Go here to read and / or download my paper, which I delivered at the Shard in London this last Saturday on Dennis Potter’s ‘Traitor’. This was part of the excellent Spying on Spies: Popular Representations of Spies and Espionage inter-disciplinary conference; I will be writing further reflections on this event here in the near future.
The wistful hedonist: John Le Mesurier and Englishness in the Cold War
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.’ 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, Le Mesurier’s ‘playing was unique – but forever the same’, ‘he had depths unrealised through the mechanical pieces in which he generally appeared’. 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’. 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’. 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. 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.
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.’ 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. 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. 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. 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”.
Le Mesurier ‘never hid from the fact that he worked in order to live rather than lived in order to work’. 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.
 McCann, G. (2010) Do You Think That’s Wise? The Life of John Le Mesurier. London: Aurum, p.ix
 The Times (1958) ‘Broadcasting Programmes’, The Times, 7th March, p.6
 Coles, P. (1983) ‘The quiet man of comedy’, The Guardian, 16th November, p.9
 French, P. (1983) ‘Mesurier’s multitude’, The Observer, 20th November, p.34
 Le Mesurier, J. (1985) A Jobbing Actor. London: Sphere, p.119
 Pixley, A. (2006) Adam Adamant Lives! DVD booklet, 2 Entertain
 McCann, G. (2010) p.274
 McCann, G. (2010) p.275
 McCann, G. (2010) p.331
 McCann, G. (2010) p.270
 Le Mesurier, J. (1985) A Jobbing Actor. London: Sphere, p.121
 McCann, G. (2010) p.ix