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.

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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones