ETTLING down in her usual comfy chair by the TV, June Bernicoff poured herself a glass of wine and sat back as the familiar Gogglebox theme music began.
As the show finished, the words “In Loving Memory of Leon Bernicoff” appeared on screen and she instinctively turned to her left to speak to her husband, but realised he wasn’t there.
Instead, she mouthed the words, “Leon, they’ve dedicated the show to you” and tears welled up and fell from her eyes.
June, 81, recalls: “I looked over to his chair and when I saw it, that was the first time I really, really cried after he died.”
The show aired on February 23, 2018, just over two months after Leon, her husband of 57 years, had died at the age of 83, and June was still coming to terms with his death.
In her new book, June explains that this thoughtful gesture from the show makers caused a release of emotion and was “the start of my grieving process”.
She admits watching his tribute show was very difficult. She says: “I sat here, where we used to have a glass of wine while we watched it.
“I thought, ‘Oh God, I daren’t open a bottle, I might drink the lot’. So, I bought one of those little bottles and poured that.”
June says: “People kept expecting me to burst into tears in the supermarket. I mean, you don’t do things like that, do you? I say to people, grief is very private.
“And I remember switching the TV off, and I had some wine left in the glass and I remember holding it up and thinking, ‘Those cameras will never be there again’. I remember taking the glass out and going in the dining room thinking, ‘The sound desk won’t be there and the monitors won’t be there. The researcher won’t be curled up in the armchair’. And I thought that had gone. It was a chapter of our lives.”
Writing about that evening in her book Leon & June, she says: “Until that evening, emotionally speaking, June’s book, above, and, left, Leon’s final scene in which he cheekily drops an empty sweet wrapper into a tin destined to be a gift I’d almost been in a peculiar vacuum. Maybe it only makes sense to people who have experienced that kind of loss.
“Leon always said if he passed away before me, I had to stay positive, and do anything I wanted to do, and that is what I have done.
“That night, while watching the first episode of that 11th series, I felt I was finally able to start dealing with the sense of loss.”
There is no doubt that after almost six decades together – they met at teacher training college in 1955 when she was just 18 – the sense of loss is profound.
The couple became famous late in life when they began appearing on Gogglebox in March 2013 after Leon had been approached at his bridge club.
They were the first chosen for the show and among the most memorable, thanks to Leon’s sharp wit and no-nonsense comments at targets including Nigel Farage and David Cameron, with June offering a more measured approach.
On December 23 last year, Leon died after 10 days in hospital following a short illness that resulted in pneumonia and sepsis.
But right until the end he was playing for laughs. Whilst waiting for hospital tests, June remembers: “I said to him, ‘It’s okay we’re going in any minute’.
“And Leon said, ‘Oh don’t start, they’ve done the blood pressure already, and the needles, I’ve told them there’s more of my blood in the hospital than there is in me!’ The time before we were in hospital and he was saying, ‘I want to go home, there’s a curry waiting’.
“I was saying, ‘Stay there, stay there’, and a young doctor said, ‘I don’t want a domestic’. Leon replied ‘It’s her, it’s her! It’s always her’.
“Everything was a joke. He thought life was to be full of fun.”
After his death June tried to remember that Leon had insisted he wanted “no weeping and wailing over me” if he was to die first.
June says: “He hated the idea of the solemnity that surrounds death. I tried to remember that when he passed away but it wasn’t easy. Death never is, because the world carries on regardless of your loss.
“A lot of people have come up and said, ‘I don’t wish to intrude, but I just want to say sorry about Leon’. I do find it comforting.
“It’s really nice they feel bothered enough to say that we have touched their lives in some way.”
Their last Gogglebox went out on The chair that became so well known to a host of Gogglebox viewers, is a constant reminder to June of her deep loss Christmas Eve, the day after Leon died and too late to change the content of the show. Their final scene was a typical Leon moment – he ate a chocolate and put the wrapping back in the metal tin without June noticing and then made her wrap it up as a present for someone else. “It was a good final scene,” she says.
Leon’s death led to an outpouring of grief, and June received hundreds of cards, some simply addressed to “June Gogglebox, Liverpool”.
In the chapter Life After Leon, June writes: “I still watch Gogglebox every week. Even though I am no longer part of the show, Gogglebox is still a big part of me. Being involved so late in our lives provided us with a host of unexpected pleasures.
“It is hard for me to remember a time when Leon wasn’t in my life. I miss his generosity, his kindness, his laughter, his decisiveness, his touch and his voice – ‘June!’ I miss him sitting in his chair with his head lost in the paper. But, most of all, I miss talking to him – even those incredibly heated discussions we used to have.”
June admits the thought of carrying on with Gogglebox without Leon never crossed her mind.
“It couldn’t be the same, could it?” she says. “Talking to an empty chair.
“Although I might get to speak more,” she adds with a cheeky grin.
And June hopes her book will be a fitting tribute to Leon.
“I was approached a couple of months after he died and I thought it might be quite a fitting thing to do – a tribute to him and maybe a way of helping me cope with life after Leon.”