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Obituary: June Whitfield

Comic star of radio, television and film who then became a cult favourite with the alternative-comedy generation


ONSCREEN CHEMISTRY: TV sitcom ‘Terry and June’, starring June Whitfield and Terry Scott

ONSCREEN CHEMISTRY: TV sitcom ‘Terry and June’, starring June Whitfield and Terry Scott

ONSCREEN CHEMISTRY: TV sitcom ‘Terry and June’, starring June Whitfield and Terry Scott

Dame June Whitfield, who has died aged 93, reigned for more than six decades as one of the most popular and busy comedy actresses on television, radio and film.

She became a public favourite playing the eternal fiancee Eth, coaxing her dozy Ron Glum (played by Dick Bentley) towards the altar in the Frank Muir-Denis Norden 1950s radio series Take It From Here (in the portion of the show known as 'The Glums'), and went on to perform a long-running double-act as the long-suffering wife of overgrown boy scout Terry Scott in the archetypal suburban sitcom Happy Ever After (1974-78) and its follow-up Terry And June, which ran from 1979 until 1987 when it was axed by the BBC as out-of-touch in the age of "alternative" comedy.

One of the reasons June Whitfield managed to survive the demise of the series was because it had been so famously unfunny (though it always attracted large viewing figures). As a result, in a sort of ironic gesture, she was taken up by the alternative-comedy generation as a representative of the sort of innocuous Middle England comedy that they had displaced. It was a credit to June Whitfield's talent and character that she was good enough to outlast the gag.

It was Jennifer Saunders who in 1992 offered her a tiny 30-second role as Mother, Edina's embarrassingly suburban parent in the pilot of Absolutely Fabulous. She almost stole the show and went on to appear regularly in the role until 2002, her character becoming increasingly batty and infuriating ("Get that old woman out of here") and acquiring kleptomaniac tendencies as the series progressed. There was a deliciously cruel innocence to her put-downs (Edina: "Inside of me, there's a thin person just screaming to get out." Mother: "Just the one, dear?").

Her part in Absolutely Fabulous made June Whitfield a cult figure to a new generation of viewers; a position further amplified by her appearance alongside the camp comedian Julian Clary in his decidedly risque series All Rise (1996-97). The pair had met on the set of Carry On Columbus (1992), one of four Carry On films in which she appeared, the first being Carry on Nurse in 1959), and he asked her to play the wife of the governor of the Bank of England who tries to seduce him: "I told him I'd love to work with him, but I would have to be his auntie, so that I could ignore everything he did. I think that took the edge off various things. Auntie could be completely bewildered as to what he was talking about."

Her autobiography, a refreshingly un-bitchy account of life in British entertainment, was titled And June Whitfield (2000) - a reference to the fact that, throughout her career, June Whitfield always seemed to take second billing to male co-stars. Roy Hudd, a long-time collaborator with her on the BBC radio satire, The News Huddlines (1988-2001) on which she was known for her acerbic impressions of Mrs Thatcher and the Queen, referred to her affectionately as "the comic's tart". Barry Took once observed that she had supported more actors (the roll call included Tony Hancock, Frankie Howerd, Terry Scott, Morecambe and Wise, Arthur Askey, Kenneth Williams, Benny Hill and Tommy Cooper) than the Department of Health and Social Security. June Whitfield would not have it any other way, attributing her longevity as an actress to the fact that she had never been subject to the sort of stresses that caused so many stars to crash and burn.

The qualities that June Whitfield brought to her acting - intelligence, imperturbability and an eye for detail were ones she was born with. In person, she was refreshingly unstarry - despite an early romance, before her long and happy marriage to chartered surveyor Tim Aitchison, with a young American actor called Larry Hagman (later JR on Dallas) who dated her while she was treading the Broadway boards in 1952 as a showgirl in South Pacific.

The actress Miriam Karlin, who attended Rada with June Whitfield and also appeared in the Broadway show, recalled that she (Karlin) would return to the hotel each night "pretty stoned, having done a lot of... naughtiness", to find June sitting up in bed calculating who owed what to whom down to the last cent.

June Whitfield was also delightfully self-effacing. On being upgraded from a OBE to a CBE in 1998, she joked of her success: "I always said that the first one stood for Old But Energetic. I think this one is Caught Before Expiry." Though she had found it hard to disguise her bitterness when Terry and June was axed, complaining of "inverted snobbery" at the BBC, when Julian Clary sent up the old sitcom in Terry and Julian (1992), she showed no hard feelings and dropped in for a guest appearance.

"Every actor thinks about retiring at the end of every show," she once said, "...and then the telephone rings. As long as that keeps happening, I am delighted to carry on, this is what I love doing."

June Rosemary Whitfield was born in Streatham, south London, on November 11, 1925. Her father was the managing director of a telephone company; her mother a frustrated amateur actress with a tendency to depression who left much of the childrearing to her own mother and father.

By the age of three, June found herself enrolled at the Robinson School of Dancing, Elocution, Pianoforte and Singing, where she made her stage debut as a fairy at the age of four. Educated at Streatham Hill High School, she trained as a secretary before enrolling at Rada in 1942. Though classically trained, she chose a career in comedy, feeling that "everyone was better looking than me", her roles at Rada including the second gravedigger in Hamlet and Peter Quince in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

After leaving Rada in 1944, she worked as assistant stage manager on a West End production of Pink String and Sealing Wax and went on to appear in some 20 stage productions. Noel Coward cast her in his Ace of Clubs in 1950 and her friendly association with Coward led to a role in the British run of South Pacific which took London by storm in the early Fifties, reprising her role on Broadway, where she was witheringly referred to as "the pudgy blonde" in an otherwise favourable review by Kenneth Tynan.

June Whitfield's first credited television role was in The Passing Show in 1951. But her big break came when she was chosen to play the part of Eth Glum in Take It From Here. She went on to appear in numerous television comedy series, including Steptoe and Son and Hancock's Half Hour, most memorably playing the nurse in the classic Hancock Blood Donor episode in 1961.

Her first starring role in a sitcom was in Beggar My Neighbour (1966-68), after which she began her long partnership with Terry Scott in a show called Scott On... The chemistry with her co-star in Happy Ever After and Terry And June was such that many viewers assumed they must be married in real life - to the extent that when Scott publicly revealed his numerous extra-marital affairs it was she, not Scott's real wife Maggie, who received letters of commiseration.

As well as her appearances with Scott, she had many small roles on other television series including The Goodies, The Dick Emery Show, Bless This House, It Ain't Half Hot Mum and Minder. She also continued to take parts in mainstream theatrical productions including The Rivals (1986), Noel Coward's Semi Monde (1987), and Ring Around the Moon (1988).

She remained busy on television and radio into old age, playing Miss Marple in 12 BBC radio adaptations in 1993 and appearing in such series as the American sitcom Friends, Last of the Summer Wine, Coronation Street, Jennifer Saunders' sitcom pilot Mirrorball (2000), in which she played an alcoholic actress, Dora Vermouth, and, on Christmas Day 2009, 10 million or so people saw her goose David Tennant's Doctor Who as a pensioner helping the Time Lord in his fight to stop the end of the world.

In 2014, she was part of the cast of Boomers, a BBC One comedy drama about a group of retirees in "Norfolk's only west-facing resort". As well as her autobiography she published At A Glance… An Absolutely Fabulous Life (2009), featuring scrapbook pictures from her career.

Outside acting, June Whitfield's interests and tastes were defiantly ordinary. Every evening, she informed an interviewer: "I finish work, take my shoes off, pour a vodka, do crossword puzzles and watch a bit of telly." Her favourite film was Gone with the Wind and she was a big fan of One Foot in the Grave.

June Whitfield, who died on December 28, was appointed OBE in 1985, CBE in 1998 and DBE in 2017. In 1994 she was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the British Comedy Awards. In 1955 she married Timothy Aitchison, who died in 2001 and with whom she had a daughter, the actress Suzy Aitchison.