Words: Darren Scott
The world lost another star this week, when it was confirmed that comedy legend, Dame June Whitfield, had passed away peacefully.
An entertainer with a career that spanned more than 70 years, it all began back on the radio in 1946, starring alongside Wilfred Pickles.
Television and stage appearances followed, before she landed the lead in radio comedy show Take It From Here in 1953 – her ‘big break’.
Further supporting roles in television and film soon beckoned, leading to the eventual title of her 2000 autobiography '...And June Whitfield'.
Dame June would later explain that she’d never wished for a lead role, or the stress that might accompany one.
“I've been so lucky, really, to keep going as long as I have,” Dame June explained when we met her in 2016.
“Once in a blue moon I've had a show but not like all the comics that I've worked with, because they stood or fell by their last show and that's very difficult because there are writers involved.
"I think it's also lack of confidence I suppose, in a way. I would rather be helping somebody else than doing something for myself.”
Throughout the 60s and 70s, television viewers were lucky enough to have Dame June grace their screens in almost every light entertainment show going, as well as voicing Mrs Beaver in the original animated version of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.
It was at the turn of the 80s that Dame June started work on what would arguably become her most famous role – June Medford in Terry and June.
The series ran from 1979 to 1987, over 65 episodes. The comedy show, which also starred Terry Scott, had actually begun life in 1974 as Happy Ever After before legal issues forced the programme to become what many will now remember as Dame June’s greatest role.
During the 90s, Dame June appeared in a succession of productions that would – for various different reasons – resonate with the gay community.
Absolutely Fabulous, of course, would be the show that firmly embedded her in our hearts, had we not been lucky enough to hold her there already.
“I did a sketch with Jennifer [Saunders] and Dawn [French] in their show and then I was asked to do the pilot of Ab Fab,” Dame June explained, at what was to be our last encounter.
“I mean, it was nothing really. It was just a few lines when she came back drunk from somewhere and fell out of the car.
"But, she did say that if it went to a series her mother would be in it so I thought, ‘Well that's fair enough’, and that's how it started.”
This start went on to give life to 39 episodes and a movie over the course of the following 24 years. But Dame June had no idea just how big Ab Fab would become.
“No, of course not. Course not! I mean you don't. Most actors think every job they do is their last so you certainly don't think... I imagine some far-seeing people might but I'm a 'wait-and-see' person.”
Jennifer famously gave the character of Gran some of the greatest moments – whether it was a scene-stealing line or an incredible piece of physical comedy. But there’s one moment that stood out for Dame June.
“The biggest laugh I think I've ever heard was when Jennifer did that thing about the femidoms and I said, ‘They haven't put any fingers in these gloves, dear’. That was such a laugh. Thank god the camera went to Jennifer because I'm sure I collapsed but that was something.”
Absolutely Fabulous became a global phenomenon with a huge LGBT+ fanbase – and Gran wasn’t without her gay following. Dame June recalled the first time she became aware of the love.
“I think probably the first time I really realised was when I went to a party for somebody in Sussex that I knew and he's gay and there were some Americans there who were also gay and they said [shouts], ‘Oh my god it's Mother!’” She laughed as she recounted the experience.
“That was the first I realised that they found it attractive. But I think it’s because the characters are so outrageous.”
Guest appearances alongside Julian Clary in Terry and Julian and All Rise for Julian Clary followed, and she appeared alongside him in her fourth and final Carry On movie, Carry On Columbus.
She stole the show in the pilot for proposed Ab Fab spin-off, Mirrorball, playing Dora Vermouth, and again had supporting roles in Coronation Street, EastEnders and Doctor Who – copping a feel of David Tennant’s bottom at the age of 83, thanks to Russell T Davies.
During this time – including appearances too numerous to mention – she never turned her back on radio. From 1993 to 2001, Dame June starred as Miss Marple in a series of BBC Radio 4 adaptations, gaining her yet another ardent fan base.
Her final appearance, perhaps fittingly, was as the still scene-stealing Gran in Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie.
When we last saw her, we asked what she thought was the most famous line fans associated with the character.
“I would think if there is it would be ‘just the one dear’,” she smiled broadly. “'Inside this body there's a thin person trying to get out'” she laughed before completing the gag, as ever, with impeccable comic timing. “Just the one dear?”