My Absolutely Fabulous life, by June Whitfield
Nearly 20 years have passed since June Whitfield had a cameo in the pilot episode of Absolutely Fabulous but now she”s back
Nearly 20 years have passed since the indefatigable June Whitfield, 86 last month, had a cameo in the pilot episode of Absolutely Fabulous, Jennifer Saunders’ riotous send-up of the fashion and media worlds that went on to become one of the biggest shows of the 90s.
Now she’s back playing hilariously neurotic PR queen Edina’s unflappable mother for three brand new episodes, the first of which airs on Christmas Day.
‘I’m doing what I always do – getting in the way as Eddy’s mum,’ laughs June. ‘But I seem to get dottier every minute.’ The new episodes reunite June with Saunders’ Eddy, Joanna Lumley’s Patsy, Julia Sawalha’s Saffy and Jane Horrocks’ Bubble for the first time in more than six years.
‘But nothing’s changed,’ says June. ‘They’re all still mad and I suppose I’m as mad as the rest of them now. We had such fun making the new episodes. I don’t think my character’s mad, though, just a bit dotty and determined not to miss anything. It’s a wonderful part. The scripts are brilliant and we’re like one big family.’
June recalls how her agent was doubtful when the part first came up. After all, she was 66 and had been playing Terry Scott’s dutiful suburban wife for 13 years in the hugely popular sitcoms Happy Ever After and Terry And June, shows about as far removed from the champagne- fuelled antics of Ab Fab as you can get.
‘The BBC’s head of comedy wasn’t very impressed. He said, “I’m not sure two women being drunk is very funny.” But he was wrong. It was a huge success and, 26 years after my first TV show, I was back in the big time.’
It’s easy to forget that back in the 50s, June regularly commanded a staggering audience of 22 million listeners to the Frank Muir- Dennis Norden radio show Take It From Here. Terry And June also attracted huge ratings by today’s standards. ‘It wasn’t taken off the air because it was unpopular – it had 15 million viewers – but because TV executives thought the lifestyle portrayed was out of date,’ she says.
June’s own marriage was as happy as Terry and June’s. Her husband of 46 years was businessman Timothy Aitchison, who died in 2001, and she has a daughter Suzy who’s an actress too. Intensely protective of her private life, June did say in 2000, ‘I’ve been married for almost half a century to a caring, loyal man. I have a beautiful home, a stable domestic life and a wonderful daughter. Mine is the epitome of the nice middle-class family life.’
Few of June’s contemporaries remain alive these days, let alone working. After racking her brains she comes up with Roy Hudd, whom she partnered on the long-running Radio 2 show The News Huddlines, which ended in 2001.
‘In fact,’ she muses, ‘Roy is much younger than me. I’ve worked with virtually all the great names in British comedy – from Sid James to Tommy Cooper, from Tony Hancock to Nol Coward – and played my part in the Carry On films.’
The new episodes reunite June (far right) with Jennifer Saunders” Eddy, Joanna Lumleys Patsy
June says she’s glad she was never leading lady material, though. ‘I was never a great beauty. I think I amused more than I aroused. But at least that meant I didn’t feel the pressures that many glamorous actresses do when they reach a certain age. Playing mums and grans never bothered me and I think my looks improved when I passed the age of 40.’
She was chuffed, though, to have a rose named after her described in the catalogue as ‘vigorous and superb for bedding’. She freely admits her quirky Ab Fab part suits her to a tee. ‘It’s tailor-made for me, but I’m embarrassed to say I wear my own clothes. I’m a terrible hoarder so I dug out all my old M&S stuff. It was good quality but just that bit out of date – perfect for the character.’
The three new episodes have also rekindled some serious discussion about the idea of an Absolutely Fabulous movie. Would June be up for that ‘Bring it on,’ she says, and you just know she wouldn’t miss it for the world.
Absolutely Fabulous is on BBC1, Christmas Day at 10pm.