Take it from her...
Interview by Beverly Byrne
Published in The Lady Magazine
Like many of my generation, I have grown up with June Whitfield. From her high-pitched, earnest tones as Eth in Take It From Here, through several Carry On films, Terry and June and, most recently, as Mother in Absolutely Fabulous - it seems as if she has always been there.
Recently she has added the role of author to her considerable talents. Her autobiography - and June Whitfield has become a bestseller and it is this new departure that we are going to discuss in her South London home.
There is a touch of the fairy godmother about June Whitfield, which is probably why she is so popular in pantomime. As I wait on her doorstep, I muse on the fact that this may be due to her magical ability to inhabit different personae and voices and to combine it with her legendary and boundless good nature.
As she opens the door I note that, despite being casually dressed in a combination of reds and russets, rather than in yards of sparkling net and holding a magic wand, she actually looks like someone who wants to grant you three wishes.
"Tea, coffee, what can I get you?" she asks, leading me into the kitchen via a dining-room hung with framed evidence of her career from her early days in Penge Repertory Theatre to the glory of the London Palladium. We take our tea into a drawing-room where photographs of her husband, Tim, her actress daughter, Suzy Aitchison, and various family pets are displayed.
Did she, I ask, enjoy her trip down memory lane which resulted in her autobiography? "Oh yes, it was fascinating," she replies. "Over the years I've often been asked to write a book but always declined, because I assumed they'd want me to dish some dirt. However, when I was approached this time, I told them I wasn't prepared to write a 'kiss and tell'. They said 'Fine, we don't want that anyway.'
"So, I began by looking through all my old diaries but they weren't much use. The entries consisted mostly of 'had drinks with so and so' and some notes in shorthand which I can no longer decipher. In fact, one entry simply said, 'War in Europe over. Hooray.' But, fortunately, I did have masses of photographs, scrapbooks and theatre programmes which were a great help."
Her autobiography begins with her happy childhood in Streatham, south London. Her mother was a leading light in local amateur dramatics and June was enrolled at the tender age of three-and-a-half at the Robinson School of Dancing, Elocution, Pianoforte and Singing.
"My school days were quite often interrupted because I had to attend a dance class or a performance. Mum never forced me, I went willingly because I loved it all. I remember hearing other mothers saying, 'June will end up on stage' and I simply came to believe that's what I would do with my life."
I ask if she has inherited any of her mother's characteristics.
"Possibly in reverse," she replies. "Mum tended towards the overdramatic. If she didn't get a particular part, it would be doom and gloom for the next 24 hours. I think her over-wrought reactions had the effect of encouraging me to remain calm in tense situations."
It is June's unflustered and relaxed personality which made her the perfect partner for many comic geniuses, including Arthur Askey, Tony Hancock, Ronnie Barker, Benny Hill, Frankie Howerd, Dick Emery, Terry Scott and, more recently, Julian Clary and Roy Hudd. Her contributions to The News Huddlines over the past 16 years have allowed her to display her considerable skills as a mimic - which she describes as "characature".
"I was so sorry when Margaret Thatcher disappeared from the scene. She was a gift to mimic," she says, dropping at once into our former Prime Minister's deeply strangulated tones.
I had read somewhere that her celebrated character, Eth, had been modelled on her mother's daily help, Mrs G. Does she always draw on real life when it comes to creating a character?
"Very often. You borrow from experience all the time. I recently met an elderly lady who spoke with her teeth tightly clenched. I don't know whether she was enunciating through a particularly ill-fitting set of dentures, but I found it fascinating and thought, 'that's good, I must store that away'."
Was her role as Mother to Jennifer Saunders' Edina in the comic masterpiece Absolutely Fabulous also based on someone whom she knew?
"No, Mother was all in the writing," she reveals. "When Jennifer first asked me to play her mother in the pilot programme, it was only a tiny part. However, Jennifer is wonderfully generous in that if she likes what you do, she'll write more for you.
"Mother evolved from a typical suburban mum into a slightly mad, detached character who thought nothing of appropriating household goods and giving them to the Women's Institute.
"When I was young, I admired Eve Arden, a comic actress whose deadpan delivery of crisp one-liners intrigued me. Jennifer gave me the chance to deliver a few of my own in Ab Fab and effectively relaunched my career. I will always be grateful to her for that."
Next, we discuss the changes in comedy roles for women over the decades.
"In the past, women weren't encouraged to be funny. Looking back, I can only remember Beryl Reid and a comedienne called Joan Turner who, like Harry Secombe, combined a wonderful operatic voice with a wacky comedy act.
"I think all that changed when women, with French and Saunders in the vanguard, began writing their own material. I consider them to be extremely talented all-rounders who can write and perform without resorting to the 'behind-the-bike-shed' humour which seems popular with some comedians today."
Having worked with most of Britain's best known performers, June can be considered an authority on the subject of genius. As an ingénue, she was chosen by Noel Coward to join the cast of his show, Ace of Clubs. One of the many superb photographs featured in her book shows her in this particular production wearing a slinky costume and an outrageously outsize headdress. Another shows her alongside the Master at one of his many star-studded parties.
Once June threw a party of her own at her parents' apartment and was surprised when Coward not only attended but also played the family piano.
"Tim and I held on to that piano for years but finally realised it was taking up too much room and it had to go. It's funny to think that someone, somewhere, is playing a piano upon which Noel Coward once tickled the ivories. I still think that I was immensely fortunate to have not only worked but also socialised with Noel. He was a true genius."
Although June Whitfield worked with him in 1950, her professional career actually began in repertory six years earlier. It is a testament to her talent and professionalism that she is still admired by audiences of all age-groups over 50 years later. The subject of two This Is Your Life programmes, she was awarded a CBE in l998.
"I had already been awarded an OBE in 1985 and on receiving a CBE, was politely asked to return it. I assume, therefore, that my CBE has been passed down to me from someone who had been upgraded - I often wonder who might be wearing my old gong."
Roy Hudd has affectionately dubbed June the "Comics' Tart", as she has so often appeared "with" them rather than in her own right. The list of those with whom she has performed is like a Who's Who of English comedy - she admits that the best advice she received was "don't upset the comic".
But when I try to suggest that, given the well-documented vagaries of the comic mind, this must require powerful psychological gifts on her part, she will have none of it.
"All I do is to try and get on their wavelength," she replies in a matter-of-fact tone. "In fact, I've always said that my greatest asset is that I'm no bother!"
Is there any role that she is still yearning to tackle, at the age of 75?
"I can't say I yearn for anything, really. Frankie Howerd and Terry Scott used to tease me about my lack of ambition, but I never really thought about it. My daughter Suzy, however, says that I am quite ambitious - but I think I've always been inclined to sit back and wait for things to happen. As my family has always taken precedence over my career, I've been delighted at the way things have turned out. Just when I think it's all over, something fabulous turns up - in the end, that's all down to luck."