Women of Character – June Whitfield

July 26, 2019

‘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

Order Cannon and Ball: The Complete Series 1

Order Life With Cooper

Order Bless This House



Comments:10

  1. Ray Fine Reply
    19/07/26

    Please release the movie version of Bless This House on Blu Ray.

  2. Jennifer Beattie Reply
    19/07/26

    June Whitfield is quite simply a legend. I was lucky enough to see her in 1986 in London when she was one of the ‘News Huddlines’ radio team – I was invited along to a recording, and to say I loved every single minute would be an understatement. Very sadly missed.

  3. Dominic Goodwin Reply
    19/07/27

    June Whitfield was a star for so many years, and was a true variety phenomenon, who crossed every boundary. An actress unharmed by her deserved celebrity. An icon in fact.
    But Mr Roberts, we didn’t really need your abrasive comments in this resume of her life! Comments like “appalling performance of Jimmy Logan” or “visibly ailing Charles Hawtrey”. It was only my adoration of June Whitfield that kept me reading til the end.

  4. kathy saban Reply
    19/07/27

    what a wonderful epitaph to a lovely lady, I have always enjoyed every performance of hers that I have seen. It all seemed so natural to her. I was so saddened to hear of her death but it’s so nice to know that we can all watch and hear her forever, she will never be forgotten and always admired.

  5. Russ Reply
    19/07/27

    A much missed stalwart.
    Thanks for an objective and richly deserved assessment of June’s career.

  6. sue Selfe Reply
    19/07/29

    Thank you for the informative article on this wonderful actress. I didn’t know as much as I thought I did ,so I was so grateful for your feature. June was a British Institution and as you so rightly reported her “YES DEAR” said more than a million words could say.
    She was loved and will be sadly missed.
    Once again thank you for your candour.

  7. Darren Lewis Reply
    19/07/31

    I remember her doing the adverts for Birds Eye chicken pies as a kid in the 70’s.
    A wonderful actress!

  8. Hugh Briss Reply
    19/08/16

    How can you talk about the career of June Whitfield without at least a passing mention of Jimmy Edwards?

  9. William Chivers Reply
    19/09/10

    Dear Network

    To Me, I often thought the late great June Whitfield was one of the funniest and memorable character actresses I have ever watched/seen on-screen …. Even to check out her hilarious/fondly remembered work with the late great Terry Scott.

    I already have all the episodes of the BBC TV sitcom ”Terry & June” on DVD … Even though I got them in stages as the original releases became tricky to track down and rare … the series has since been re-released in a boxset though.

    I do have a book about the late great comedy character actress, her life, her career and passion in-between, especially with those type of people – mostly past and present familiar other faces from light entertainment and classic tv … let alone her beloved family within-between.

    I aimfully plan to collect that other 70s sitcom ”Happy Ever After” whom June Whitfield and Terry Scott worked on/starred in before the exact said sitcom we all know so well … Not to mention that much later 90s sitcom ”Ab-Fab”

    Furthermore, I already have some of her other (almost her other) sitcom appearances on DVD, along with the episode of ”Bless This House” she guest starred in.

    Also ,I do believe she starred in some mid-late 60s sitcom at one time … May have to find out.
    R.I.P Dame June Whitfield.

  10. Jim Williams Reply
    19/09/13

    Not long ago I discovered the radio series “Like They’ve Never Been Gone” where June played Sheila to Roy Hudd’s Tommy, a rather past their sell by date pair of musical entertainers. I absolutely loved it. I wish I could get all the series but there only seem to be occasional episodes on Radio 4 extra. Is there a box set anywhere?

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