June Whitfield, the nonagenarian national treasure who died yesterday, aged 93, had one of the longest, most remarkable careers in the entertainment industry. In a world where the “L’ word has become commonplace and devalued, she was a legend before legends, and a massively integral part of British life. Ordinary yet extraordinary.
Born in Streatham, London on 11 November 1925, the legendary comedy stalwart started in showbiz in the post-war depression of 1946, and embodied a kind of nostalgia for the Merrie Olde England of a bygone age whilst simultaneously being the go-to actress for three generations.
She unselfishly supported star comedians for seven decades, often slyly outshining them. In typically modest form, her long-time colleague and friend Roy Hudd described her a “comic’s tart”, due to June’s distinctly un-starry generosity of spirit in letting her co-stars else take the lead and the plaudits, perfectly content in her stooge-like role as one of the most versatile and reliable supporting character actresses in the business. The writer Barry Took said that Whitfield had supported more actors than the Department of Health and Social Security.
Whitfield was an impressively regular fixture on television and radio for six decades, starring in everything from Hancock’s Half Hour, the Dick Emery Show the Frankie Howerd Show, Steptoe & Son, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, Bless This House, Minder, French & Saunders, Last of the Summer Wine, Doctor Who, Coronation Street, EastEnders, and even Friends.
An occasional and accomplished serious stage performer, Dame June also had memorable roles in four Carry On films, and was an infinitely reliable, comforting sight in the world of mass media entertainment. And one of those rare breeds that was a testament to her great versatility: an actor who never appeared to be short of work. With her typical lack of egocentricity she once explained her preference for comedy as “I could never take myself seriously, I suppose…. I’m not sure I’m proud of any of it. I enjoyed it.”
As well as being that constant presence in British life, when the cameras weren’t rolling June also was one of the most kind and gracious public figures. In 1992 I attended the taping of Terry & Julian at BBC Television Centre, in which in one episode she had a guest role as the amorous wife of the governor of the Bank of England (below).
I remember distinctly how warm and personable she was with cast, crew and audience, taking the trouble to thank Clary for giving her the work and the audience for coming out in the wet winter weather. Like her new co-star Joanna Lumley, with whom she began working with the same year, she somehow made being delightful completely effortless.
T&J was, of course, Channel 4’s anarchic gay spoof of that cosy BBC sitcom, Terry & June. Often derided by critics for its conventional whimsy as the epitome of middle-class Middle England, Terry & June (1979-1987), together with its predecessor Happy Ever After (1974-1979), was Whitfield and Terry Scott’s long-running husband and wife series that ran for a staggering 107 episodes and two of the programmes for which she’ll be most remembered.
The other, of course, is very probably the funniest comedy series of the last thirty years.
Because of Whitfield’s cosy image, the idea of casting her as Jennifer Saunders’s mum in Absolutely Fabulous earlier in 1992 was a comedy masterstroke. June and Julia Sawalha (Saunders’ dull as dishwasher daughter, Saffron) provided the calm centre of this blisteringly funny series about two outrageous vodka-swilling, drug-addled friends – Saunders as PR agent Edina Monsoon and Joanna Lumley as occasional magazine editor Patsy.
The perfect needling foil, the loveably eccentric elder Mrs Monsoon, slightly senile and preoccupied with her Take a Break “sad rags”, and grand-daughter Saffy, the “sour-faced little ditch rat” (thanks Pats) represented traditional virtues of consideration and respect for others, concepts obviously alien to Patsy and Eddy.
It’s worth pointing out that Mother was originally scheduled to appear in just the one episode, dear: the pilot, Fashion, where she’s seen only in flashback (above): Edwina (she later dropped the ‘W’ to appear hip rather than square) has a foggy memory of going to a rock concert as a teenager in the late 1960s, the evening ending with her stumbling, possibly drunk and stoned, back through the front door of her cloying suburban home.
There amid a self-induced fug of booze and substances, her father was just an armchair-seated blur and Mother was in her face, enquiring with clueless, sunny persistence whether her daughter had enjoyed watching bands like “The Beatles, The Stones. The Rolling Who.”
Mrs M., as Patsy likes to call her (or old Mrs Grundy, if she’s being a bitch), isn’t always half as daft and harmless as she makes out, though. A kind of altruistic “don’t keep it in the family” kleptomaniac, she’s always looking for ways to relieve the materialistic Edina of her prized possessions so she can give them to the local charity shop she volunteers at. And when the opportunity arises, this “thieving old person” is more than capable of cutting her melodramatic over-eating daughter down to size.
Needless to say, Whitfield proved such a roaring success she went on to become one of the show’s most beloved characters, with the character’s final appearance being 2016’s well-received transfer to the big screen. In Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie we saw Mother sun it up in the south of France, which is where the AbFab story comes to an end.
In 1998, midway during AbFab’s five-year hiatus, Saunders and Whitfield filmed some new material for a VHS-only video release, Absolutely Fabulous: A Life (above). Edina is in the middle of filming her own documentary, A Day in My Life, when she drops in on her mother, who’s working in a branch of Help The Aged (filmed in Rickmansworth High Street and now renamed Age UK). Bovril, dear?
Quite honestly, whatever the episode, June’s brilliantly random one-liners and classic put-downs are delivered so deliciously dryly and with such perfect precision timing that she often steals the entire scene.
Ladies and gentlemen, starting with the episode of AbFab that showcases Whitfield’s talents best, may I present Mother’s finest…
Mother: (taking a magazine quiz, talking to Saffy) Now, it’s multiple-choice questions. Are you ready? How many years was Margaret Thatcher Prime Minister?
A) 900 years
B) 3,000 years
C) 11 years.
Oh, it’s a trick question!… It was a very very long time.
Mother: I think I can feel one of my heads coming on. Have you any aspirin? Or some of that homophobic remedy you gave me last time was very good.
Mother: What might one use to put the tea in the pot with, dear?
Eddy: A teaspoon, a bloody, buggery teaspoon!
Mother: Ooh! A bloody, buggery teaspoon. That sounds rather clever. And what did one fill the kettle from? The bloody marvellous tap, I suppose?
(France, the second episode of AbFab also features a rare moment of warmth between daughter and Mother, which results in Eds calling her ‘mum’ and giving her a goodbye kiss.)
Christopher: (who’s about to style Mrs M.’s hair) Well, how do you want it then?
Mother: Well, under my hat, dear.
Bo: (trying on a hair piece) What do you think, too Tammy Faye Bakker?
Mother: More like Danny Baker, dear.
Eddy: Sorry I was so long, darling. Had to clear out my wardrobe. All those horrible, revolting, unfashionable clothes that I simply would not wear, darling, because they are not in fashion. I put them in a pile on the floor to throw out.
Mother: I thought you’d put them on, dear.
Eddy: (to Saffy) What’s that doing here? Darling, make Mummy a cup of coffee. Darling, sweetie. From the machine.
Mother: Oh, a chapaccino.
Eddy: Ca-pu-cci-no. Oh, go on, darling. I’ll have it black, all right?
Mother: I’ll have a black chapuccino, Saffy.
Mother: Yes, I am in rather a hurry.
Mother: (an old sex tape of Patsy and Edina at an orgy is mistakenly screened at Saffy’s college) How did I ever think those curtains would go with that carpet?
Eddy: And do you know, darling, the real problem started, sweetie, because I wasn’t even breast-fed.
Mother: Oh, don’t be ridiculous, dear. It wasn’t done in those days. Imagine me having that clamped to my breast.
Mother: Oh Bettina, how is she? You two used to get on so well, didn’t they Patsy?
Patsy: Did they?
Mother: Oh yes, and I encouraged it dear. Far more suitable than poor dear sad old Patsy.
Eddy: Look at me, sweetheart, huh, huh? One day you’ll turn into me!
Mother: And you’ll turn into me, dear.
Mother: Talking to yourself, dear? That’s the first sign of madness, you know.
Eddy: Really? I thought it was talking to you. What do you want? Huh? I just popped by to use your oven to bake the cakes for the shop.
Eddy: What? The old miseries’ charity shop?
Mother: That’s right, dear.
Eddy: With a moth-eaten felt hat, a chipped cup and a couple of dead batteries passing as a window display?
Mother: Oh, we don’t put anything people might want to buy in the window or we’d have to keep replacing it.
Saffy: I got you condoms and femidoms. You are going to be safe, right?
Eddy: Yes of course, sweetie.
Saffy: (Looking in the bag) Did you open these?
Mother: They don’t put fingers on these gloves any more.
Eddy: What you two don’t seem to realise is that inside of me – inside of me – there is a thin person just screaming to get out.
Mother: Just the one, dear?
Saffy: (the new year has just been counted in) Happy New Year.
Sarah: Happy New Year.
Mother: That’s it, then, I’ll be off.