John Laurie (1897 - 1980)

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About John Laurie

<The Times, June 26, 1980>

<MR JOHN LAURIE>

<Scottish actor of wide experience>

Mr John Laurie, the distinguished Scottish actor, died on June 23 at the age of 83.

While a large number of people will remember him as Private Fraser the wild-eyed Scots undertaker, one of the stalwarts of the BBC television series, 'Dad's Army', many others will remember him for his long and faithful service to the stage; as a memorable reader of Burns and the highly individual versifier William McGonagal; and on radio in a totally different vein, as Johnt the Baptist in Dorothy L. Sayers' 'The Man Born to be King.'

Though he played so much else after his arrival at the Old Vic [1922] as Pistol in 'The Merry Wives of Windsor' Laurie was always primarily a Shakespearian. He reached the Vic, under Robert Atkins who he revered, as a tall, eagerly athletic young Scot, ready for anything but with a special feeling for warm-hearted comedy and with a quality of speech, searchingly accentuated, that grew even faster as he matured.

He spent three years with the Vic, then he went down to Stratford-upon-Avon for the festival of 1923, especially as Autolycus and Costard. He was married then to Florence Saunders, one of the Vic's most loved actresses; her death, early in 1926 was tragic. Bravely, Laurie played two small Shakespearian parts in the West End before returning to Stratford; Bridges-Adams cast him perceptively as an intensely earnest and affecting Hamlet. A year later [1928-9] he was leading man at the Vic where he played Hamlet again as well as Macbeth, Touchstone, Feste, and Armado, an example of the readiness he was to show through life.

Invariably at work - few actors had his stamina -he was seldom far from Shakespeare; often with Atkins during the early period of the Open Air Theatre [1933-35]. Before this he had acted Claudius to Else Percy's Hamlet [Court, 1930].

The size of his roles seldom troubled him; thus, at His Majesty's [1935] he was content to appear as Douglas, in 'Henry IV Part I' with George Robey's Falstaff. He remained principally a classical player, and he managed in Regent's Park [1935] to be as sinister a Comus as he was a gently unexaggerated Sir Andrew Aguecheek.

In 1936 he had a pair of testing Ibsen parts at the Criterion; but he was happiest when back at Stratford [1939] adding to his repertory a gloating 'Richard III', an Othello for which his voice was a shade too light, and a Malvolio consumed by a wintry ambition and by gout.

The interregnum between the wars was Laurie's high period. Though his energy was unabated, his London parts after 1945 were relatively few. During a long Australian tour [1959] he completed his run of the great tragic parts by playing 'King Lear'. It was in 'King Lear' also that as Gloucester [RSC, Aldwych, 1964] he made his last major West End appearance, later going on tour with the play in Europe and the United States. Today, no doubt, he is remembered first for his work in 'Dad's Army'; but few stage actors of his period did so much. His speech, with its distinctive Scottish rhythms and incisive clarity, was unimpaired to the end.

His career in films went back to 1930 when he appeared in 'Juno and the Paycock'. He left his mark on every part he undertook and one recalls with affection his performances in the Olivier films 'Henry V' and 'Hamlet'; 'The Edge of the World'; 'The Way Ahead'; 'Fanny by Gaslight'; and 'Uncle Silas'.

He is survived by his second wife Oonagh V. Todd-Naylor and a daughter.

END

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John Laurie's Timeline

1897
March 25, 1897
1980
June 23, 1980
Age 83
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