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Obituary: June Whitfield – ‘Stage actor of considerable promise before finding fame on radio and television’

June Whitfield at the Slapstick Festival in Bristol in 2013, where she received the Aardman Slapstick Comedy Legend Award. Photo: Wikimedia and Slapstick Festival June Whitfield at the Slapstick Festival in Bristol in 2013, where she received the Aardman Slapstick Comedy Legend Award. Photo: Wikimedia and Slapstick Festival

Comedy doyenne June Whitfield was a stage actor of considerable promise before finding fame working alongside a veritable who’s who of British comedy talent on radio and television for more than 60 years.

Born in Streatham, south London, to parents who were enthusiastic amateur performers, she showed early promise and took acting lessons from the age of three. After graduating from RADA with the Gertrude Lawrence prize in 1944, she made her professional debut the same year as Margaret in JM Barrie’s Dear Brutus at the Q Theatre in London.

Spotted by comedian Wilfred Pickles, with whom she appeared in regional rep, she was invited on his radio show, after which Noel Coward cast her in his 1950 comedy, Ace of Clubs, at the West End’s Cambridge Theatre.

She was seen alongside Joyce Grenfell in revues by Laurie Lister, as Sue Yaeger in the UK premiere of South Pacific (when she also understudied Mary Martin’s Nellie Forbush) at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane (1951) and in Emile Littler’s Love from Judy at the Saville Theatre (1952).

Success on radio and television largely kept her away from the stage until 1976 when she co-starred with Terry Scott in Dave Freeman’s A Bedful of Foreigners at the Victoria Palace, returning with it to Bournemouth Pier for a summer season in 1978. Ray Cooney and John Chapman’s Not Now Darling followed at the Savoy Theatre in 1979.

More substantial was her well-received Mrs Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals at Bromley’s Churchill Theatre (1986). In Chichester, her Lady Markby opposite Joanna Lumley’s Mrs Cheveley in Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband was described by The Stage as a “charming, cleverly created cameo” (1987), with her piano teacher-mother in Jean Anouilh and Christopher Fry’s Ring Round the Moon “hilariously played” (1988).

Notable among her last stage appearances were Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce (Aldwych Theatre, 2002) and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the Yvonne Arnaud, Guildford in 2014, in which she was seen on video as the Spirit of the Mirror.

From her early success as feckless fiancee Eth Glum in Frank Muir and Denis Norden’s
seminal radio comedy Take It From Here (1953-60) and on television supporting the likes of Arthur Askey, Tony Hancock and Frankie Howerd, Whitfield was seldom away from the airwaves. Late in her career, she estimated she had appeared in more than 1,300 episodes of often long-running comedies on both mediums.

On television, she will be best remembered for her 19-year-long association with Scott, most prominently in the suburban sitcoms Happily Ever After and Terry and June (1974-87). Latterly, she attracted a cult following as Jennifer Saunders’ mischievously sardonic mother in Absolutely Fabulous (1992-2012) and was last seen on screen in the retirement sitcom Boomers in 2016.

Among memorable radio roles were the long-running topical sketch show The News Huddlines with Roy Hudd (1984-2001), a dozen outings as Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple (1993-2001), Mike Coleman’s Like They’ve Never Been Gone (2001) and Mike Bartlett’s Tinniswood and Imison award-winning first play, Not Talking (2007).

She published two autobiographies: And June Whitfield (2000) and At a Glance: An Absolutely Fabulous Life (2009).

She was recognised with lifetime achievement awards from the British Comedy and BBC Audio Drama awards and appointed a dame in 2017.

June Rosemary Whitfield was born on November 11, 1925 and died on December 28, aged 93. She is survived by her daughter, the actor Suzy Aitchison.

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