I looked at his chair and that was the first time I re­ally cried

Gog­gle­box star June Ber­ni­coff tells MARK JEF­FERIES about cop­ing with life af­ter Leon and her trib­ute to her beloved hus­band

Burton Mail - - Book Shelf - ■ Leon & June: Our Story. Life, Love and Laugh­ter by June Ber­ni­coff, out on Septem­ber 20, (Blink Pub­lish­ing), £16.99.

SET­TLING 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,

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 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.”

The chair that be­came so well known to a host of Gog­gle­box view­ers, is a con­stant re­minder to June of her deep loss

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

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