Tuesday 23 January 2018

An Evening with Dame June Whitfield

Last night I had the great pleasure of attending a very special event at the Victoria and Albert Museum. I joined a full house for Dame June Whitfield in Conversation on her lengthy, prolific career as an actress. Dame June had recently taken the decision to donate the entire archive of her 70 year career to the Museum and she was joined by her actress daughter, Suzy Aitchison for a thoroughly entertaining interview with the Senior Curator of Modern & Contemporary Performance, Simon Sladen.

The evening took the form of a guided talk through June's illustrious career with June providing some terrific anecdotes while Suzy was on hand to add her unique take growing up as the daughter of such a famous actress. Suzy is also completing a Masters degree in Museum Studies so has been well placed to work with the V&A with the cataloging of her mother's archive. Simon Sladen also shared some wonderful images from the collection, including some of June's earliest newspaper cuttings and reviews, annotated scripts, playbills and notes from some very famous friends in the business.

June's career is well known to all us fans of classic comedy but it's worth remembering that her acting work dates back to the late 1930s when she was encouraged to first tread the boards by her stage-struck mother. The conversation spent a good deal of time covering some of June's earliest work in the theatre, in revue and West End stage musicals such as Love From Judy and Ace of Clubs (with Noel Coward, who became a friend). There was also time to talk about June's work with Wilfred Pickles in various pantomimes and it was interesting to hear Suzy praise her mother for being very savvy when it came to signing contracts and accepting payment for the work. As a young woman, June would often write back to theatrical giants like Emile Littler or Jack Hylton and ask for more money or what she thought she was due. And good for her!

Simon also asked June about an infamous play about baby farming, Women of Twilight. June took a role in the play after her long-time friend, actress Miriam Karlin heard a fellow actor was leaving the play before it transferred to Broadway. Jumping at the chance of a trip across the Atlantic, June signed up but it was not a success in New York and closed fairly swiftly. June recalled how Miriam, always one to make herself heard, took the demise of the play very badly and toured local radio stations to defend their work. Finally, in an over-the-top act of despair, Miriam threatened to jump from the window of the apartment they shared. June, down to earth and realistic as ever, replied "Well do it quickly as there's a terrible bloody draft in here"!

We learned that June's archive has over three hundred original scripts from radio, film and television. These include her annotated script from the classic 1972 film comedy, Carry On Abroad, the script from the wonderful Tony Hancock episode, The Blood Donor and even the pilot script for Absolutely Fabulous from the early 1990s. There were also magazine and newspaper cuttings from June's first major radio success, Take it From Here. This led to a very funny anecdote from when June was asked to perform an excerpt from Take it From Here for the Royal Family at the time of the Golden Jubilee. Joined by Ronnie Barker and Geoffrey Palmer to bring the Glums to life once again, June apologised to Prince Phillip, adding that her voice had gone down an octave in the intervening years. At this point the Queen chipped in with a perfectly timed "Ooooh Ron!"

June was also asked about her time working with Terry Scott. June spent many years as Terry's television wife in Happy Ever After and then Terry and June. Asked what it was like to work with Terry Scott, June was as diplomatic as ever! With some people suggesting Terry could be difficult, June made it clear above all else he was a perfectionist and just wanted the best for the show. June said she dealt with his perfectionism by hearing him out when he tried to get her to say a line his way, agreeing he was right and then doing the line exactly the same way as before. Terry would be happy and would say, "That's much better, June!"

It was interesting to hear from Suzy on what it was like to grow up surrounded by so many famous faces. With people like Terry Scott, Frankie Howerd and Eric Morecambe regular visitors at home, Suzy claimed it was pretty normal for her and as June wasn't at all showbizzy at home which kept them all grounded. Suzy was close to Terry's four daughters growing up and said the only time it was a little awkward was when she had friends round and they reacted with shock to find someone like Eric Morecambe sitting in the living room!

June also talked about her joy of working with a younger generation of actors and performers, particularly the team on Absolutely Fabulous and the extremely talented Jennifer Saunders. She also said she thoroughly enjoyed working with Julian Clary on television having met him on the set of Carry On Columbus. And I can't move on without mentioning June's amazement at turning up in EastEnders as a nun! She did pay special tribute to the actress Jessie Wallace, who plays Kat Slater. June said the pair got on extremely well and praised Jessie, saying what a tremendous actress she is. 

At the end of the conversation, Simon asked June if she had any advice for young people entering the acting profession. Thinking for a brief moment, June replied that young actors should "take what's offered because you just don't know where it might lead." Good advice for us all!  June was also asked to choose her favourite achievement from her long life. Without hesitation, she reached out and took her daughter's hand. I think this sums up this wonderful woman and how down to earth, sweet and human she has remained throughout her life and extraordinary career as an actress. Simon Sladen ended the evening by telling us that once the June Whitfield archive has been catalogued, it will be made available to the public to view. I look forward to more details on that!

We finished the evening sipping wine in the museum's Silver Room and it was a delightful end to a very special night. And to make the evening extra special I finally managed to meet up with the lovely Georgy Jamieson, a great friend to this blog. We had a great natter on the phone last year and it was great to chew the fat in person. You can read my interview with Georgy here: Carry On Blogging Interview: Georgy Jamieson

Dame June Whitfield may be 92 years young but she is still in fine form. She sparkles, eyes twinkling with the same sense of fun and wonderful comic timing as she's always had. She seemed so genuinely pleased that so many people had come out to see her and was very generous with her time. Long may she continue to entertain and delight us all.

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