June Whitfield is indeed a National Treasure and she has deservedly been made a Dame in the Queen’s Birthday Honour’s. Dame June was born on 11 November 1925 in Streatham, London and was trained for the stage at the (RADA) Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. She joined the chorus lines of many shows including Ace of Clubs and South Pacific and soon made her name on radio and in revue. Her later Carry On and television career is well documented so we want to delve into that early part of her career when she was building a stage career.
June left RADA in 1944 and went straight on the stage in repertory and out-of-town tours both in acting and behind the scene roles. She took over from Dora Bryan in the play The Cure for Love which was starring Wilfred Pickles, a big radio star at the time. She credits him for the first instructions on comic timing, something all the great comedy roles have been built on. With Pickles she had her first involvement with radio, the entertainment medium that set her career moving.
But, prior to that she auditioned for and got a small part in Noel Coward’s Ace of Clubs as Sunny Claire, one of the show girls and as understudy to Jean Carson. It was not a huge success but she had been seen on the West End stage. It was still the era of intimate revue although it was fast approaching its end.
The great revue producer Laurier Lister had had great success with Tuppence Coloured and he followed it with Penny Plain starring Joyce Grenfell, Elisabeth Welch and Max Adrian. Jean joined the cast, understudying Miss Welch, though she never had to go one for her. This too was not wonderfully successful and indeed lost money but June was learning her trade.
In 1951 she took a chorus role in South Pacific and as third understudy to Mary Martin. That was a huge success and while still playing in it she did late night revue at the Watergate in Sandy Wilson’s See You Later. A trip to Broadway with the play Women in Twilight was another short lived piece but June was able to see the Broadway shows of the time and, through knowing Hugh Martin, won a role in London’s Love from Judy.
This was a major hit in which she eventually took over from Jeanne Carson, the star. It led to the radio programme Take it from Here to replace Joy Nichols. That was 1953 and she became Eth, Ron Glum’s long term fiancée and a star was born.
She made a trip back to revue in 1955 for From Here to There in which she had star billing with Betty Marsden. It was a show of mixed British and American material and performers that played at the Royal Court – the last production before being taken over by the English Stage Company and no other revues were mounted there.
From Here to There was a Laurier Lister production with an eye on the fact there were an increasing number of American tourists to London. Laurier had visited New York earlier in the year and made arrangements with Michael Abbott, who was described as Broadway’s youngest manager, to present and stage the American portion – later he was credited with presentation only. Jack Gray, the American artist who had appeared in the revue Airs on a Shoestring and had supplied material to that show, was to write with another American, Jerry de Bono, the lyrics and sketches; music was to be by Dolores Claman. When first announced the English writing team was made up of Paul Dehn and Charlotte Mitchell but by the time the show opened the contributors had multiplied.
It would last barely two months with many changes both in material and cast. In a last attempt to make it a success the great revue star Max Adrian was brought on board (he just happened to be Laurier Lister’s other half!).
June Whitfield, who now is most likely best known for Absolutely Fabulous, has had a career that has spanned seven decades and has virtually covered all aspects and mediums of the world of entertainment.
The poster to From Here and There has just been purchased for the archive.
RSB Illustrations from the Overtures Archives