Dame June Whitfield of ‘Absolutely Fabulous,’ Dies at 93
By Anita Gates
Dec. 30, 2018
June Whitfield, the diminutive British actress whose seven-decade career reached its peak as Edina Monsoon’s dotty, acerbic mother in the hit comedy series “Absolutely Fabulous,” died on Friday in London. She was 93.
Her death was confirmed by her agent, according to the BBC.
Mother — that was the official name of Ms. Whitfield’s character — looked the part of the kind, proper, white-haired London granny in sweater sets and pearls, but she had a gift for the cutting remark. In one classic scene, Edina (Jennifer Saunders) fretted about her weight, declaring, “Inside of me, there’s a thin person just screaming to get out.” Mother, sipping tea at the kitchen table, replied calmly, “Just the one, dear?”
In the series, which ran from 1992 to 1996 and returned in various forms in the 21st century, Mother also turned out to be a practicing kleptomaniac who was not above climbing in and out of windows when necessary. “Oh, Mother is fabulous,” Ms. Whitfield told The Telegraph years later. “She appears more grounded, but she’s as mad as the rest of them.”
Ms. Whitfield may not have been a familiar face to American audiences when “Ab Fab,” as the show was nicknamed, had its United States premiere on Comedy Central in 1994. She was, however, a household name in her home country, thanks in part to “Happy Ever After” and “Terry and June,” the sitcoms in which she played Terry Scott’s suburban wife. Together the two series ran from 1974 to 1987.
Modesty seemed to come naturally to Ms. Whitfield.
“I’ve always said one of the reasons I’ve worked for so long is that I’m no trouble,” she told The Guardian in 2011. The title of her autobiography was “And June Whitfield,” a comment on a lifetime of supporting roles. On an ITV talk show when she was 91, asked about her dream role for the future, she suggested something “sitting in a chair, not having to go very far.”
June Rosemary Whitfield was born in London on Nov. 11, 1925, the daughter of John Whitfield, the managing director of a telephone and telegraph company, and Bertha (Flett) Whitfield, an amateur actress who enrolled her daughter in singing, dancing and music classes at the age of 3. June received a diploma from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1944 and began her career on radio and the stage.
Her first big breaks included “Take It From Here,” a postwar radio series in which she was cast as Eth, a young woman who had been engaged forever, and Noël Coward’s 1950 musical “Ace of Clubs.”
The BBC estimated that Ms. Whitfield had made some 1,300 screen appearances. She played Miss Marple, Agatha Christie’s fictional detective, on BBC Radio 4 from 1993 to 2001 and was a cast member of the satirical radio series “The News Huddlines” for decades. Although film was not her favorite medium (“TV is much cozier and warmer”), she did appear in more than a few, including the “Carry On” comedy series, beginning with “Carry On Nurse” (1959) and ending with “Carry On Columbus” (1992), in which she played Queen Isabella.
American television audiences had the occasional opportunity to see her other work. In the late 1990s, when Ross (David Schwimmer) was preparing to marry an Englishwoman on the NBC sitcom “Friends,” Ms. Whitfield made a cameo appearance as the bridal family’s housekeeper, taking a telephone call from the very American Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow). Ms. Whitfield also appeared in David Tennant’s last episode of “Doctor Who” (2009), as an enthusiastic admirer who in a brief scene managed to pinch Mr., Tennant’s cheeks and pat his bottom.
Ms. Whitfield moved into a retirement home in her 80s — happy, she told reporters, to have a weekly massage appointment and no further worries about plumbing or roofing — but she continued to work.
In 2015, she played God, appearing to a grieving woman in the ladies’ room of a pub, on the mini-series “You, Me and the Apocalypse” and a nun with a secret on the soap “EastEnders.” The 2016 film version of “Absolutely Fabulous,” in which her character partied in the South of France, was her last screen role.
Ms. Whitfield was made a dame last year by Prince Charles almost two decades after she was named a Commander of the British Empire.
When she was 29, she married Timothy Aitchison, a surveyor (who, she once said, found show business more weird than glamorous). He died in 2001. Her survivors include a daughter, the actress Suzy Aitchison.
Ms. Whitfield did some dramatic roles, including Aunt Drusilla in a 1996 film version of “Jude the Obscure,” but comedy was her choice from the beginning.
“It was entirely down to lack of confidence,” she recalled in a 2011 interview with The Telegraph. “Because I thought if I played anything straight, people would laugh at me, so I might as well do something where they were meant to laugh.”
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