To the wider public Joan Le Mesurier, who has died aged 90, was known for her marriage to the actor John Le Mesurier and her affair with his friend the comedian Tony Hancock. Those relationships were the subject of TV films, books and endless newspaper articles, but they never defined her. Far from being the femme fatale depicted by those who didn’t know her, Joan was a woman of limitless wit, generosity and humour.
She grew up in Ramsgate, Kent, where she was born to Fred Long and his wife, Lass (nee Jones), into a family where money was stretched and emotions “were volatile and easily roused; none of us was ever able to hide joy, sorrow or irritation for long”.
Her parents were fairground workers and Joan spent much of her childhood in seaside amusement parks. At 14 she left school to work long hours in the family business.
At 22 she married another fairground worker, Douglas Malin (later known professionally as the actor Mark Eden), whom she described as “tall and dark with green eyes and [having] charm in buckets and spades”.
Their son, David Malin (who became a musician and composer), was born in 1957, but shortly afterwards Mark left her. Despite the turmoil this caused, it was typical of Joan that, when 14 years later she met her ex-husband’s new wife, Diana Robinson, she embraced her wholeheartedly, was a witness at their wedding and Diana remained her lifelong friend.
In 1962 she was working at Peter Cook’s Establishment club in Soho when she met John Le Mesurier (best known as Sergeant Wilson in Dad’s Army). A few months after marrying him in 1966, she embarked on an 18-month relationship with the troubled comic Tony Hancock, a tumultuous affair that ended when Hancock took his own life.
Joan wrote: “When Tony died in 1968 I was in splinters but, with extraordinary grace, John – who was in deep grief too – held out his arms to welcome me home and we resumed a married life of ever deepening affection and trust.” She nursed John tenderly through his declining years.
After John’s death in 1983, Joan ran a guest house in Sitges, Spain, where she became known for feeding the town’s feral cats. Later, back in Britain, she spent years campaigning against the export of live animals for slaughter.
Joan wrote two elegantly crafted memoirs, Lady Don’t Fall Backwards and Dear John, and could recite reams of classical poetry and Gershwin and Cole Porter lyrics from memory. What she would most resent about death, she said, would be all the unread books she would leave behind.
In her final months, as dementia set in, she vividly recounted childhood memories of German bombers over Pegwell Bay and of her parents.
She was tended during this time by her granddaughter, the actor and director Emma Griffiths Malin, who survives her. David died in 2017.