with. Gentleness and socialism go as well together as gentleness and Burkean Tory paternalism – Le Mesurier’s normal mode, which he imbues with diffidence. He plays Harris with a troubled edge, which suggests the fusion of gentle idealism with hard Marxist ideas.

While Le Mesurier was understandably miffed that the Radio Times cover with his image failed to include his name, he would have been pleased by just how universally acclaimed his was performance was. Here is a sampling of the major broadsheet TV critics’ comments:

DUNKLEY (TIMES): ‘Mr Potter’s traitor, obsessively tidying his depressing Moscow flat in a high-rise block, rather like some shabby old owl marooned in an eyrie’.

BANKS-SMITH (GUARDIAN): ‘the part of the traitor was a formidable aria for John Le Mesurier […] This, his Hamlet, was well worth waiting for’.

HOLLAND (OBSERVER): ‘a part at last worthy of his serious talents’.

WORSLEY (FINANCIAL TIMES): ‘What held us was [John Le Mesurier’s] marvellous performance’.

JLM’s 1972 BAFTA award for ‘Traitor’ was handed over by Princess Anne, under the roof of the Albert Hall. “I don’t get much time to watch TV”, Anne said to him.[11] It is inconceivable somehow to imagine what her thoughts would be had she actually watched ‘Traitor’! Patricia Hayes also won an award for her role in ‘Edna, the Inebriate Woman’, which Le Mesurier comments wryly on: “it was, like ‘Traitor’, a remarkable play, but not too strong on laughs”.

CONCLUSION

Le Mesurier ‘never hid from the fact that he worked in order to live rather than lived in order to work’.[12] Few British TV and film actors managed to achieve as much, in as deceptively effortless a manner as ‘Le Mez’. From the 1950s until his death in 1983, he embodied a laid-back, sophisticated and gentle Englishness. The Le Mesurier archetype knows how to enjoy life – and is also, crucially, open-minded. Therefore, all the more powerful to see him tackling an edgy role like Adrian Harris, countering his usual embodiment of non-boat rocking English steadiness and serenity.

[1] McCann, G. (2010) Do You Think That’s Wise? The Life of John Le Mesurier. London: Aurum, p.ix

[2] The Times (1958) ‘Broadcasting Programmes’, The Times, 7th March, p.6

[3] Coles, P. (1983) ‘The quiet man of comedy’, The Guardian, 16th November, p.9

[4] French, P. (1983) ‘Mesurier’s multitude’, The Observer, 20th November, p.34

[5] Le Mesurier, J. (1985) A Jobbing Actor. London: Sphere, p.119

[6] Pixley, A. (2006) Adam Adamant Lives! DVD booklet, 2 Entertain

[7] McCann, G. (2010) p.274

[8] McCann, G. (2010) p.275

[9] McCann, G. (2010) p.331

[10] McCann, G. (2010) p.270

[11] Le Mesurier, J. (1985) A Jobbing Actor. London: Sphere, p.121

[12] McCann, G. (2010) p.ix