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4th January 2019

A Tribute to Dame June Whitfield

As we bid farewell to 2018, there was the usual review of the year which featured a celebration of those stars who we sadly lost in the past twelve months. Yet ironically one of the most significant passings, which arguably would have rightfully sat at the very top of said list, came just one day before the end of the year as news broke of the sad loss of the legendary comedy actress Dame June Whitfield. Famous for over sixty years, June Whitfield was an ever-present figure on our radio and televisions almost since the birth of the genre and her cv read like the story of British comedy itself.

Whitfield’s first big break came in 1953 when she was selected to replace actress and singer Joy Nichols for Took and Norden’s hit BBC radio comedy Take It From Here alongside Jimmy Edwards and Dick Bentley. Cast as lovesick teenager Eph who was completely besotted by boyfriend Ron, June was now part of one of the most listened to shows in Britain and when TV producers wanted to transform Take It From Here from a radio show to a TV sitcom, June was very obliged to follow it. Yet Dick Bentley’s decision not to go with the series meant that a replacement was needed and that fell to a relatively unknown actor called Ronnie Barker. The Seven Faces Of Jim was first broadcast on the 16th November 1961 and ran for nineteen episodes until August 1963 making June into a recognised household name.

By the early sixties, June was a familiar face amongst TV comedy circles and in 1961 was put forward to play the part of a nurse in the hugely popular sitcom Hancock’s Half Hour. Unbeknown to all concerned, The Blood Donor proved popular with the public and still remains a recognised shorthand of the comedy output of the sixties. This small but iconic role gained June national acclaim and nearly six decades later it’s still fondly remembered as an important part of sitcom heritage. This attracted the attention of television executives and suddenly June enjoyed cameos in some of the biggest shows of the day including Steptoe and Son where she played Harold’s love interest Madge who is the subject of Albert’s suspicion. Such roles put June on the TV comedy map and it was only a matter of time before the young actress was offered a regular part in a TV comedy.

In 1964 June secured a role in the BBC comedy series Scott On; a show created for the actor and comedian Terry Scott alongside Peter Butterworth and Frank Thornton. Yet as soon as June shared the screen with Terry Scott it wasn’t hard for producers to realise the innate chemistry which the pair had. Scott On ran for a decade on the BBC satirising all aspects of modern life from wealth to popular culture. Throughout its thirty one editions, each episode dealt with a different topic facing sixties Britain. Satire was something which was relatively new to June but just like everything else in her career, if that was what was asked then that’s what she delivered.

This rapport between the two actors was so identifiable that it wasn’t long before the corporation found a situation comedy which was perfect to showcase Scott and Whitfield’s on screen presence. First aired in May 1974, by scriptwriters John T. Chapman, Eric Merriman, Christopher Bond, John Kane and Jon Watkins, Happily Ever After ran for five series and charted the frequently bizarre lives of suburban husband and wife Terry and June Fletcher together with Aunt Lucy played by Beryl Cooke. The series proved a success with the public and in 1979 the series underwent a revamp and became simply Terry and June. With a new and simple title, Terry and June ran for eight more years until 1987. Crucified by critics for being middle class, twee and conservative, the show was an enormous hit with the public and achieved viewing figures three times those of any of the ‘alternative’ comedies of the era. In later years, June became perplexed as to the reason why television producers had a mantra of “Let’s not go back to the days of Terry and June” as to her, if it was popular and not harming anyone what was the problem? This was a subject which June felt very strong about and was something that she regularly reinforced until her death. It was obvious that Terry and June was a show that she felt immensely proud of and wasn’t frightened to air the fact.

This wasn’t the only long standing partnership which June successfully enjoyed throughout her long and distinguished career. In 1975 she joined a brand new satirical sketch show on BBC Radio 2 entitled The News Huddlines alongside Roy Hudd and Chris Emmett. Responding to and satirising the biggest news stories of the day was something which was ahead of its time and became very popular. This resulted in June honing a nearly perfect voiced impersonation of Margaret Thatcher which could only be rivaled by Spitting Image’s Steve Nallon or Janet Brown. Never before had June been able to showcase her extensive vocal range and instant versatility as a live performer. For over a quarter of a century, The News Huddlines responded to and celebrated whatever was happening throughout the world and put a brighter spin on world issues which added to June’s already incredible body of work.

By the early nineties, June Whitfield was considered a veteran of British comedy and seemed removed from the Alternative Comedy revolution which was taking place. Yet an offer from comedian Jennifer Saunders would return June to the beating heart of British comedy and reminded the nation of her comedy pedigree. Rising from a short French and Saunders’ sketch, Absolutely Fabulous was a satirical take on the PR, celebrity obsessed culture of the early nineties. Unbeknown to June, Saunders had always had an ambition to have her play her mother and in 1992 it would come true. Portrayed as the long suffering mother to the self obsessed Edina and vital respite for granddaughter Saphie, it eventually came to light that she was just as wayward as Edina and Patsy. Such a complex character would have been lost in the hands of a less accomplished actress but June was able to perfectly gauge the character of Mother which fitted the mood of the series which in turn helped Absolutely Fabulous become one of the most popular sitcoms of the nineties.

Such a role would reinvent June for 90’s Britain which spawned many unlikely partnerships including with bawdy comedian Julian Clary in the Channel Four comedy series Terry and Julian. It was clear that June had been fully embraced by the new generation of comedians and was able to fit right in with the 21st century brand of humour and stars were now queuing up to get the Whitfield seal of approval. Yet she always stayed true to her roots and in 1994 united with long time News Huddlines co-star Roy Hudd for the BBC1 comedy drama Common as Muck which ran for two series series until 1997. Her association with Roy Hudd continued in the early evening ITV panel show What’s My Line? presented by Emma Forbes and featured members of the public as the celebrity panel guessed their profession. Now into her seventies, June was more in demand than ever and in 1995 even got surprised by Michael Aspel and his infamous big red book along with those immortal words This is Your Life.

As the new millennium dawned, June’s status in the annals of British comedy went from veteran to legendary. In 2001 following a five year hiatus, Absolutely Fabulous returned for two more series on the BBC which resulted in June reprising her role as Mother, yet this time alongside fellow entertainment icon Dora Bryan who played her geriatric promiscuous friend Dolly. The new look Absolutely Fabulous rain for two series and one Christmas special before Jennifer Saunders had the idea of giving Edina and Patsy their moment on the big screen and in 2016 it became a reality which meant that June would have a major role. Despite not being a runaway box office smash as some may have predicted, it proved the perfect way to bid farewell to the nation’s favourite female drunks.

Despite saying goodbye to Mother and Ab Fab, June Whitfield wasn’t ready to hang up her performing shoes just yet. In 2014 she was cast as Joan, the elderly, forthright mother of Stephanie Beecham in Richard Pinto’s gentle sitcom Boomers. Sadly this was to be June’s last credited acting work though she did make a guest appearance at the London Palladium in early 2018 to pay tribute to her departed friend and colleague Sir Bruce Forsyth. So a career which spanned six decades has finally come to an end leaving a whole lifetime’s worth of laughter and comedy moments in her wake.

June Whitfield’s death has been met with tributes from colleagues, unrivaled love from British comedy fans and even an outpouring of praise from the new generation of the comedy establishment. Yet perhaps her death symbolises the final reminder of a lost generation of the original comedy stars who helped to shape and define the genre. Yet through the preservation of archive and interest in this era, June Whitfield may be gone but never forgotten. In an era of celebrity culture, it’s impossible to imagine a time when supporting actors were content on being just that. Yet June Whitfield wasn’t just content, she made it into an art form and for that her legacy shall live forever.

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