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Joan Le Mesurier, who has died aged 90, was a vivacious divorcee in 1960s London but cast as a femme fatale when she married the actor John Le Mesurier and embarked on a notorious affair with his best friend, the comedian Tony Hancock, which ended with his suicide in Australia.
She had only been married to John Le Mesurier for six months when she took up with Hancock in 1966. Le Mesurier was a popular character actor, familiar from many 1950s British film comedies, who was about to find lasting fame on television as the languid Sgt Wilson in Dad’s Army.
Hancock, then the best-known comedian in Britain, had married his second wife three months before seducing Joan. She was Le Mesurier’s third wife, and he was her second husband. Where Joan considered Le Mesurier a companionable mari complaisant, Hancock was a passionate lover.
“His intensity and demands for sex frightened us both slightly,” she would remember, “and we tried to cut down a bit. ‘I’m going to draw an imaginary line down the middle of the bed, over which no tits, arses or willies must stray,’ he said. But it didn’t work, and I was no help at all – I found him irresistible.”
When she and Hancock confessed their affair to Le Mesurier, he did not demur. It lasted for two years, on and off, and when Hancock killed himself, aged 44, in 1968, Joan returned to Le Mesurier permanently and remained married to him until his death, aged 71, in 1983. She later said she felt ashamed about her infidelity with Hancock.
In 2008, when she was 76, she struck the Sunday Telegraph journalist Nigel Farndale as “unaffected, matter-of-fact and, if anything, a little brassy.” At 33 she had been working in London as a receptionist by day and a barmaid by night when she met Le Mesurier, then 52, at the Establishment Club.
His wife, the comedienne Hattie Jacques, had met another man and wanted a divorce. To spare her the scandal, Le Mesurier said it was his fault. Joan and he began a relationship and went through the charade of being “caught’’ in a Brighton hotel. Joan and Hattie became good friends.
Unlike the undemonstrative Le Mesurier, Hancock swept Joan off her feet. Struggling with drink and depression – he underwent innumerable attempts at detoxification – he left his second wife (his long-time agent, Freda “Freddie” Ross) and stayed with the Le Mesuriers at their two-bedroom flat in London.
When John went to Paris to work on a film, Where The Spies Are (1966), with David Niven, Hancock began the affair with Joan, saying he wanted to marry her. They told Le Mesurier when he returned. “He was very good about it,” Joan recalled. “Said he quite understood. I think he did. He was very fond of Tony, you see.’’
Joan and Hancock moved into the Maharaja Suite at the Mayfair Hotel, a typically grand gesture by the comedian. He believed that his career was in decline, having peaked in 1961 with the final season of Hancock’s Half Hour, the television series that included his best-known sketch, “The Blood Donor”. Hancock hit the bottle, beating his first wife and assaulting his second, breaking her nose.
With David, her 10-year-old son from her first marriage to the actor Mark Eden, Joan moved to Ramsgate with Hancock in tow. When his drunken rages continued, she promised that if he could keep sober for a year, she would marry him.
He agreed and left to film a television series in Australia. They never saw each other again. Joan believed he had seen a newspaper quoting her as saying their affair was over, a remark she admitted making, hoping to get reporters off her doorstep. Hancock swallowed barbiturates washed down with vodka, having first written a letter to Joan, which arrived after he died, saying: “I now relinquish you to your own life and will forget you in time.”
She returned to Le Mesurier, with whom she lived for the following 18 years. Like Hancock, he became an alcoholic and died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1983, his self-penned death notice announcing that he had “conked out”. The local vicar refused to have the words on Le Mesurier’s headstone, which reads “John Le Mesurier. Beloved actor. Resting.”
One of three children, Joan Dorothy Long was born on July 3 1931 in Oldham, Lancashire, and brought up in Ramsgate and later Folkestone, where her father, who had been invalided out of the police, worked as a bouncer at an amusement park. Her mother ran tea dances at a local ballroom.
Evacuated back to Oldham at the outbreak of war, Joan attended Eustace Street school in Chadderton before her father took a job running a children’s playground in Blackpool and she moved to Tyldesley Girls’ School, famous for its choir. At the end of the war she returned to Ramsgate with her parents.
For some years she manned sideshows in amusement parks – heavy, rough and tiring work which she resented, having been forced to leave school at 14. On winter evenings, she would keep warm in the local fleapit cinema.
She was working as a dental nurse in Broadstairs when she married the actor Mark Eden in 1953. They had a son, David Malin (1957-2017), who also became an actor. She and Eden divorced in 1959, and a year later she moved to London, working at a dental practice in Drury Lane.
Joan found evening work behind the bar at the Queen’s Theatre, and at the end of her shift would relax at a Soho club called the Fifty. One night a friend invited her to the Establishment Club, where she met John Le Mesurier, then unhappily married to Hattie Jacques. She was offered a bar job at the Establishment, and she and Le Mesurier began an affair in 1964, marrying in March 1966.
Her relationship with Hancock began the following September, shortly before he left his first wife, Cicely. By the end of the year, Joan had moved in with Hancock at a flat off Kensington High Street. Hancock also bonded with David, Joan’s son by her marriage to Mark Eden, and who, anticipating the prospect of famous stepfather, would later joke about missing out on being “Hancock’s Half Heir”.
Installed as Hancock’s “nurse, jailer and bodyguard”, she endured his antidepressant-induced episodes, including one in which she woke to find him at the end of the bed, supported by two hall porters, “giggling like a naughty schoolboy, stark naked except for a jockstrap, which was on back to front, and a green candlewick bedspread”.
In the summer of 1967, when Hancock reappeared after an unexplained absence of four days, she swallowed all his sleeping pills; the housekeeper found her the next morning and called a doctor, while Hancock lay unconscious in the next room.
She recalled the comedian’s reaction when contemplating their affair: “I’m John’s best friend and I’m in love with his wife… I didn’t intend this to happen.”
In her 1988 memoir Lady Don’t Fall Backwards, Joan Le Mesurier described her final few weeks with Hancock. They had rekindled their affair after she had returned to her husband, but kept it secret – becoming, as she recalled, “an expert in subterfuge, John making it easy for me because he never asked me where I’d been. He never asked a question if he didn’t want to know the answer.”
After her husband’s death, Joan Le Mesurier was threatened with the bailiffs after refusing to pay her rates in protest at the number of juggernauts using Ramsgate ferry terminal, as well as veal exports to Europe.
She clung on to her elegant home in Ramsgate where she hung photographs of John Le Mesurier and Tony Hancock side by side on a basement wall, a sign (as The Sunday Telegraph noted) of “a spirit of mischief in her unfaithful heart”.
Joan le Mesurier remained close to her first husband Mark Eden until his death in 2021. Their son predeceased them in 2017. After John Le Mesurier’s death in 1983, she published his biography Dear John (2001) and divided her time between Ramsgate and Sitges in Spain where she renovated a large ancient casa and ran it as a guesthouse for visiting actors.
Joan Le Mesurier, born July 3 1931, died July 9 2021