Captain Moonlight: New voice for an old Miss

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The Independent Online
JUNE WHITFIELD has encouraging, bright blue eyes, a smile that achieves sauce and innocence simultaneously and any manner of voices. All these gifts have, in their time, rescued and prompted the talents of Arthur Askey, Tony Hancock, Benny Hill, Frankie Howerd, Terry Scott, Roy Hudd and Jennifer Saunders. Roy Hudd describes her, she tells you with the smile, as a comic's tart.

There is, it has to be said, very little tarty about Miss Whitfield's house in Wimbledon, where she lives with her charming husband Tim, a chartered surveyor. It is the sort of house to which June might have aspired with her other husband, Terry (Scott), the one she played against for so many years in Terry and June, the comfortable middle-class sitcom now judged a cipher for all that is mockable about comfortable middle-class sitcoms. But this did not stop Miss Whitfield going on to play Jennifer Saunders' mother in Absolutely Fabulous; or appearing with Julian Clary in the mocking Terry and Julian. Game, June.

And now Agatha Christie's Jane Marple on Radio 4, for five days up to New Year's Eve, in Murder at the Vicarage. She loved doing it, she says, and hopes to do more. Television? 'Joan Hickson was the definitive Miss Marple. This is radio: I would have been hysterical if it had been anything to do with TV. Anyway, she did so many they can repeat them.'

But, as she says, with the smile: 'I'll have a bash at anything, really.' Miss Marple is far from the first venture away from comic tarting. Wilde's An Ideal Husband, Anouilh's Ring Round the Moon at Chichester, for example. Comic parts, though. 'I find comedy easier to do. I enjoy taking part in something which makes people laugh rather than something that makes them think or makes them solemn.'

Her career began at Rada at the end of the Second World War. Her father, a businessman from Yorkshire, was not that impressed. One of June's early breaks was playing Cinderella to Wilfred Pickles' Buttons. Her biggest was landing the part of Eth in Take It From Here. If all these names mean nothing to you, congratulate yourself on your youth and consult your parents or grandparents, who will tell you that Eth's catchphrase to her laggardly fiance - 'Oooh, Ron]' - was once very big.

She had wanted to be the next Judy Garland; she ended up supporting a succession of comics instead. Their presence lingers in Wimbledon. June's dog was once owned by Jimmy Edwards. There are playbills all over the breakfast room, and a large photo of Frankie Howerd, a particular friend, on the stairs. June was the foil to Hancock in The Blood Donor. 'I did his first TV series and his last, which wasn't such fun. He was in a bit of a state then.'

Still a supporter, too. She allows, when pressed, that most of the comics she's worked with have 'been a bit eccentric in one way or another', a careful piece of phrasing that will have them all laughing like drains, wherever they are, particularly the bisexual Jimmy Edwards.

Understandable, though, she says; the effect of being up there, at the top, on stage, alone, with nowhere to go but down. Could she have done that? 'No, no, terrified,' she says, vigorously. Happy being a feed. And perhaps a bit too idle to push herself to the limit, she says. Fifty years in the business next year, all the same, and the phone still ringing. The career details are all in her yellow folder. A new series of Absolutely Fabulous at the end of January. Next year The News Huddlines becomes the longest-running audience show. But no pantomime. 'I just thought I'd give an old fairy a rest.'

And, by a fine piece of programming, after Miss Marple on the Monday morning, you will later get the chance to view Carry on Girls, featuring another Whitfield characterisation, Miss Augusta Prodworthy.

(Photograph omitted)