June Whit­field

Comic star of ra­dio, tele­vi­sion and film who then be­came a cult favourite with the al­ter­na­tive-com­edy gen­er­a­tion

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Deaths And Obituaries -

DAME June Whit­field, who has died aged 93, reigned for more than six decades as one of the most pop­u­lar and busy com­edy ac­tresses on tele­vi­sion, ra­dio and film.

She be­came a pub­lic favourite play­ing the eter­nal fi­ancee Eth, coax­ing her dozy Ron Glum (played by Dick Bent­ley) to­wards the al­tar in the Frank Muir-De­nis Nor­den 1950s ra­dio se­ries Take It From Here (in the por­tion of the show known as ‘The Glums’), and went on to per­form a long-run­ning dou­ble-act as the long-suf­fer­ing wife of over­grown boy scout Terry Scott in the ar­che­typal sub­ur­ban sit­com Happy Ever Af­ter (1974-78) and its fol­low-up Terry And June, which ran from 1979 un­til 1987 when it was axed by the BBC as out-of-touch in the age of “al­ter­na­tive” com­edy.

One of the rea­sons June Whit­field man­aged to sur­vive the demise of the se­ries was be­cause it had been so fa­mously un­funny (though it al­ways at­tracted large view­ing fig­ures). As a re­sult, in a sort of ironic ges­ture, she was taken up by the al­ter­na­tive-com­edy gen­er­a­tion as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the sort of in­nocu­ous Mid­dle Eng­land com­edy that they had dis­placed. It was a credit to June Whit­field’s tal­ent and char­ac­ter that she was good enough to out­last the gag.

It was Jen­nifer Saun­ders who in 1992 of­fered her a tiny 30-sec­ond role as Mother, Ed­ina’s em­bar­rass­ingly sub­ur­ban par­ent in the pi­lot of Ab­so­lutely Fab­u­lous. She al­most stole the show and went on to ap­pear reg­u­larly in the role un­til 2002, her char­ac­ter be­com­ing in­creas­ingly batty and in­fu­ri­at­ing (“Get that old woman out of here”) and ac­quir­ing klep­to­ma­niac ten­den­cies as the se­ries pro­gressed. There was a de­li­ciously cruel in­no­cence to her put-downs (Ed­ina: “In­side of me, there’s a thin per­son just scream­ing to get out.” Mother: “Just the one, dear?”).

Her part in Ab­so­lutely Fab­u­lous made June Whit­field a cult fig­ure to a new gen­er­a­tion of view­ers; a po­si­tion fur­ther am­pli­fied by her ap­pear­ance along­side the camp co­me­dian Ju­lian Clary in his de­cid­edly risque se­ries All Rise (199697). The pair had met on the set of Carry On Colum­bus (1992), one of four Carry On films in which she ap­peared, the first be­ing Carry on Nurse in 1959), and he asked her to play the wife of the gover­nor of the Bank of Eng­land who tries to se­duce him: “I told him I’d love to work with him, but I would have to be his aun­tie, so that I could ig­nore ev­ery­thing he did. I think that took the edge off var­i­ous things. Aun­tie could be com­pletely be­wil­dered as to what he was talk­ing about.”

Her au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, a re­fresh­ingly un-bitchy ac­count of life in Bri­tish en­ter­tain­ment, was ti­tled And June Whit­field (2000) — a ref­er­ence to the fact that, through­out her ca­reer, June Whit­field al­ways seemed to take sec­ond billing to male co-stars. Roy Hudd, a long-time col­lab­o­ra­tor with her on the BBC ra­dio satire, The News Hud­dlines (1988-2001) on which she was known for her acer­bic im­pres­sions of Mrs Thatcher and the Queen, re­ferred to her af­fec­tion­ately as “the comic’s tart”. Barry Took once ob­served that she had sup­ported more ac­tors (the roll call in­cluded Tony Han­cock, Frankie How­erd, Terry Scott, More­cambe and Wise, Arthur Askey, Ken­neth Wil­liams, Benny Hill and Tommy Cooper) than the De­part­ment of Health and So­cial Se­cu­rity. June Whit­field would not have it any other way, at­tribut­ing her longevity as an ac­tress to the fact that she had never been sub­ject to the sort of stresses that caused so many stars to crash and burn.

The qual­i­ties that June Whit­field brought to her act­ing — in­tel­li­gence, im­per­turba­bil­ity and an eye for de­tail were ones she was born with. In per­son, she was re­fresh­ingly un­starry — de­spite an early ro­mance, be­fore her long and happy mar­riage to char­tered sur­veyor Tim Aitchison, with a young Amer­i­can ac­tor called Larry Hag­man (later JR on Dal­las) who dated her while she was tread­ing the Broad­way boards in 1952 as a show­girl in South Pa­cific.

The ac­tress Miriam Kar­lin, who at­tended Rada with June Whit­field and also ap­peared in the Broad­way show, re­called that she (Kar­lin) would re­turn to the ho­tel each night “pretty stoned, hav­ing done a lot of... naugh­ti­ness”, to find June sit­ting up in bed cal­cu­lat­ing who owed what to whom down to the last cent.

June Whit­field was also de­light­fully self-ef­fac­ing. On be­ing up­graded from a OBE to a CBE in 1998, she joked of her suc­cess: “I al­ways said that the first one stood for Old But En­er­getic. I think this one is Caught Be­fore Ex­piry.” Though she had found it hard to dis­guise her bit­ter­ness when Terry and June was axed, com­plain­ing of “in­verted snob­bery” at the BBC, when Ju­lian Clary sent up the old sit­com in Terry and Ju­lian (1992), she showed no hard feel­ings and dropped in for a guest ap­pear­ance.

“Ev­ery ac­tor thinks about re­tir­ing at the end of ev­ery show,” she once said, “...and then the tele­phone rings. As long as that keeps hap­pen­ing, I am de­lighted to carry on, this is what I love do­ing.”

June Rose­mary Whit­field was born in Streatham, south Lon­don, on Novem­ber 11, 1925. Her fa­ther was the manag­ing di­rec­tor of a tele­phone com­pany; her mother a frus­trated am­a­teur ac­tress with a ten­dency to de­pres­sion who left much of the chil­drea­r­ing to her own mother and fa­ther.

By the age of three, June found her­self en­rolled at the Robin­son School of Danc­ing, Elo­cu­tion, Pianoforte and Singing, where she made her stage de­but as a fairy at the age of four. Ed­u­cated at Streatham Hill High School, she trained as a sec­re­tary be­fore en­rolling at Rada in 1942. Though clas­si­cally trained, she chose a ca­reer in com­edy, feel­ing that “ev­ery­one was bet­ter look­ing than me”, her roles at Rada in­clud­ing the sec­ond gravedig­ger in Ham­let and Pe­ter Quince in A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream.

Af­ter leav­ing Rada in 1944, she worked as as­sis­tant stage man­ager on a West End pro­duc­tion of Pink String and Seal­ing Wax and went on to ap­pear in some 20 stage pro­duc­tions. Noel Coward cast her in his Ace of Clubs in 1950 and her friendly as­so­ci­a­tion with Coward led to a role in the Bri­tish run of South Pa­cific which took Lon­don by storm in the early Fifties, repris­ing her role on Broad­way, where she was with­er­ingly re­ferred to as “the pudgy blonde” in an oth­er­wise favourable re­view by Ken­neth Ty­nan.

June Whit­field’s first cred­ited tele­vi­sion role was in The Pass­ing Show in 1951. But her big break came when she was cho­sen to play the part of Eth Glum in Take It From Here. She went on to ap­pear in nu­mer­ous tele­vi­sion com­edy se­ries, in­clud­ing Step­toe and Son and Han­cock’s Half Hour, most mem­o­rably play­ing the nurse in the clas­sic Han­cock Blood Donor episode in 1961.

Her first star­ring role in a sit­com was in Beg­gar My Neigh­bour (1966-68), af­ter which she be­gan her long part­ner­ship with Terry Scott in a show called Scott On... The chem­istry with her costar in Happy Ever Af­ter and Terry And June was such that many view­ers as­sumed they must be mar­ried in real life — to the ex­tent that when Scott pub­licly re­vealed his nu­mer­ous ex­tra-mar­i­tal af­fairs it was she, not Scott’s real wife Mag­gie, who re­ceived let­ters of com­mis­er­a­tion.

As well as her ap­pear­ances with Scott, she had many small roles on other tele­vi­sion se­ries in­clud­ing The Good­ies, The Dick Emery Show, Bless This House, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum and Min­der. She also con­tin­ued to take parts in main­stream the­atri­cal pro­duc­tions in­clud­ing The Ri­vals (1986), Noel Coward’s Semi Monde (1987), and Ring Around the Moon (1988). She re­mained busy on tele­vi­sion and ra­dio into old age, play­ing Miss Marple in 12 BBC ra­dio adap­ta­tions in 1993 and ap­pear­ing in such se­ries as the Amer­i­can sit­com Friends, Last of the Sum­mer Wine, Coro­na­tion Street, Jen­nifer Saun­ders’ sit­com pi­lot Mir­ror­ball (2000), in which she played an al­co­holic ac­tress, Dora Ver­mouth, and, on Christ­mas Day 2009, 10 mil­lion or so peo­ple saw her goose David Ten­nant’s Doc­tor Who as a pen­sioner help­ing the Time Lord in his fight to stop the end of the world.

In 2014, she was part of the cast of Boomers , a BBC One com­edy drama about a group of re­tirees in “Nor­folk’s only west-fac­ing re­sort”. As well as her au­to­bi­og­ra­phy she pub­lished At A Glance… An Ab­so­lutely Fab­u­lous Life (2009), fea­tur­ing scrap­book pic­tures from her ca­reer.

Out­side act­ing, June Whit­field’s in­ter­ests and tastes were de­fi­antly or­di­nary. Ev­ery evening, she in­formed an in­ter­viewer: “I fin­ish work, take my shoes off, pour a vodka, do cross­word puz­zles and watch a bit of telly.” Her favourite film was Gone with the Wind and she was a big fan of One Foot in the Grave.

June Whit­field, who died on De­cem­ber 28, was ap­pointed OBE in 1985, CBE in 1998 and DBE in 2017. In 1994 she was given a Life­time Achieve­ment Award by the Bri­tish Com­edy Awards. In 1955 she mar­ried Tim­o­thy Aitchison, who died in 2001 and with whom she had a daugh­ter, the ac­tress Suzy Aitchison. ©Tele­graph

ON­SCREEN CHEM­ISTRY: TV sit­com ‘Terry and June’, star­ring June Whit­field and Terry Scott

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