Ab Fab actress June Whitfield on shopping in Wimbledon, theatre in Guildford and Carshalton charity
PUBLISHED: 19:10 26 March 2012 | UPDATED: 10:35 11 April 2018
One of the best-known faces on British television, June Whitfield has been making generations of audiences laugh for over 50 years. At the age of 86, the Ab Fab star is still acting now and enjoying it just as much as ever – and certainly making the most of life in her home county of Surrey, too. Here, she chats to Sarah Peters
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine March 2012
To some, she’s the mad Gran in Absolutely Fabulous; to others, she’s the voice of dear Eth in radio’s The Glums; and for many, she’s the long-suffering wife of Terry Scott in Terry and June. One way or another, with her wonderful sense of humour, generous spirit and warm, self-deprecating personality, June Whitfield is regarded by almost anyone you speak to as a national treasure – and is a great lady to share a pot of tea with.
Today, we are sitting in the front room of her lovely family home in Wimbledon Village where she has lived for more than 40 years. She moved into the house in 1969 and hasn’t wanted to leave since. It was here she lived with her late husband Tim Aitchison, a chartered surveyor, and their daughter Suzy Jane Aitchison, an actress herself who still lives nearby, for many happy years.
“The area has changed immensely over those years,” June says in her familiar, gentle voice. “But, I still enjoy living here in Wimbledon Village just as much as ever.”
Looking extraordinarily youthful at the age of 86, she is tiny in real life, with a perfectly powdered nose and pretty manicured nails. Her hands are like a ballerina’s: elegant and expressive. Wearing a pale blue twin-set and neat black trousers, she is every inch a lady and has a good word for everyone.
Home sweet home
“I think that the Village itself has actually improved in recent years,” continues June. “At one time, it seemed to be only bathroom shops and kitchen design shops and estate agents. Now, at least there is much more variety. There are some lovely gift shops and some rather classy dress shops to browse through.
“I admit, though, I liked it best when there were three butchers, a couple of greengrocers and a grocer’s shop on the high street. I liked wandering down to choose my fruit and veg and then picking out some nice cuts of meat. I miss those types of food shops. Although, in fact, now a butcher has opened, and also a fishmonger, so that’s nice.”
June agrees that Wimbledon really has the best of both worlds: the quiet Village area with the Common plus the busier shopping area near the station. “We are very fortunate,” she continues. “We have an excellent theatre, which has some brilliant productions; the cinema is just along the way; and, of course, everyone knows about the famous Wimbledon Common.”
There is also every style of restaurant imaginable: from Chinese and Indian to Thai and Italian. So which is her favourite one?
“We are very spoilt for restaurants,” she agrees. “But, actually, I don’t eat out that much really. I hear they are quite excellent though and they all seem to do well. It’s wonderful to have such a marvellous choice.”
Aside from her busy acting schedule, June is also very involved with local charities. She is a great ambassador for her profession and is often seen handing out awards or attending fund-raising events for charities including the Purley-based South East Cancer Help Centre and The Merton Volunteers in Action. The actress is also particularly proud to be president of the League of Friends at St Helier and Sutton Hospitals. She used to attend fund-raising events at St Helier, in nearby Carshalton, with her old friend and local resident Sir Harry Secombe and was happy to continue the association after his death.
“They do a tremendous amount of work and the money they have raised is incredible,” she says. “The volunteers are all so dedicated. I admire them greatly. If one is available, I always attend events they invite me to.”
June also helps out with events and fund-raising for St Raphael’s Hospice in North Cheam, and was delighted to open their charity shop in Banstead.
“They do amazing work and I am very keen to lend a hand. They need support and they are always so grateful. I look forward to helping if I can.”
June’s latest charity contribution has been to provide a recipe for the recently published cookbook of the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford.
“I am not a great cook, myself, any more,” she admits. “I once enjoyed the idea of cooking big family meals or casual dinners for friends but less so now. However, I was happy to contribute to the cookery book.
“Guildford is such an excellent theatre. It is so marvellous to have a producing theatre so close and you can see from the calibre of people that have contributed to the book just how warmly people feel about it. The list of contributors is wonderful. It speaks volumes.”
For the cooking fans among you, June’s recipe in the book is Mustard Glazed Lamb Cutlets. She chose this because it is “easy and tasty”. And her secret to good cooking? “Keep it simple!”
Her own tastes, she admits, are very traditional. “I am very much a plain-food person,” she says. “I can’t stand sushi and I don’t like goat’s cheese. It is so very popular, but I don’t understand who would want to eat something that tastes like it’s off!”
Return of Ab Fab
For a moment, she could almost be June Medford from the hugely popular Terry and June, which ran for eight years and attracted viewing figures of 78 million at its peak – just one of the many great character comedy roles she has played during her long career, which has seen her work alongside a number of the comedy legends. She reels off a few of her most noteworthy co-stars.
“Tony Hancock, Ronnie Barker, Kenneth Williams, Tommy Cooper, Peter Sellers... but I didn’t really think anything of it at the time!” she laughs. “I just kept my head down, did what I was supposed to do and made sure I was no bother! That’s the secret.”
... that and being brilliant at her job! She has earned a reputation for hard work and professionalism – and the recent Christmas Specials of Absolutely Fabulous were no exception. It is nearly 20 years since the pilot episode of Absolutely Fabulous was aired with June as Gran, and the show is as popular now as ever.
“It has been wonderful,” she enthuses. “Jennifer Saunders is a stunning writer. She is so up-to-date and very funny. A lot of people have commented on the consistency of quality in her writing throughout the years we have been doing Ab Fab. She is very talented indeed.”
June genuinely enjoys her work and says meeting up with the Ab Fab crew again to film the Christmas specials was great fun – and now they’re all looking forward to the Olympic special that is due to be shown on the BBC in August.
“Being reunited was a bit like going back to school,” she laughs. “I loved seeing the team again, and within five minutes we were all laughing and chatting away like nobody’s business!”
When she isn’t working, June says she really appreciates the peace of her home and the tranquillity of Wimbledon Village – though she admits she’s not quite as organised as she’d like to be….
“When I have free time, I tend to sit in my office and look at the chaos!” she laughs. “I look round at the piles of paper on the floor and see all the paperwork and documents that needs to be filed away. It’s a real mess! I sort out stuff for a while and then think, ‘phew, I’ve done it!’. Then I turn around again and see more piles to be done. It’s never-ending!”
She’s also a fan of the Daily Mail’s Codeword each day on the back page.
“And I also tackle the Sudoku,” she continues. “It keeps me busy and, believe me, it gets no easier with age or practice, I assure you. I am still very often baffled and it can drive me to distraction. But I like a challenge.”
Certainly, while she may be in her late 80s, she is showing no signs of slowing down yet and remains one of the funniest women in comedy – a national treasure indeed.
My favourite Surrey
Restaurant: Any comfortable place that doesn’t serve sushi!
Shop: All the wonderful gift shops in Wimbledon Village.
Place to visit: Wimbledon Common, although the whole of Surrey is lovely!
View: Some of the beautiful views from the Surrey Downs.
Pub: Any nice, warm country pub.