June WHITFIELD (1925-)
THIS IS YOUR LIFE - June Whitfield, actress, was surprised by Eamonn Andrews at her home in Wimbledon.
June is best known for her work in various comedy series such as BBC Radio’s Take It From Here, and BBC TV’s Terry and June.
June was honoured by This Is Your Life a second time in 1995.
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous!”
June recalls her experience of This Is Your Life in her autobiography ...and June Whitfield, reproduced here with kind permission of the author...
In the very hot summer of 1976, we played A Bedful of Foreigners at the Victoria Palace….
A week or so before the play opened in London, my agent rang and said that the Sunday Pictorial wanted to run a spread about the play and needed a set of shots before their Friday evening deadline. We had already been through all the pre-publicity photo sessions, and I felt they ought to be able to manage with the pictures that had already been taken, but April was insistent that it was crucial for the good of the show.
Reluctantly, I agreed to meet the journalist Tony Lee for lunch and then go on to the theatre afterwards for a photo session. It all seemed to drag on rather, and after some highly inappropriate set-ups, involving me walking down the stairs like Gloria Swanson, I said they must surely have enough. As it happened Tony lived quite near us, so I gave him a lift, and when we got home I asked him in for a cup of tea. Tim let us in.
‘There’s someone to see you.’ he said.
‘I’ve just offered Tony a cup of tea,’ I replied.
‘No, I think you ought to come.’ He took my rather large bag from my arm and frogmarched me towards the drawing room.
Oh no, I thought. I’ve double-booked something.
Tim opened the door and I was met by a battery of lights, cameras and microphones, which suddenly sprang to life to catch my expression of surprise. What were they doing her, with Suzy, my mother and Tim beaming from ear to ear? I had faced cameras and microphones on an almost daily basis for twenty-five years, but never in my home and never without warning. I was thoroughly confused. Then I saw Eamonn Andrews with the big red book.
‘June Whitfield, this is your life.’
My jaw dropped. I think I said something really original like, ‘That’s ridiculous!’ I couldn’t believe it.
As I was changing before the drive to the Thames TV studios in Euston, I couldn’t stop puzzling over how on earth they had managed to organise it all. I had appeared on the show several times as a guest, so I knew how much trouble they took to keep it secret from the subject – when I’d done Jimmy Edwards' This Is Your Life, the script was mysteriously titled ‘Project One’ on the top page – but I still couldn’t believe that my family had arranged it without my knowledge.
The photo call at the theatre was a set-up by April, my agent, to get me out of the house for the morning, and she had done it with the full co-operation of the Sunday Pictorial.
Tim reminded me of when we’d been on holiday in Suffolk some weeks before, and to my great annoyance he had said we had to go home a day earlier than planned because he’d been called to an important business meeting in London – the meeting was at Thames Television to discuss making the programme.
Suzy had been taken out to buy a special frock for the occasion, and my mother had been questioned closely about my early life and career. Unable to locate my scrapbooks, poor Muff, whose memory for dates was worse even than mine, got them a bit muddled up, and the programme researcher said to her at one point, ‘You’re being most helpful, Mrs Whitfield, but according to your calculations June is now 123 years old!’
It was incredible how they’d managed to assemble such an array of family, friends and colleagues in the studio at the same time. On videotape came fulsome messages from Frankie Howerd in Canada, Frank Muir and Denis Norden at the Captain’s Cabin pub, where we used to gather in the TIFH days, and also Jimmy Edwards and Eric Sykes from somewhere in the heart of Africa, where they were doing Big Bad Mouse and, by the look of them, enjoying serious ‘drinks with….’ Then, through the sliding doors came members of the Giles family, who we’d stayed with in Devon during the war, and my best friend Mog, who invited me to join her in a song we’d sung in our dancing school days at the Brixton Empress displays; typically, I couldn’t remember any of it.
Then came my brother John, his wife and my cousin Richard, childhood friends Mary and June, Pat Coombs, Reg Varney and Peter Jones, Leslie Crowther, Ronnie Barker, Bob Monkhouse, Peter Butterworth, Dora Bryan, Dick Bentley and Arthur Askey. Terry Scott caused much amusement by playing the recording of his snoring that Lynda Baron and I had made in South Africa. He was joined by the cast of A Bedful of Foreigners, and also Charlie Drake, who I had, in fact, only met once before in a sketch with Arthur. It was a pity that dear old Dad wasn’t there; he would have been so proud of me.
It’s a very odd experience sitting there while people say nice things about you. It’s embarrassing and uplifting; you go through a whole range of emotions, and at the same time you still can’t believe they are talking about you.
The special surprise guest was my cousin Verena. When the phone rang in the early hours of the morning at her home in New Zealand, and an English voice asked. ‘Are you June Whitfield’s cousin?’ she told me she’d thought I must have died; and when she was invited to fly over to be in the show she wondered if she was dreaming. It couldn’t have come at a better time for her, as her father, Uncle Ron, wasn’t at all well, and she was able to spend time with him and her mother in Yorkshire. So This Is Your Life served a useful purpose, as well as massaging my ego.
It was very flattering to have so many great comedians in attendance, but I was more affected by the presence of my family. It struck me that, but for them, I wouldn’t have been there at all. Without the support and encouragement of my parents, and without the tolerance and understanding of Tim and Suzy, I couldn’t have had such a successful career. But I missed my dad.
Both Frankie Howerd and Terry Scott teased me for my lack of ambition, which isn’t quite true. I have always loved my work and wanted to do well, but soon after Tim came into my life I knew where my priorities lay. My job has at times been secondary to family. If you work at it, a marriage can last longer than a career, but if you put your career first, then the chances of that happening are very slim.
Far from putting a brake on my progress, my family is the means by which I have managed to survive for so long as an actress. I realise how lucky I am to have had the best of both worlds.
on the guest list...