Our most durable comedienne, the wonderful June Whitfield, has died aged 93. From the 1940s right up until her death, she has been at the heart of British light entertainment working with every comedy great there was, from Tony Hancock, to Jennifer Saunders, not forgetting a few Carry On films. But she was more than a gifted comedienne.
Born in November 1925 in south London, both her parents loved amateur dramatics and June not only went to RADA but one of her first roles was playing a nightclub dancer in the Noel Coward musical, Ace of Clubs. (She returned to her roots in 2007, aged 77, when she appeared in the musical On The Town for the English National Opera.) But Britain really got to know her talents in the hit Fifties radio show, Take It From Here, when she played mouse-voiced Eth – the long-suffering fiancé of the hopeless Ron – revealing her perfect comedy timing and talent for accents.
She then became a TV regular in numerous shows – not only with Tony Hancock (she was the nurse in the famous Blood Donor episode) but with Arthur Askey, Frankie Howerd, Bob Monkhouse, Dick Emery, Tommy Cooper and Morecambe and Wise, to name just a few. When she was asked why she got on so well with so many comedians she replied, with typical modesty, “I always tried to get on their wavelength. I realised I was there to promote them and not to promote me.”
But June did become the co-star of a much-loved TV sitcom – Terry and June, which with its predecessor, Happy Ever After, had an amazing 13-year run from 1974 to 1987. The comedy chemistry between June and Terry Scott was such that many people assumed they were married in real life.
In fact, June was happily married to someone with no connections to showbiz at all, chartered surveyor Timothy Aitchison, who died in 2001. They have one daughter Suzy, also an actress who June has called, “By far my proudest and greatest achievement.”
With the ending of Terry and June, June switched back to radio. She joined the cast of Yours' very own favourite columnist, Roy Hudd, on his popular show, The News Huddlines – doing a wonderful impersonation of Margaret Thatcher!
It was ironic that the new wave of comedy in the Eighties that saw off sitcoms like Terry and June, would bring June back to telly playing Mother to Jennifer Saunders' Edina in Absolutely Fabulous in the early Nineties. A whole new generation appreciated her comedy timing – and June admitted that she wore a lot of her own clothes in the series – past outfits from M&S that she had packed away but just not got around to taking the charity shop.
Since then June was barely off our screens. She was not only recruited into the happy band who made Last of the Summer Wine, but appeared in a host of straight dramatic roles, including New Tricks, Midsomer Murders, Doctor Who and EastEnders. And, of course, the wonderful 2000 TV film about a wartime women's swing band, Last of the Blonde Bombshells with Judi Dench. June paid her a high compliment: “I think a lot of people who do comedy can do drama, but not everyone who does drama can do comedy. Judi Dench can do both.
Even when she was getting a bit less steady on her pins, June didn't stop working – playing another awkward mother, this time Stephanie Beacham's, in the popular ITV sitcom Boomers. She thrived on work, saying: “As you get older it is even more important to enjoy what you're doing, and I do. Maybe that's why I've lived so long – doing lovely work, meeting wonderful people – it stops you sitting down and feeling sorry for yourself. Because you know you need to get on with it.”
It's hard to believe that the incomparable June Whitfield OBE and CBE, won't be getting on with it – to our delight – any longer.