John Laurie, Frazer & I

The man who plied his wares alongside the likes of Laurence Olivier and Michael Powell is remembered nominally as the counterpart to Lowe and Le Mesuriers's Captain Mannering and Sergeant Wilson.

Feature by Paul Traynor | 15 Feb 2006
Biography. It always has been - and always will be - a tough nut to crack. Consider the basic ingredients of a good piece of intriguing biographical theatre: a solid narrative structure based on fact, artistic flair and that certain I Don't Know What that can determine whether a play is worthy of the standing ovation or the early retreat.

This in mind, it's worth taking a mental note every time rumour is heard of those that have apparently pulled it off. In particular, those focusing on familiar figures of celebrity who moulded modern theatre, TV and film as we know it, such as Tony Cownie's recent work on the lives of Laurel and Hardy stands testament to fantastic directorial skill, acting ability and all-round brilliance.

But what about those lesser known, if not undeserving figures whose stories are hidden under public indifference? Enter Edinburgh-based writer, actor and comedian Ian Watt, who is facing up to the problems in such an undertaking; writing and starring in a detailed look at one of Scotland's most deserving acting talents of the last century.

'John Laurie, Frazer & I' echoes the sentiment of a generation in its very name. To those brought up after – or in the latter part of – Laurie's life, he is synonymous with the stout, sour and sarcastic Scottish private of Jimmy Perry's 'Dad's Army'. However, despite his role as Private Frazer spanning a lengthy nine years, much of his career is now left to the annals of enthusiasts, and the man who plied his wares alongside the likes of Laurence Olivier and Michael Powell is remembered nominally as the counterpart to Lowe and Le Mesuriers' Captain Mannering and Sergeant Wilson.

Born over 100 years ago in 1897 in Dumfries, the young Laurie aspired to a career in architecture before being called up to serve in the army as World War One broke out. After leaving the army he converted to the stage, training as an actor at London's Central School of Speech and Drama, becoming one of the country's most prolific players at the Old Vic and Stratford-Upon-Avon.

Despite his ever-present appearance in Shakespearean theatre – taking on the roles of Hamlet, Richard III and Macbeth – he was cast to play Oliver in 'As You Like It', the UK's first successful Shakespearean film, alongside Laurence Olivier in 1937. Working under a number of hugely influential directors since Hitchcock's 'The 39 Steps' in 1935, including his friend Olivier and Michael Powell, he led a film, television and theatre career that spanned fifty years from his first appearance in 1930's 'Juno and the Paycock' through to his death in 1980.

However, despite the abundance of professional biographical material there is on John Laurie the actor, little exists in the way of John Laurie the man and it is this that Ian Watt hopes to capture in his monologue.
Since its inception at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2002, the play has been recipient of a barrage of critical acclaim across the board, with the recording of his performance now available on DVD. Earmarked as a jewel in the crown of biographical theatre, 'John Laurie, Frazer & I' returned to the Fringe last year in order to mark the 25th anniversary of John Laurie's death and is now planning to take over the Brunton theatre.

Recommended to all 'Dad's Army' fans since Ian Watt's first performance in 2002, it should also be seriously considered by anyone interested in the life of a man who had his feet firmly rooted in the basis of contemporary British theatre and film.
John Laurie, Frazer & I' is at Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, on Feb 25 for one night only.