In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Southern Television treated its young viewers to a master class in great acting. The Aunt Sally of Una Stubbs was one of the greatest villainesses of the small screen, from her insinuating mock genteel accent, to uttering the word ‘bonfires!’ towards Worzel with sadistic glee. The actress thought Aunt Sally was ‘a horrible woman’ and at the conclusion of The Return of Dolly Clothes-Peg, the character expressed her triumph with a terrifying smugness. At such moments, one forgets that Worzel Gummidge was a children’s programme.
In short, Una Stubbs was one of Britain’s finest character actors, whether as a fairground doll obsessed with cream cakes or Mrs. Hudson regarding the Holmes brothers with a jaundiced gaze. With the BBC’s Till Death Us Do Part, her Rita subtly conveyed elements of both parents. She had the unerring ability to distract attention from the production’s leading man, be he Cliff Richard, Warren Mitchell or Benedict Cumberbatch. For a select group of viewers (including the future David Bowie), she was the “Klean‐O Vacuum Cleaner Girl” who comes to life to dance with Gurney Slade.
Una Stubbs was born in Welwyn Garden City on the 1st of May 1937, and when she was 11, her parents sent her to the La Roche Dance School in Slough. By 1956, she appeared in the Folies Bergère at the Prince of Wales Theatre, and that same year The Stage referred to her as ‘vivacious brunette Una Stubbs’. She later observed that she would “accidentally” kick her shoes into the audience in a bid to be noticed. As the decade progressed, Stubbs was a dancer on the Associated-Rediffusion pop show Cool for Cats and starred as Rowntree’s “Dairy Box Girl” in a wonderfully late 1950s TV commercial.
1960 saw Stubbs make two highly memorable appearances in The Strange World of Gurney Slade. The actress thought the series ‘bonkers’, but she loved working with Anthony Newley. It comes as a surprise to realise that Stubbs’s first major on-screen speaking role came as late as 1962 with Summer Holiday, such is her assured performance as Sandy. She answered an advertisement in The Stage for dancers, but was asked to read for a supporting role. Subsequent film musicals included the 1964 Cliff Richard vehicle Wonderful Life and 1965 ’s amiably off beat Three Hats for Lisa. The moment Una joins Sidney James in the Bermondsey number, is one of the most enjoyably bizarre in the annals of British cinema.
Outside of the confines of the Garnett residence, Stubbs was a very memorable guest to the Fawltys’ disastrous wedding anniversary, and her nervous traveller was a highlight of Victoria Woods’s We’d Quite Like to Apologise. In 1989, Stubbs appeared in She Stoops to Conquer at Manchester’s Royal Exchange: ‘I knew that people considered me very lightweight and that I’d have to do something about it’. Eight years later, she portrayed Hester Collyer in The Deep Blue Sea and her theatrical roles would encompass Ibsen and Shakespeare.
Una Stubbs died on the 12th of August 2021 after several months of illness. In a 2012 interview with The Guardian, she modestly stated, ‘I hadn’t had any acting training, so I was very aware of that, and now I just think, “Oh, I hope I can be good enough”’. The reality was, she was, in her understated manner, utterly brilliant. And her villainess who promised to ‘tell the truth, some of the truth, most of the truth, so long as it suits me’ defined countless childhoods.
Film Historian Andrew Roberts MA PhD FRHistS