June Whitfield has long been famous for acting the nice, sensible middle- class woman, living in the suburbs, shopping for clothes at Marks'. She did it for eight years, from 1979 to 1987, on the BBC sitcom, Terry and June. She did it on Absolutely Fabulous as Edina's mum. You can see her doing it in cameo from next Wednesday, when she appears in two episodes of Common as Muck, as the store detective-defying shoplifter who captures the lonely Neville's heart. "We're talking about a lady, you know," as Nev tells his pals. "She's a lady": no one could put it better.
But there is one aspect of June Whitfield's personality that her roles seldom tap into, although her Common as Muck part comes closer to it than most. June Whitfield is also "a lady" in the deep sense, poised and imperturbable and shrewd. The lunch at Langan's she has arranged to fit in with a meeting, so she doesn't have to come up west from Wimbledon twice. She has already been round Marks & Spencer, and is already wearing the new shoes she bought there - the low-heeled black courts for pounds 25, co-ordinating perfectly with a stylish navy-blue suit. There is often something doormatty about June Whitfield on TV; there is nothing doormatty about her in real life.
And there's something else about June Whitfield which, if you haven't followed her career closely, may give you a jolt, she was born in 1925, which makes her 71 years old. Doesn't look it, does she? "Yes it is a bit spooky," she agrees, when I ask her about seeing old episodes of Terry and June in rerun on UK Gold. "But it's just as spooky when I see myself with Hancock in The Blood Donor..." From Hancock in the 1960s, to AbFab in the 1990s: JW is a central figure in the history of postwar British comedy. Bob Monkhouse and Jimmy Edwards, the Goons and the Glums, Arthur Askey, Frankie Howerd and, of course, Carry On - JW has worked with them all.
June Whitfield's mother, apparently, was the original Mrs Worthington. She longed to go on the stage herself, but her father wouldn't let her - "I suppose he thought that Things Went On". So the young June's mother contented herself with life as a middle-class housewife in Streatham, south London, with amateur dramatics crammed in on the side. Her daughter, however, she had in dancing classes as soon as she could walk - "ballet, stage, musical comedy, everything but acrobatics" - at Mrs Robinson's Academy in Streatham, with a yearly show at the Empress in Brixton.
Her own career as an actress JW puts down to a mixture of luck, a certain commonsense inherited from her Yorkshire father, and "ignorance, really. It's extraordinary, but I don't think I gave acting a second thought, it was just what I was going to do." She left Rada in 1944, and has seldom been out of work since. West End, rep, panto, radio, film and TV: name a warhorse, she has done it. And, apart from once in the early days when she forgot to turn up to do a matinee in Palmers Green, she has always been the perfect pro.
At Rada, it was clear that the young June was unlikely to make it as a Hedda Gabler. "There was a shortage of men what with the war, so I was always second gravedigger in Hamlet and things like that. I realised I wasn't the right material for leading ladies - shape, size, looks, everything - and it didn't bother me much." Instead, she turned to character and comedy, exploiting a childhood talent for accents. Apart from Geordie, which she cannot do to save her life, in spite of coaching herself with a tape at home. "The Blading Races? Isn't that a Geordie song?" She's right. She really can't do it. She's unlikely to turn up in any sequel to Our Friends in the North.
Things, of course, must have Gone On around June Whitfield throughout her performing career. But she chooses politely to ignore them. She lived at home until she was 29, when she married Tim Aitchison, a chartered surveyor. The couple have one daughter, Suzy Aitchison, now an actress herself. She also has an elegant way of ignoring what she calls "bodily- function humour', which she detests. "Vindaloo jokes, Roy Hudd calls them, you know, wind, after a curry? The boys fall about at them, but I've never seen the point. Nudge-nudge, that's different. That's seaside-postcard, not bodily function."
Even JW's gossip is unusually ladylike, kindly and discreet. "Oh, Barbara Windsor I knew since I was in a musical with her when she was a little girl. Years later, she was working full-frontal, and I said, 'Barbara, how did that happen?', meaning, you know, the chest. 'Last time I saw you, you were playing an orphan!' And she said" - she slips into perfect Carry On Cockney - "'Used to bind 'em up, didn' I?' Barbara's a great worker, I admire her. Though I don't think she's had all that easy a life..." This isn't said in the usual gushy-starlet way. It's said with real bemusement, that not everyone seems able to manage their lives in the way that JW has been lucky enough to be able to manage hers.
A couple of years ago, JW did what she reckons was her last stint in panto, as the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella. "Maybe there are some fairies older than me, but not many." Instead, she is pleased to find herself being offered more serious parts on screen: as Drusilla in last year's Jude, in Common as Muck currently, and in Family Money, a four-part Nina Bawden mystery to be screened in March by Channel Four. She won't be the baddie in it - she's the loyal housekeeper. So have you ever been the baddie? I ask.
"Let me see ... Oh, yes. In an early Steptoe, I was the old boy's tarty girlfriend. He came into some money, so he picked up this awful woman who kept saying to the younger Steptoe: 'Don't be rude to me, I'm going to be your mummy.' So yes, I was the baddie in that." Completely, irredeemably evil. As you can see.
I ask JW if she thinks, the next time a newspaper wants to talk to her for some reason, she'll go for Langan's again. She thought the haddock was excellent, but she isn't sure. She'd like to try The Ivy, the star- studded eaterie people as famous as she is supposedly hang out in every night. She very seldom eats in fancy restaurants, she says; she and Tim prefer to eat at home. "Oh no, I seldom come across people like Patsy and Edina. But perhaps you do, if you work on magazines?"
"I saw something on the television," she continues. "About the fashion industry, and I was thinking, Jennifer, you really got it in AbFab ... What is their problem, do you think?"
Dunno, I shrug. The hardy perennials: catching a man and trying to keep him; desperately trying to hang on to youth.
"I don't see any point in trying to cling to youth, because it's always going anyway, isn't it? The showbusiness life can be wonderful if you're lucky. But it's heartbreaking for so many people who are probably brilliant, but they never get the chance to prove it, which is so sad. It's such a gamble you know. You get the right side of the dice or you don't. And I also think it's a lot harder now than it was in my time, I think it's probably harder in every walk of life..."
June Whitfield, I ask finally. What is the secret of your style? "Oh, my dear! I'm always in old cardigans and things!" Her hair, she says, she has hardly changed for half a century. It's waved and tinted, but she's never had it bleached. "I've never thought of myself as having any style because I'm short, vertically challenged as they say, and that makes it jolly difficult. But as you get older, you learn to stick to what suits you, I suppose, and not to let other people put you off ... Now, Jennifer Saunders - such a pretty girl, a lovely face, but all she did to look terrible was to buy all her Edina clothes one size too small."
As sensible June Whitfield shows, there's only one big secret behind being a lady: buy your clothes to fit and don't let other people put you off.
8 'Common as Muck', Wednesday, 9.30pm, BBC1.Reuse content