Sunday 30 December 2018

Remembering Dame June Whitfield

I had decided today to share a blog looking back at the sadly all too many Carry On faces we have lost in 2018. Unfortunately that post now needs another addition with the news last night that Dame June Whitfield has passed away at the age of 93. 

I was finishing dinner with friends in Glasgow when I did that ridiculously modern thing of checking my phone at the table. A picture of June was what greeted me, along with the terrible news that she was gone. I know June had reached a great age and that it was inevitable as we're all here but once, yet June Whitfield was such a permanent presence in all our lives it really did feel like she would be with us forever. My Gran would have listened to her on the wireless in the 1950s as Eth in Take It From Here. My Mother and Father watched her suburban antics with Terry Scott in Terry and June in the 1970s and 1980s and I discovered her as the cunningly absent-minded Mrs Monsoon in Jennifer Saunders' sensational Absolutely Fabulous in the 1990s. June transcended generations and comedy styles really by continuing to be herself. Styles changed, she didn't and everyone came to love what she did.

Few actors have a career that lasts as long as June's did. On my calculation she worked across eight decades, beginning during the war years and culminating somewhat fittingly with the Absolutely Fabulous feature film in 2016. Radio was important to June throughout her life. From her big break alongside Dick Bentley and Jimmy Edwards on Take It From Here in the 1950s, June became a much in demand actress on the airwaves, working with the likes of Leslie Crowther, Ronnie Barker and Roy Hudd and even becoming Agatha Christie's Miss Marple for several adaptations of those famous tales. 

Of course there were films too but the big screen never dominated June's career. Such was her popularity you'd have thought she was a Carry On regular yet June only appeared in four of the films. She played Leslie Phillips' girlfriend Meg in the second in the series, Carry On Nurse in 1958 and returned many years later as his Queen in the otherwise deeply regrettable Carry On Columbus. In between those two roles there were two wondrous comedy character studies in the early 1970s. June's repressed dictatorial Evelyn Blunt made husband Stanley's (Kenneth Connor) life hell in the package holiday farce Carry On Abroad in 1972. However after an afternoon dancing and drinking champagne with Ray Brooks' Spanish waiter it was a different matter entirely with the Blunts' bed eventually disappearing through the hotel floor! The following year June returned to play the formidable feminist councillor, the gloriously named Augusta Prodworthy, in the beauty contest comedy Carry On Girls. June's character took on the might of Sid James and an even draw was declared! In between those two 1970s Carry Ons there was also the role of Vera Baines in the big screen version of Bless This House, produced by Peter Rogers and starring Sid James, Peter Butterworth, Diana Coupland and June's screen husband, a certain Terry Scott.

June's real home, however, was television. Yes of course there were the familiar years playing the patient, understanding wife to Terry Scott in sitcom land, but Dame June did so much more than that. Their association started in 1968 with the series Scott On …  which also featured the delightful Peter Butterworth and Frank Thornton. Each week the show would tackle a different subject - marriage, work, children - and the same cast would appear. Out of this came their first sitcom effort, Happy Ever After, which ran from 1974 until late 1978. The duo played Terry and June Fletcher and when that series came to an end there was clearly still a demand as the pair returned in 1979 as simply Terry and June. With its instantly memorable theme tune and undemanding situations, Terry and June was a massive ratings winner for the BBC and ran right through until 1987. The BBC didn't renew the show in the growing face of alternative comedy and Terry never really recovered. June however was never typecast and ended up working with many of the so-called alternative comedians that technically could have brought her career to an end.

June had her first brush with television back in 1951 in The Passing Show. Much of her early television work was broadcast live - no easy feat - although it did see her working with the likes of Bob Monkhouse and Arthur Askey. Two colleagues she'd develop solid working relationships with over the years. June worked with Benny Hill, Jimmy Edwards, Stanley Baxter, Frankie Howerd, Harry H Corbett and Tommy Cooper. Some of her most memorable work was opposite Tony Hancock. She famously played the Nurse in the 1961 Hancock episode 'The Blood Donor', and returned to appear in his 1967 series, just a year before his sad demise in Australia. More work came with The Goodies, Mike Yarwood, Reg Varney, Dick Emery and even much later, Julian Clary. This all led Roy Hudd many years later to brand June, albeit affectionately, 'The Comic's Tart' given just how many comedians she had supported over the years!

June was appearing on television right up until 2016. Most recently she had parts in the comedy series Boomers with Alison Steadman, as Granny Wilson in a BBC version of Cider With Rosie and a particularly memorable turn as a Nun in the BBC soap opera EastEnders. This role saw her working with the actress Jessie Wallace and the pair shared some delightful, unusual and quietly heartbreaking scenes. Once again, June showed what a great all round actress she was. 

June also enjoyed a long stage career. She worked in pantomime throughout her life, from her very early days on tour with Wilfrid Pickles right up to the early 1990s alongside more modern stars across regional theatre in the south of England. There were also plays, such as An Ideal Husband and The Rivals at Chichester Theatre and many traditional farces and summer seasons, often collaborating with her most famous small screen partner in crime, Terry Scott. Back in the 1950s June starred in several big budget, big name musicals in the West End including Love From Judy (where she first met a young Barbara Windsor), South Pacific and Ace of Clubs, which brought her into contact with a certain Mr Noel Coward. June told a wonderful story of hosting a party for the cast of that particular show at her parents' house and being absolutely delighted when Noel asked if he could attend. For her amateur thespian mother it was one of the best nights of her life, as Mr Coward played the family piano to entertain the guests.

I had the good fortune to see June twice in my lifetime, although sadly I never met the great lady face to face. The first time was at London's National Theatre when she gave a talk about her career to a packed house as she launched a new photo book on her life. And then last January I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum in Kensington to hear June and her daughter Suzy in conversation about June's life and her amazing career archive. June had made the wonderful decision to donate her archive to the museum so it could be catalogued and enjoyed by generations to come. That was the measure of the woman. I'm so glad she was around to make that decision and to see what joy it would bring to so many of her fans and well-wishers. I'm also relieved the powers that be pulled their collective fingers out and gave June her well deserved damehood last year. A richly deserved honour and it was so good to see Dame June Whitfield at the Palace. 

June was married to Tim Aitchison from 1955 until his death in 2001. Together they had a daughter, Suzy, who also became an actress. Tim mainly stayed out of the limelight and June confessed he was sometimes baffled by the actor's life and the show business side to her career. He did enjoy socialising with several of her comedy colleagues though, with the likes of Morecambe and Wise and Frankie Howerd regular guests at their home in Wimbledon. 

My only regret is that after that National Theatre show I opted not to join the very long queue of people waiting to meet June and have their books signed. Perhaps I was just tired or feeling impatient but of course now I really wish I had stuck around as meeting June Whitfield would most definitely have been worth the wait. As we left the auditorium at the V&A almost a year ago now, I remember looking towards the stage and seeing June's tiny figure, still beautifully turned out and immaculate, surrounded by her daughter and some officials from the museum. Yes she was a little frail and at 92 you would expect that, but she still had the presence and warmth to captivate an audience that spanned the generations. I think that's how I'd like to remember our June. She was a trailblazer in comedy and she achieved this not by making grand gestures, by hash tagging across social media platforms or demonstrating outside of parliament. She achieved it just by being herself and doing what she knew. 

Last night I watched a couple of journalists discussing June's passing on BBC News. Describing her autobiography 'And June Whitfield' the man seemed to believe it was a rather spiky reference to the fact June was rarely the star and always the support to a male comedian. To assume this was to misjudge the woman June was. She herself maintained she gave her book that title because she was happiest playing second fiddle - after all if the show failed it would be the star who would carry the bad reviews. June enjoyed a long-lasting career which went on and on after many of her male co-stars had retired, fallen out of fashion or left this world. June never fell out of fashion. Each new generation loved what she did and what she brought to comedy shows old and new.

The expression 'end of an era' is often over used but in reality the passing of Dame June Whitfield is exactly that. 

You can follow me on Twitter @CarryOnJoan and on Instagram

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