The death of June Whitfield at the great age of 93 closes the chapter on one our best ever comedy actresses.In a career that spanned more than six decades, June brought so much joy and laughter that, for many of us, it was not just losing a brilliant performer, but losing a friend.You have to go right back to the 1950s to find out when June first got the nation’s chuckle muscles rippling.
Radio was king then and June could be heard on a popular show called Take it From Here, penned by Frank Muir and Dennis Norden. She could also be heard on a weekly segment called The Glums, playing Eth, the daft girlfriend to equally dim witted partner Ron, (played by Dick Bentley). Her timing and vocal inflections were such that I almost envied the studio audience who were there to witness it in the flesh.
She then went on to play straight woman to some of the best comedians of the last century. Tony Hancock, Frankie Howard, Benny Hill, to name but a few. So how come when comedians can be a neurotic bunch, (I should know), and always worried about other people getting to many laughs, did June get the gig, so to speak?
Well, a few days after she died, I saw a documentary on her and she explained that all the great comics trusted her. She put them at ease. She would set up the gags for them to get the maximum amount of laughs but never took away any of their shine. She knew it was her job to make them look good. What a wise owl June was. It was that professional attitude that gave her such longevity.
In the seventies June found her ideal screen partner in Terry Scott, with their domestic comedies, firstly Happy Ever After and then Terry and June. They chalked up large viewing figures over a 12-year period. He as the bumbling husband, and she as the, ‘eyebrow raising, hard done by wife’. It became one of those phenomena that happen quite a lot in showbusiness. The critics didn’t care for it, but audiences loved them.
June’s story is a master class in how to keep reinventing yourself. When the Beeb called time on her and Terry’s sitcom she found a whole new audience as Jennifer Saunders’ mum in Absolutely Fabulous.She was doing TV appearances well into her twilight years and in between was in Carry On films and stage plays. However, she never forgot the medium that made her and in 1988 she joined the great Roy Hudd and from then to 2001 was a permanent fixture on his radio show The News Huddlines.
It all started in 1925 for June when she was born in Streatham, South London. Although her father had a sober occupation as the managing director of a telephone company, her mum was an amateur actress. Her glittering career started when she enrolled in RADA. Though she trained to be classical actress, June decided to do comedy for, as she said in own self-effacing way: “Everyone in drama school was better looking than me.”She was awarded first an OBE, which she joked stood for Old but Energetic. Then in 1998, when she was upgraded to a CBE she said that meant Caught before Expiry.
I personally worked with June twice. The first time was on an episode of Blankety Blank, when Les Dawson hosted it. We both sat in the hospitality bar after the show nursing a drink and marvelling at what a good ad libber Les was. The second time was on a gala BBC radio show that celebrated radio comedy. It was hosted by Roy Hudd and called appropriately enough Full Steam a Hudd.On both occasions I found her delightful company, with absolutely no airs or graces. She undoubtedly deserved every bit of the success her long and illustrious career provided her with.