Remembering June Whitfield: role model & friend

It’s hard to believe I won’t be seeing June Whitfield again. Although she was tiny (5 foot at most) and got tinier and tinier as she grew older and more frail, she seemed to me to be indestructible because, as a character, she was so strong. She was a lovely lady and a good friend. She telephoned on Christmas Eve, sounding very cheery (as she always did), and managing to be a little bit cheeky, too. ‘That was a very big Christmas card you sent,’ she said, with a naughty chuckle, ‘You know I always like a big one.’ She was looking forward to Christmas and to the charity show we were due to do together in February – singing the duet ‘I remember it well’ from the musical Gigi.

June had been part of my life since I was a little boy. In 1953, she took over the role of ‘Eth’, Jimmy Edwards’ daughter in ‘The Glums’ in Take It From Here on the radio and I listened to it every week with my parents. I loved ‘The Glums’: it was my introduction to British comedy – and to the end of her days June could do great chunks of Ron-and-Eth’s dialogue from the shows. Sitting in our kitchen, she would half-close her eyes to concentrate on getting the voice right. ‘Oh, Ron, beloved,’ she’d coo, ‘is there anything on your mind, dearest one?’, to which, after a pause, as Ron, she’d reply, ‘No, Eth.’

People of my generation grew up with June. She played the part of the nurse in ‘The Blood Donor’, the most famous of all the episodes of Hancock’s Half Hour. She was the pretty-but-wholesome one in Carry On Nurse in 1959. Through the 1960s she featured in every sitcom and variety show on British TV – or so it seemed. We first worked together on my first Radio 4 series, A Rhyme in Time, in 1971, and hit it off at once. It was impossible not to like her. She was funny. She always had a twinkle in her eye, but she was utterly devoid of malice. She lived not far away from us in South London, in Wimbledon, and she and her surveyor husband, Tim, became proper friends. It was such a privilege to know her.

She had a wonderful life because of her attitude to it. ‘I never complain,’ she said to me, ‘because what I have got to complain about?’ Her family came from Yorkshire and her parents were keen amateur actors. She learned shorthand and typing, ‘as girls did in those days’, but secured a place at RADA during the war. She left in 1944 and worked every year from then on. She was in gainful employment as an actress for 74 years: that may be a world record. She was ‘discovered’ by Noel Coward who cast her in his 1950 musical Ace of Clubs. At the auditions she was ‘the only girl with any spirit or style’. She always remembered Coward’s encouragement with gratitude and when she talked about him (which she did quite often) it was with a certain star-struck reverence. On her 25th birthday, her parents gave a party for her at home and Coward asked if he could come along, too. ‘Can you imagine? The Master in my home, singing songs and playing our family piano? Oh, Gyles, I’ve had the luckiest life.’

June worked with everybody across nearly eight decades, from Noel Coward in Ace of Clubs to Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley in Absolutely Fabulous – and everybody, without exception, loved her. Audiences loved her. The phrase ‘national treasure’ is overused, but it applied to June. She was part of the fabric of our lives. Recently, Joanna Lumley was performing her one-woman show at the London Palladium and when Lumley mentioned that June Whitfield was in the audience you could have heard the roar in Oxford Street.

To me she was a role model. She was easy, generous and completely professional. A few years after her husband died in 2001, June decided sensibly (she was always sensible) to sell the family’s large house and move into a retirement community in Kingston. It suited her. It was easier to manage; an old girlfriend was living there, too, so they could have lunch together most days; and the local mini-cab could get her into London for work. Work was always June’s priority.

Last year, when she was 92, I went to Kingston to rehearse our duet for the first time – and arrived to find she had already learnt it: she was word and note perfect. Of course, she was. She never failed to deliver which was why she never stopped working. Wilfred Pickles, Tony Hancock, Kenneth Williams, Frankie Howerd, Dick Emery, Benny Hill, Terry Scott, Morecambe and Wise – there wasn’t one top-liner in British entertainment with whom she hadn’t worked. And quite a few of those men were notoriously difficult. ‘Perhaps they were difficult,’ she would say, ‘but they had the strain of carrying the show. I was just there to help them along.’ She worked with everyone and what made her unique is that she never – never, ever, ever – had a bad word to say about any of them – not even Terry Scott! I don’t think there was anyone in the business who didn’t have reservations about Terry Scott. I remember last year, over supper in our kitchen, telling her, ‘Everyone says Terry Scott could be a monster.’ ‘Oh,’ she chuckled, ‘if he was being difficult, I paid no attention. I just said, “Yes, Terry” and got on with it.’

I don’t think I’ve known a nicer human being than June Whitfield. You can’t say much better than that.

Gyles Brandreth