GYLES BRANDRETH reveals Dame June Whitfield gave him a ‘cheery’ phonecall on Christmas Eve

It’s hard to believe I won’t be seeing June Whitfield again. 

Although she was tiny (five foot at most) and got tinier and tinier as she grew older and more frail, she seemed to me indestructible because, as a character, she was so strong. She was a lovely lady and a good friend.

She telephoned on Christmas Eve, sounding very cheery as she always did, and managing to be a little bit cheeky, too. 

‘That was a very big Christmas card you sent,’ she said, with a naughty chuckle, ‘You know I always like a big one.’

Dame June Whitfield with actor Terry Scott in the British sitcom Terry And June

Dame June Whitfield with actor Terry Scott in the British sitcom Terry And June

Dame June Whitfield with actor Terry Scott in the British sitcom Terry And June

She was looking forward to Christmas and to the charity show we were due to do together in February – singing the duet I Remember It Well from the musical Gigi.

June had been part of my life since I was a boy. 

In 1953, she took over the role of Eth, Jimmy Edwards’ daughter in The Glums in Take It From Here on the radio and I listened every week with my parents.

I loved The Glums: it was my introduction to British comedy – and to the end of her days June could do great chunks of Ron-and-Eth’s dialogue from the shows. 

Sitting in our kitchen, she would half-close her eyes to concentrate on getting the voice right. ‘Oh, Ron, beloved,’ she’d coo, ‘is there anything on your mind, dearest one?’, to which, after a pause, as Ron, she’d reply, ‘No, Eth’.

We first worked together on my first Radio 4 series, A Rhyme in Time, in 1971, and hit it off at once. 

It was impossible not to like her. She was funny. She always had a twinkle in her eye, but was utterly devoid of malice. 

The actress also played the mother of main character Edina Monsoon in the comedy Absolutely Fabulous

The actress also played the mother of main character Edina Monsoon in the comedy Absolutely Fabulous

The actress also played the mother of main character Edina Monsoon in the comedy Absolutely Fabulous

She lived not far away from us in South London, in Wimbledon, and she and her surveyor husband, Tim, became proper friends. It was such a privilege to know her.

She had a wonderful life because of her attitude to it. ‘I never complain,’ she said to me, ‘because what I have got to complain about?’. 

Her family came from Yorkshire and her parents were keen amateur actors. 

She learned shorthand and typing, ‘as girls did in those days’, but secured a place at RADA during the war.

Dame June with Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley in the famous sitcom Absolutely Fabulous

Dame June with Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley in the famous sitcom Absolutely Fabulous

Dame June with Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley in the famous sitcom Absolutely Fabulous

To me she was a role model. Easy, generous and completely professional. 

A few years after her husband died in 2001, June decided sensibly (she was always sensible) to sell the family’s large house and move into a retirement community in Kingston, South-West London. It suited her. 

It was easier to manage; an old girlfriend was living there, too, so they could have lunch together most days; and the local mini-cab could get her into London for work.

Work was always her priority. Last year, when she was 92, I went to Kingston to rehearse our duet for the first time – and arrived to find she had already learnt it: she was word and note perfect. Of course she was. She never failed to deliver which was why she never stopped working.

June Whitfield and co-star Joanna Lumley attending the world premier after party of Absolutely Fabulous

June Whitfield and co-star Joanna Lumley attending the world premier after party of Absolutely Fabulous

June Whitfield and co-star Joanna Lumley attending the world premier after party of Absolutely Fabulous

There wasn’t one top-liner in British entertainment with whom she hadn’t worked. What made her unique is that she never, never, ever, had a bad word to say about any of them. 

Not even Terry Scott! I don’t think there was anyone in the business who didn’t have reservations about Terry Scott.

I remember last year, over supper in our kitchen, telling her, ‘Everyone says Terry Scott could be a monster.’ 

‘Oh,’ she chuckled, ‘if he was being difficult, I paid no attention. I just said ‘Yes, Terry’ and got on with it.’ 

I don’t think I’ve known a nicer human being than June Whitfield. You can’t say much better than that.        

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