Una Stubb: Something about Una

She kept her kit on when all around were stripping. Now Una Stubbs is taking off as a 'straight' actress.
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Sooner or later they all come a cropper. It's the old, old story of A Gig Too Far. For Twiggy it was fronting the fated, post-Richard-and-Judy This Morning; for Lulu it was co-hosting the ghastly Lottery Red Alert. And for Una Stubbs it was... well, actually, it wasn't.

Sooner or later they all come a cropper. It's the old, old story of A Gig Too Far. For Twiggy it was fronting the fated, post-Richard-and-Judy This Morning; for Lulu it was co-hosting the ghastly Lottery Red Alert. And for Una Stubbs it was... well, actually, it wasn't.

David Bowie, eat your heart out. Face facts: dancer, singer, actress, voice-over artist, embroiderer, TV presenter, painter. This woman has had more makeovers than Top of the Pops but with conspicuously more success - and since we're on the subject, it was dancing on the thrice-weekly record-plugging TV show Cool for Cats that shot her to national fame back in 1956.

She has been a household face - and later a name - ever since, and if proof of versatility (to put it mildly) were needed, try this for size: at 66, she's about to play Miss Havisham in a stage adaptation of Great Expectations.

Dickens's famously ruined bride, a terrifying, stopped-clock of a woman, isn't exactly typecasting for Stubbs. Indeed, 17 million Eighties viewers would describe her as preternaturally bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, miming fit to bust for seven years, captaining the women's team opposite Lionel Blair in the double-entrendre zone that was Give Us A Clue. But far from being doubtful about abandoning that perky persona, she relishes another opportunity to vault over expectations.

Sitting in her calm, quietly tucked-away central London flat on her one Saturday off from rehearsals at Manchester's Royal Exchange, she smiles. For years, she says, she's been filed under Light Entertainment. "I don't make a distinction between that and acting, but casting directors do. People are always surprised when you do something dramatic as they think it's much more difficult than comedy. It isn't."

Nevertheless, 11 years ago she switched focus. "I knew I had to if I wanted to keep going." But, surely, she had casting clout? She demurs, vigorously. "Why should I think people would take me seriously? I'd always been a supporting character. I had been doing money jobs to bring up a family. I knew I had to improve."

Surprising as it may seem, that lack of self-confidence is entirely genuine, a far from useful quality in a profession demanding thick-skinned self-possession. Mercifully, however, "straight" theatre came to her. She was playing Mrs Darling in Peter Pan at West Yorkshire Playhouse when a young director with just one production under his belt - Arthur Miller's The Last Yankee at the Colchester Mercury - approached her, saying, "I think you should do something dramatic." By coincidence, she'd seen the play - "watching it was like turning the pages of a book of Edward Hopper paintings" - so she leapt at the chance.

The young man in question was Michael Grandage, now artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse and associate director of Sheffield's Crucible. "She has a total lack of vanity on stage and she's incapable of being untruthful," he says. "That's a pretty brilliant combination as it means you can always expose the rawness of a character. That's why she's perfect for strong dramatic roles." It's why he cast her as Hester in Rattigan's tragic masterpiece The Deep Blue Sea. They have now worked together five times. "I do brag about that," she beams. Not half bad for someone who never went to drama school.

Mind you, her mother did send her to dancing school at the age of 11. Where? She blinks and drops her voice to a faux breathy grandeur: "La Roche... Slough!" Not exactly the Royal Ballet school but three years later she was at Windsor Theatre Royal playing Little Boy Blue in Goody Two Shoes, which can in no way have prepared her for a job in a nude revue, although she swiftly adds that she remained fully clothed throughout.

In the 1950s, when pornography was less readily available, the Folies Bergères at Leicester Square's Prince of Wales theatre was notorious. Leggy showgirls strutted in fabulous costumes and, there were also dancers like Stubbs. "Often we'd be on the stage in a tableau and wearing masks which gave us plenty of opportunity to clock what was going on in the audience. You could see men masturbating!" she laughs. What did her parents make of it? "They never said anything." Nor, one imagines, did Cliff Richard with whom she was inextricably linked after they made two hit movie musicals and several TV series together beginning with the iconic Summer Holiday (1963).

Were they an item? She shakes her head. "We had such an affinity all working together. I suppose he and I were a little smitten but it was all terribly innocent." She was, in any event, already married to Peter Gilmore - later of Onedin Line fame - who she'd met when in her first musical, the gloriously named Grab Me A Gondola, loosely based on a real-life incident involving the Venice Film Festival, Diana Dors and a mink bikini. She had a son by Gilmore and two more by her second husband, actor Nicky Henson. When that marriage fell apart she organised work to fit single motherhood but, to use Cyril Connolly's phrase, "the pram in the hall" didn't stop her. On top of writing homecrafts books and reinventing herself as a TV presenter she became an icon for successive generations. In the Nineties it was The Worst Witch; in the Eighties it was Aunt Sally in Worzel Gummidge, in the Sixties and Seventies she put the sit into sitcom with her sofa-so-good turn as wry Rita, the giggling daughter in the revolutionary Till Death Us Do Part, the "onlie begetter" of Caroline Aherne's The Royle Family.

Even now she admits to self-doubt, although not about her joyous secret life as a painter: six years ago she sold her first sketch for more than her entire week's theatre wages. But mention a re-run of Till Death... and she frowns. "I'm not particularly proud of myself in that. I get concerned that people think, 'Oh that's what she does.' I hope I've improved a little."

'Great Expectations': Royal Exchange, Manchester (0161 833 9833), Wednesday to 10 April