Looking for a confidante? Try Una Stubbs. Nursing the secrets of one of television’s most talked about shows, she will chatter happily about coming late to abstract art, or filming with Cliff Richard, or working at the National Theatre, but won’t reveal anything about Series 3 of Sherlock, in which she plays the detective’s housekeeper, Mrs Hudson. Not even whether Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes, last seen splattered on the pavement after jumping from the roof of Barts hospital, will return. She does refer to filming with “the boys”, however, and that sounds like the old firm of Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Watson. Indeed, the newly-released trailer has confirmed what viewers assumed all along – that our cunning hero had somehow managed to fake his own death.
Like “the boys”, Stubbs has brought a quirkiness to a familiar character that complements the modern-day story reworkings of writer Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss. While in previous adaptations, Mrs H has been a long-suffering cipher, Stubbs has been given more to play with, putting up with more bizarre disruptions than her predecessors, and with greater affection. The 21st-century housekeeper has a heart. “She loves them,” sighs Stubbs in reference to her leading men and in three little words, she speaks for the nation.
Off screen, she feels the same about the pair. She has known Cumberbatch since he was in his pushchair; his actress mother, Wanda Veltham, is a friend. Meanwhile her enthusiasm for art rubbed off on Freeman, after a lunchtime outing to a selling gallery while filming in Cardiff. “I thought, if only [Benedict and Martin] would start collecting now. I wish I had started earlier,” she says. “Martin galloped off to the gallery and bought two paintings, and I asked if he had seen the one with the mother and child, it was so lovely. Later he told me that he had phoned the gallery about buying it for me. But he couldn’t spend more on me than [he would] on his mother …”
You can understand the temptation, though – who wouldn’t want to spoil this national surrogate mum? At 76, and after more than five decades in showbusiness, Stubbs is a bigger draw then ever, and a star of this year’s Christmas TV schedules: Sherlock returns on New Year’s Day, while on 25 December, she can be seen in BBC2’s ratings-buster The Tractate Middoth. An adaptation of an M R James ghost story, also by Gatiss, it sees programmers throwing caution to the wind with a peak-time drama set in an academic library. On stage, too, she came to the attention of a new generation as Mrs Alexander in the original cast of the National Theatre adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Now in the West End, it won seven Laurence Olivier awards.
She has a long-standing love for the National, she says. “I used to walk past the building and go ‘Please, please, please have me.’ And I drew it!” (She is an accomplished artist, but has said that she is so embarrassed at people being asked to pay so much for her work that she will not exhibit again.) Maybe the talismanic drawing and incantation worked. Or, more likely, a generation of directors who had grown up with her television work were drawn to the warmth of this spontaneous all-rounder.
That television career has gone from Till Death Us Do Part to Worzel Gummidge, with roles in Fawlty Towers and EastEnders. But she started out as a dancer, before becoming the face of Dairy Box chocolates at Rowntree, for whom both her grandfathers worked, and breaking into film, with the Cliff Richard musicals Summer Holiday and Wonderful Life.
Nippy and trim, she is still captivated by dancing. “What Strictly has done is wonderful. The hair, the glamour … I think we need a bit of that. It’s so beautiful, and people learn a skill … our dancing used not to be as good as the Americans’, and we had to bring in American dancers for things like West Side Story, but since the Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, we can do our own.”
Nevertheless, if Britain’s dancing was shaky back in the day, it was more sure-footed when it came to television programming. Till Death Us Do Part was one of many pioneering shows commissioned during the 1960s: first screened as a one-off episode as part of the Comedy Playhouse strand in 1965, it introduced the nation to bigoted East End docker Alf Garnett, played by Warren Mitchell, alongside his docile wife Else (Dandy Nichols), radical daughter Rita (Stubbs), and her layabout husband Mike (Tony Booth, father of Cherie), universally referred to as “the Scouse git”. Panned by critics, it won huge public acclaim graduated to seven series and then spawned a sequel, In Sickness and in Health. “The police always knew when we were on,” says Stubbs. “Everyone stayed home. We had 23 million viewers a week.”
The show was highly topical, with script changes to the last moment, and prescient in its main character’s attitude to migrants. Into Garnett, writer Johnny Speight channelled the worst extremes of racism, baseless nationalism and social prejudice, years before the BNP, English Defence League or Ukip. There is a lot of Stubbs in socialist Rita; today she rejoices in multicultural London, and worries still that Garnett might be adopted by some as a sympathetic character.
Stubbs’s recent appearance on the BBC’s genealogy show Who Do you Think You Are? discovered her fascinating ancestry: her great-grandfather was Ebenezer Howard, pioneer of the utopian new towns and advocate of international language Esperanto. The family tree continues to grow: she has three adult sons, one teaching, the others in music, and five grandchildren. “I love you so much, Granny,” one granddaughter told an amused Stubbs, recently. “I’m glad you’re not dead yet.” What? And miss the undoubted accolades for Sherlock Series 3? She had better not!
‘The Tractate Middoth’, BBC2, 9.30pm, Christmas Day; ‘Sherlock’ returns to BBC1 at 9pm on Wednesday 1 January