Last Night's Television - Holby City, BBC1; The Many Faces of June Whitfield, BBC2

As safe as houses

People giggled when I said I was going to be reviewing
The Many Faces of June Whitfield. What was it? The mismatch between the fusty bombast of the first half of the title and the slightly parochial connotations of the subject? Would the name June Whitfield have done it on its own – as a marker of a very Middle English type of comedy – or did it need the mildewed showbiz-bio description as well? It is, you'd have to admit, the kind of title that keys you up for a spoof. It's got something of "Balham – Gateway to the South" about it, an association that wasn't exactly dispelled by the opening line of the voiceover: "For more than 60 years, one woman has been at the beating heart of British comedy". But while Steve Coogan – the Inside Story took the very wise precaution of sending itself up now and then, The Many Faces of June Whitfield was played absolutely in earnest. Tongue and cheek never met once as a parade of approbatory clichés ("consummate professional", "pin-sharp timing", "joy to write for") filed past. If this documentary had been a person it would have been wearing a Pringle sweater and a silk cravat, just as Nicholas Parsons was, in fact, when he popped up to hymn June's indispensability to the string of top-of-the-bill comics she'd worked with.

It wasn't that the praise wasn't deserved, particularly, or that the clips didn't back up the remarks about comic timing and all-round trouperliness. It's just that the phrase "always in work" – however proud a boast for any actor – isn't a lot to build a panegyric on. And the longer the thing went on the more it became clear that Whitfield had sustained her career partly by never letting her male co-stars down but also by never threatening to overshadow them. "June's always known that you're in a safer place if you're not top of the bill," said the comedy producer Jon Plowman and even the voiceover summed up her Sixties career as "carving out a successful niche for herself". She didn't demur either: "Maybe the reason I've worked with so many of them is that I'm no trouble," she said at one point, a decorously modest remark that struck you as having a lot of truth to it too. And though it's no small matter to wrangle egos as unwieldy as some of those she worked alongside it still seems an underwhelming claim to fame.

More telling perhaps – about her durability in the business – was an appearance by Miriam Karlin, who started at Rada on the same day as Whitfield during the early years of the Second World War. She remembered a brief foray onto the Broadway stage in 1952: "I would come in pretty stoned, having done a lot of... naughtiness," she explained, and she would find June sitting up in bed calculating who owed what to whom down to the last cent. June was the sensible one, in other words, the one who could be relied to turn up on time, hit the mark, and never forget the lines. Miriam Karlin now looks as if she could be June Whitfield's mother, but you couldn't help but feel that an account of her life might have been a little racier in its detailing. It wouldn't have had to cope with the Terry and June problem either, which I suppose you can reasonably describe as "one of the most enduring sitcoms on British television" but only in the sense that it felt as if it went on forever. The truth that nobody quite dared say aloud here is that one of the reasons Whitfield's career flourished in recent years was precisely because Terry and June had become so axiomatically dreadful. She was initially hired by the alternative-comedy generation as an ironic gesture, a kind of mascot of the comedy that they'd displaced. It's a credit to her talent (and her character) that she was good enough to outlast that essentially limited gag – but "national treasure" still seems to be pushing it a bit.

Business as usual in Holby City, which is where British character actresses are sent if they've been really naughty. I'd love to have an NHS efficiency consultant do a time and motion study on Holby because it's frankly astonishing that any of the patients leave alive, the staff being so busy looking stricken or lovelorn at each other. There was a brief flurry of medical interventions at the end of this episode, but it didn't interfere with the bedside relationship counselling or the time-sucking quantities of intercollegiate rivalry and mutual suspicion. What's so funny about Holby City is the way that notionally delicate conversations and whispered confidences are conducted in the least discreet spot available, in one instance here over the open chest cavity of a dying woman. Anyone in search of a comedy masterclass should watch, but, you know, I don't think this is meant to be a spoof either.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea