ROGER LEWIS pays tribute to Dame June Whitfield

She was the Queen of comedy who starred with absolutely everyone from the cast of EastEnders and Coronation Street to the Carry On films. ROGER LEWIS pays tribute to Dame June Whitfield and her six decades in showbiz after her death aged 93

  • At the age of 88, June Whitfield employed the serviced of a personal trainer 
  • She disliked the boastful vulgarities of Love Island and inanities of social media
  • She represented an idyllic ‘cosier and warmer’ (her words) Fifties England
  • Absolutely Fabulous star died at 93 on Friday after more than 60 years on screen

At the age of 88, Dame June Whitfield employed the services of a personal trainer. 

This was her sole concession to the vanities of modern life, which otherwise she scorned. 

June disliked the boastful vulgarities of Love Island and the inanities of social media, though she used an iPad.

She wanted men to make masterful husbands, not to be seen as domesticated, pushing prams. 

 June Whitfield employed the services of a personal trainer at the age of 88 and disliked the boastful vulgarities of Love Island and the inanities of social media

Picture taken in 1953 of cast members of BBC programme ‘Take It From Here’ during a recording session

June saw nothing amiss with advertisements showing wives in rubber gloves washing up and Hoovering — she hated the politically correct brigade, ‘groups of people trying to force their ideas on everyone. The world’s gone mad.’

The greatness of June is that, until the very end of her days, she represented an idyllic ‘cosier and warmer’ (her words) Fifties England, notable for its decorum and ‘gentle humour’. 

Though she’d appeared in EastEnders as a nun, and in Coronation Street as a pal of Blanche Hunt, Deirdre’s mother, June was to say of the soaps: ‘It’s either sex or murder. Where’s the fun gone?’

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She had lived, since her marriage in 1955 to Tim Aitchison, a surveyor, in leafy Wimbledon, and always claimed in interviews that, ‘I am what you see before you, a housewife from Wimbledon,’ the kind of upright sort who donated her winter fuel allowance to charity.

Of course, she was more than this — there was something innately smouldering about her. 

British comedian and actor Tony Hancock with actress June Whitfield during his television show

The British actress also starred in the popular ‘Carry on Abroad’ with Kenneth Connor

One of my favourite Whitfield performances is in Carry On Abroad, set in the foreign resort of Elsbels and filmed on location in the Pinewood car park.

June is a frigid battle-axe, married to Kenneth Connor. She avoids alcohol (‘Tried it once. Didn’t like it’), and smoking (‘Tried it once. Didn’t like it’), and has only one child. 

June’s face, as the joke registers, and as she challenges Sid James to respond, is perfection — a kind of queasy, regretful disgust.

Later, however, left behind at the hotel, where Hattie Jacques is in the kitchen chopping melons, she finds she can’t resist the flirting of the Spanish waiter, played by Ray Brooks.

Her character suddenly comes alive — the sultry siren inside June Whitfield is revealed. 

No wonder the actress had a rose named after her, which the horticultural catalogue promised was ‘vigorous and superb for bedding’.

Generally, however, as June admitted: ‘I amused more than I aroused.’ Early in her career she’d met Noel Coward, appeared in one of his stage revues, and he’d suggested, ungallantly, that she wear her hair in a fringe, ‘to hide that vast expanse of forehead’.

But though Roy Hudd had affectionately dubbed her ‘a comic’s tart’ — June played opposite everyone from Wilfred Pickles to Julian Clary, from Frankie Howerd to Bob the Builder — she was never a dumb blonde sidekick. 

What June possessed, in fact, was the blonde handsomeness of Margaret Thatcher (whom she often impersonated). 

She was always incredibly well-groomed and coiffed. She had class, breeding, which she could make into a stylish comic bossiness.

June Whitfield starred in ‘The Best Things in Life’ The Red Carnation in 1970 with Harry H Corbett 

She was born in Streatham, South London, in 1925, and if I was always tempted to detect a slight Northern inflection, it was because her father was a Yorkshireman, whose family firm manufactured Dictaphones and intercoms.

June’s mother was heavily involved in local amateur dramatic societies, and June was educated at the Robinson School Of Dancing, Elocution, Pianoforte And Singing.

She was evacuated to Bognor and Cornwall during the war, but in 1942 enrolled at the Royal College Of Dramatic Art, using her rationing coupons to buy ballet pumps.

June received her diploma in 1944 — and was never out of work until she retired in 2016, after Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie.

I tried totting up her appearances, but gave up after a thousand. ‘One of the reasons I’ve worked for so long,’ she said modestly, ‘is that I’m no trouble.’

June’s professionalism and inability to be flustered were useful assets — yet it’s the chemical reaction she could set off, when paired with tricky co-stars, that is the key.

In comedy, the men are allowed to be morose, suicidal, spoilt, difficult, and the women have to be perky and indomitable, as it is their job is to lift the spirits, show what self-important depressive fools the blokes are being.

The greatness of June is that, until the very end of her days, she represented an idyllic ‘cosier and warmer’ (her words) Fifties England. Pictured: June Whitfield with her dancing cup in 1937

June was peerless at being this kind of spry, optimistic and buoyant sunlit foil — going right back to Tony Hancock.

It is June who is the nurse in the classic TV episode The Blood Donor, to whom Hancock whimpers that a pint of blood is ‘very nearly an armful’.

When, off-screen, Hancock waxed philosophical about the meaning of life, the practical-minded June said: ‘I don’t quite know what the meaning of life might or might not be, but we have to get before that camera in two minutes.’

Frankie Howerd was also difficult. June played his romantic interest, the splendidly named Beryl Cuttlebunt. Running her fingers through his hair, she dislodged his wig — a mortifying moment, as Frankie was in denial about his baldness.

June Whitfield and Lionel Blair meeting Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle, Berkshire, in 2006

Appearing with Peter Sellers, on a record made shortly before his death in 1980, June discovered that their sketch, What About The Workers, had been deleted.

Sellers had decided June was too good — he didn’t want to be upstaged by her Margaret Thatcher impersonation. 

‘He didn’t have a reputation for mental stability,’ June said later, adding devastatingly, ‘He was not at all funny in real life.’

Another rumour is that Sellers feared June’s spot-on impersonation would imperil his chances of a knighthood.

June, who received the OBE, CBE and DBE, and who if she’d lived any longer would probably have become an honorary member of the Royal Family, as what other honour was left, came to national prominence in 1953, when she appeared in the radio programme Take It From Here, written by Frank Muir and Denis Norden and starring Jimmy Edwards.

Twenty million people listened each week to a sequence called The Glums. June was Eth, Dick Bentley was Ron. 

They’d been engaged drearily for years. ‘Ooooh, Ron !’ said Eth, ‘If only you knew how much I yearn.’ ‘It’ll never be enough for us to live on,’ replied her paramour.

Flash forward half a century. When June went to Buckingham Palace to receive her medals, the Queen looked at her and said: ‘Ooooh, Ron!’

She was good at lovelorn fiancées, put-upon wives, sorely-tried girlfriends — who remain stubbornly loyal, with resource and integrity. 

I particularly admired the long-running BBC series Terry And June, with Terry Scott — more than 100 episodes were broadcast during a 13-year period, which ended in 1987.

As the programme coincided with modern thrusting ‘alternative’ comedy shows starring Rik Mayall or Ben Elton, Terry And June, originally entitled Happy Ever After, was sneered at, patronised, brushed aside as slightly antiquated. 

It was about a middle-aged, middle-class couple in Surrey, whose children have left home, who potter about, don’t do anything remarkable, save wash the car (an Austin Princess) and squabble about the shopping or the laundry.

Looked at now, Terry And June, which demonstrates that the core of Englishness is eccentricity, is very stoical, almost moving.

It is a portrait of a mid-century marriage, when people were still sticking with each other, despite mutual provocation. 

There is never the prospect of divorce — and June, the real June, hated the way, in 21st-century relationships, people split the moment they faced any sort of crisis.

The permanent crisis in Terry And June is that Terry Scott, more or less playing himself, was a tearful 18st toddler.

The joke being that a wife’s biggest baby is her husband, who blusters and expostulates and gets into endless mishaps with, for example, fire extinguishers, the Christmas tree fairy lights, and what to do if the boss unexpectedly drops in for a meal.

When the characters, in one episode, move house, it is Terry who is sentimental about leaving a place that holds so many memories, June who is the one who had to be stern and slightly military.

Viewing figures per episode reached 15 million. The characters were so recognisably ordinary, people assumed Terry and

June were married in real life. Scott was a little ungracious about this — if revealing.

‘There’s nothing we wouldn’t do for each other,’ he gushed. ‘I do nothing for her and she does nothing for me.’

I wonder if June was at Terry Scott’s party, when Bernie Winters’ dog Schnorbitz fell in the pool and was rescued by Barbara Windsor? (Babs in her memoirs, is slightly caustic about the way June nabbed every job going — quiz shows, panel games, talk shows, in addition to the acting, £30,000 here, there and everywhere, all the time.)

Terry And June was finally axed, but her career went from strength to strength.

She appeared in all those TV variety shows built around Dick Emery, Mike Yarwood, Benny Hill and Morecambe and Wise — June refused to corpse when Eric came on dressed in a comical pair of tropical shorts. 

Asked how to avoid fits of giggling, by the way, June said: ‘You clench your bottom, dear.’

She was one of Harold Steptoe’s girlfriends. She was in Doctor Who. She was Marlene’s mother in Only Fools And Horses. 

She was Augusta Prodworthy in Carry On Girls. Her chief memory of working in those films was being flashed by Kenneth Williams.

June ‘supported more actors than the dole office’, said Barry Took. It is the case that she tended not to play leading roles (though she was Miss Marple on radio), but June was always contributing class, interest.

Nowhere was this more evident than in her culminating triumph, as Edina Monsoon’s mother in Absolutely Fabulous.

‘I’m not sure two women being drunk is very funny,’ said a BBC executive, when shown the scripts about Jennifer Saunders’ and Joanna Lumley’s dipsomaniacs. 

But what is very funny are June’s po-faced put-downs. ‘Inside of me, there’s a thin person just screaming to get out’ — ‘Just the one, dear?’

June is the voice of reason, pricking pomposity and pretentiousness. Her secret, perhaps, was that she never became an old biddy.

Indeed, her graciousness, with its elements of steel, is very much in fashion, and survives in the persona of — to give one example — Mary Berry.

It survives, too, in her daughter, actress Suzy Aitchison, who starred in that fittingly middle-class comedy Jam & Jerusalem.

Whenever I met her, I was surprised anew at how tiny and birdlike June was — and like a bird she ate what looked like three times her bodyweight daily. At launching parties, she had no trouble scoffing an entire platter of sandwiches.

The last time I saw her was earlier in the year, at a reception where the other guest-of-honour was Basil Brush. Amazingly, June had never worked with Basil, but she had worked with Sooty. (She was his Auntie Gertrude, back in 1985.)

‘Yes, dear,’ she said, self- mockingly, ‘You could say I’ve even worked with gloves.’

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