John Laurie: How Shakespearian actor was doomed to play a dour, wild-eyed Scot
I SUPPOSE that, when I say John Laurie, I really mean Private Frazer. But Laurie vivified the much loved character in comedy series Dad’s Army, so credit where it’s due. Besides, the former was a proper Scotsman, while the latter was grim, dour, gloomy, wild-eyed, morbid (day job: undertaker), a two-faced gossip, malcontent and stirrer.
As educated readers know, Dad’s Army was about Home Guard civilian volunteers during World War B. You’ll recall the opening theme song, telling us yon Hitler was mistaken in thinking “old England’s done”. England was what Britain was called until 2014.
Fair to say Laurie saw Dad’s Army as a comedown after a distinguished career in Shakespearean roles and as a notable reciter of national poet, Bobby Burns.
His first utterance – “Ouch!” – came on 25 March 1897 when he was born in Dumfries. His father was a clerk turned hatter. His mother was a Jessie.
Laurie attended Dumfries Academy before a career in architecture was cut short by World War A, in which he served with the Honourable Artillery Company.
Like many in that conflict, Laurie was left haunted by his experiences. Later in life, he asked Dad’s Army co-writer Jimmy Perry to stop showing footage of the war for a feature about veterans, saying: “Turn it off, son. I can't watch it.”
Upon demobilisation, he trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama, and made his first appearance on the London stage in 1922-ish at the Old Vic. At the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, he played Richard III, Othello and Macbeth. In only his second season, he played Hamlet, and came to believe his performance the definitive one, saying: “That’s the way to play Hamlet.” I see.
Laurie's first film was 1930’s tragicomedy Juno and the Paycock, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. In 1935, Hitchcock also cast him as John the Crofter in the actor’s breakthrough third film, The 39 Steps.
Laurie and Laurence Olivier made their first film appearance together in a 1936 adaptation of As You Like It, and the Scot went on to appear in Olivier's three Shakespearean films, Henry V (1944), Hamlet (1948), and Richard III (1955).
Role model cast the net wide
Other roles included Peter Manson in Michael Powell’s romantic melodrama The Edge of the World (1937), loosely based on the evacuation of St Kilda, Clive Candy's batman in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), and the brothel proprietor in Fanny by Gaslight (1944).
He appeared in Disney's Treasure Island (1950), Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951), and Hobson's Choice (1954). Also in 1954, he joined the Edinburgh Gateway Company to play lead in Robert Kemp’s The Laird o' Grippy, a translation into Scots of Molière’s L'avare.
In 1968 came the show that changed his life, as he stepped into the tackety boots of Private Frazer, with his catchphrases of “We’re doomed, ah tell ye!” and “Rrrubbish!”
Co-star Frank Williams, who played the vicar in Dad’s Army, noted in his autobiography that Laurie had “a sort of love-hate relationship with the show” as, despite it making him money, he felt it beneath him.
Another fellow actor, Ian Lavender (Pte Pike), recalls him saying: “I’ve played every part in Shakespeare, I was considered to be the finest Hamlet of the twenties … and now I’m famous for doing this crap.” This from a man whose film appearances included The Abominable Dr Phibes, The Reptile, and Devil Girl From Mars.
Laurie gained a reputation on set for pessimism. In Dad’s Army: The Story of a Very British Comedy, author Graham McCann described him as “cantankerous”, “mischievous”, and “someone who enjoyed playing a kind of a professional pessimist”.
He could Nazi the potential
Indeed, he’d been pessimistic about the show’s prospects of success from the start. As the only one of the “magnificent seven” main characters who’d served in the Home Guard, he couldn’t see the subject’s scope for comedy and thought the show would be boring.
On set, he never got on with gentle, very English co-star Arnold Ridley (Private Godfrey). Laurie flaunted his greater fitness. Michael Knowles, cast member from 1969 to 1972, recalled that, if he saw Ridley seated, he’d pick something up and carry it past Ridley, saying: “Don’t you worry son, you just sit there. I’ll get on with this.”
Actor John Laurie in a scene from episode 'Things That Go Bump in the Night' of the television sitcom 'Dad's Army', July 15th 1973. (Photo by Don Smith/Radio Times/Getty Images).
Ridley’s son Nicholas believed Laurie “probably had a little bit of fun at my father’s expense”, but believes they came to tolerate each other.
In the show, Frazer, had formerly managed a philately shop, though his favourite hobby was making coffins. He hailed from the “wild and lonely” Isle of Barra, whose alleged desolation and bleakness had formed his grim character.
In younger days, he supposedly had adventures sailing the south seas, including with a companion cursed to die by a witch doctor for stealing a ruby from a temple (despite Frazer warning his friend: “DEATH! The ruby will bring ye DEATH! DE-E-ATH!”)
He was a Chief Petty Officer in the Royal Navy during World War A, a cook on HMS Defiant, and also served on a minesweeper. He moved to Walmington-on-Sea after the war.
In the Home Guard, he criticises his superior officers, while ruthlessly ambitious to become one himself. His main rivalries are with fellow oldies Jones and Godfrey, but he seems fine with younger spiv Walker, despite the latter repeatedly referring to him as “Taffy”.
Kilt in the war
In Operation Kilt (featuring a brutal fellow Scot called Captain Ogilvie) we learn he has a tattoo on his arm which says: “Scotland forever.” Frazer is president of the local Caledonian Society, of which he is sole member after expelling the other one for not paying his subscription. On several occasions, Frazer speaks of his preference for ladies with “big, strong thighs”.
As well as Dad’s Army, Laurie appeared in many British series of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, including Tales of Mystery, Doctor Finlay's Casebook, and The Avengers.
In 1975, he appeared in Disney’s One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing and, in 1978, made one of his last appearances in Return to the Edge of the World (1978), where Michael Powell revisited Foula, location in Shetland for his film of 40 years before.
Laurie died from emphysema on 23 June 1980, aged 83, at Chalfont St Peter, Buckinghamshire.