‘I am the girl who says loudly and clearly the unfunny line before the comedian’s funny line. I prefer to leave it at that’.
June Whitfield stated in a 1961 newspaper interview that ‘I am the girl who says loudly and clearly the unfunny line before the comedian’s funny line. I prefer to leave it at that’. It was a modest statement, one that anticipated her subsequent observation that with Terry and June her role was to ‘drift the laughter towards Terry’s lines’. A rather more accurate observation was that without this subtle and utterly brilliant character actress, there would be not so much a gulf in British comedy as an echoing void.
In a career that spanned 72 years Whitfield partnered Arthur Askey, Stanley Baxter, Tommy Cannon & Bobby Ball, Tommy Cooper, Harry H Corbett, Leslie Crowther, Dick Emery, Tony Hancock, Benny Hill, Frankie Howerd, Roy Hudd, Peter Jones, Alfred Marks, Bob Monkhouse, Leslie Phillips, Peter Sellers, Terry Scott (of course) and Harry Worth. Until the 1990s, her radio and TV work frequently involved responding to the (frequently puerile) antics of various male comedians and comedy actors. A recent tweet by the ever readable Matthew Sweet remarked that he interviewed Whitfield that it was ‘impossible it was to get her to take credit for anything, and how kind & compassionate she was about the many wounded & sometimes monstrous comics she worked with’.
‘June always understands what we are getting at and gets more out of it than we put in. She is the answer to a scriptwriter’s prayer. She is phenomenal’.
Frank Muir thought that ‘June always understands what we are getting at and gets more out of it than we put in. She is the answer to a scriptwriter’s prayer. She is phenomenal’. Indeed, just think of the ward Sister in The Blood Donor, reacting with resigned patience, subtle mockery and utter bemusement to Hancock’s self-aggrandisement. As with all the greatest straight men and straight women, her art was to conceal her art.
June Rosemary Whitfield was born in South London in 1925. After she graduated from RADA in 1944, the majority of her work was for the theatre and during a performance in the West End musical Love From Judy, Muir and Denis Norden invited her to join the cast of the BBC Light Programme show Take It From Here. By November of 1953, the writers created the show’s most enduring characters – The Glum Family, and “Eth” would frequently utter romantic pronouncements in a shabby-genteel accent suffused with suppressed lust. But no matter how much she cajoles her fiancée (Dick Bentley) – ‘Ooh, Ron, It’s not natural for hot-blooded people like you and me to remain unmarried indefinitely’ – he will always possess the innate pasion of a Standard Vanguard.
In 1968, Whitfield appeared in Terry Scott’s BBC sketch comedy Scott On… Their on-screen chemistry proved so popular that when the series ended in 1974, they were paired as husband-and-wife in sitcom Happy Ever After, which, following a change of writer in 1979, transformed into Terry and June. A certain mythology has evolved that every story had a) Reginald Marsh (as “the boss”) unexpectedly arriving for dinner, b) Scott uttering ‘Cor!’ from behind the wheel of a Leyland Princess and c) our heroes dressing as punk rockers for no clearly defined reasons. The last-named happened as late as 1987 but the fact that Terry and June ran for eight years is a testament to the Scott/Whitfield screen partnership. The 1983 episode A Day in Boulogne, shot partially on location in France, is a highlight of the series, not least for the “suitcase routine” with the incredulous gendarme of Peter Bland.
Between 1992 and 2012, Whitfield was often the sole watchable element in the increasingly self-indulgent Absolutely Fabulous. Her underplaying, as immaculately timed as always, was frequently a welcome relief from the scenery-chewing of the principals. She was made Dame June in 2017, a year before her death – a very belated honour. If there is one line to encapsulate the work of June Whitfield, it is ‘unassumingly great’, as demonstrated by her appearances in Life With Cooper and so many television and radio appearances.
Whitfield too seldom appeared in films, but two of my favourite of her performances were for the big screen. The first is opposite Mr. Scott but in the 1972 film version of Bless This House. “Ronald Baines” is pompous rather than juvenile, affording his co-star greater opportunity for expressing, as only she could, resigned tolerance. Add the Sidney James/Robin Askwith father/son double-act, and you have an extremely likeable picture that is quite possibly the Citizen Kane of 1970s sit-com spin-off films. Secondly, we have Carry On Abroad, the 24th of the series and one displaying several fault lines. On the one hand, we have a visibly ailing Charles Hawtrey and the appalling performance of Jimmy Logan but to save the day are Peter Butterworth, Hattie Jacques, Ray Brooks – and June Whitfield.
Devotees of the Carry Ons treasure those odd moments of pathos – Sid James’s sense of betrayal in Cabby, Elke Sommer’s kind but very firm dismissal of Kenneth Connor’s pathetic “Major Leap” in Behind or the death of Peter Gilmore’s “Private Hale” in Up the Khyber. With Abroad Whitfield’s depressed middle-aged hausfrau “Evelyn Blunt” embarks on a holiday romance with Brook’s’s “Georgio” the barman. It is a genuinely charming moment and one that makes the viewer realise just how indispensable Whitfield truly was to post-war British entertainment. After all, she could express more with a reaction shot and a ‘yes dear’ than a lesser actress with pages of dialogue.
Film Historian Andrew Roberts MA PhD FRSA