Date of Birth: 11 November 1926, Streatham, London, UK
Birth Name: June Rosemary Whitfield
Nickname: June Whitfield
June Whitfield was the most extraordinarily ordinary of comic performers. Efficient, amenable and ultra-professional, she unselfishly supported star comedians for more than 50 years, often slyly outshining them. Yet buried deep in the screen image of sensible housewife or mum there was a wonderfully wild streak.
On radio, she was Eth to Dick Bentley’s Ron in radio’s Take It from Here for seven years and began her association with Roy Hudd in The News Huddlines in 1984, which lasted into the new century. She partnered Arthur Askey on television for six years and played Terry Scott’s wife in Happy Ever After, then in Terry and June, for an astonishing 13 years. And she captivated a new generation as Jennifer Saunders’s vague but sometimes acerbic mother in Absolutely Fabulous.
The success of her partnership with Scott she had worked with him before Happy Ever After in the TV series Scott On, gives a clue to her enduring comic appeal. At the time 1974 to 1987 Terry and June was derided by critics and the younger, more abrasive comedians as the epitome of cosy, middle-class BBC sitcom, but from today’s perspective it looks positively surreal. Scott, who previously toured a “naughty schoolboy” act in variety for years, essentially played a wilful child, and Whitfield seemed more like a patient mother than a wife. However, in most episodes there was a point at which she surrendered herself and wholeheartedly joined in whatever anarchic plan Scott had hatched, usually to save him from disaster. When this happened, the pair became quietly deranged, and the comic dynamic far from the conventional whimsy sniffed at by the critics.
At various times over the years Whitfield played wife or girlfriend to Benny Hill, Frankie Howerd, Dick Emery, Tony Hancock, Jimmy Edwards, Sid James, Ted Ray, Leslie Phillips, Stanley Baxter, Bob Monkhouse, Harry H Corbett, Tommy Cooper, Terry Thomas, Leslie Crowther and Ronnie Barker. The writer Barry Took said that she had supported more actors than the Department of Health and Social Security.
June Whitfield was born in Streatham, south London. Her father, Jack, was managing director of Dictograph Internal Telephones and her mother, Bertha, an incurably stagestruck woman who channelled her energies into amateur theatre and then into her daughter’s career. At the age of three June attended the Robinson School of Dancing, Elocution, Pianoforte and Singing, and when she was 12, her performance as Moth in an amateur production of Love’s Labours Lost elicited a favourable review in The Star newspaper. In 1942 she enrolled at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and after leaving in 1944, she was almost never out of work for the rest of her life.
Whitfield always claimed that lack of confidence in her looks made her decide to concentrate on comedy: “I believed that, since the audience was going to laugh at me anyway, I might as well be in things that were meant to be laughed at.”
In the mid-1940s she toured Britain in several plays, and in 1945 worked with the Yorkshire comic actor and radio quizmaster Wilfred Pickles. Pickles taught her about timing; on her first night on tour in the comedy The Cure For Love there was a scene where she sat on his knee, gabbling her lines as Pickles hissed at her out of the corner of his mouth: “Wait for the laugh. Wait for the laugh.”
In 1950 she caught the eye of Noel Coward, who cast her in his unsuccessful revue Ace of Clubs. She asked Coward if she could wear a fringe in the show, and her doubts about her appearance were hardly allayed when he replied: “Good idea. It’ll hide that vast expanse of forehead.”
Whitfield understudied Mary Martin in South Pacific at Drury Lane in 1951 and went on to a bigger part in Daddy Long Legs at the Saville. While she was appearing in Love For Judy in 1953, she received a call from Frank Muir and Denis Norden, writers of the hit radio show Take It From Here, inviting her to audition for the part vacated by Joy Nichols. She got the job, and joined the cast just as Muir and Norden were trying out a new series of sketches involving the unpleasant and indolent Glum Family. For Eth, Ron Glum’s earnest and worried fiancee, Whitfield “borrowed” the whining voice of her mother’s daily help, who never suspected that she was being immortalised on radio. Whitfield’s breathy anxiety perfectly complemented Dick Bentley’s flat, Australian monotone in exchanges such as:
Eth: “Ooh, Ron, It’s not natural for hot-blooded people like you and me to remain unmarried indefinitely. Oh, dear heart, if only you knew how much I yearn!”
Ron: “I do, Eth, and it’s not enough for both of us to live on.”
The show made Whitfield a household name. When she married surveyor Tim Aitchison in 1955 one newspaper headline read “Ooh, Ron! Look what’s happened to Eth!” The marriage, regarded as one of the happiest in British showbusiness, endured until Aitchison’s death in 2001. Their daughter, Suzy, is also an actor.
She became a regular on Arthur Askey’s Before Your Very Eyes in 1956, then played his wife in the Arthur Askey Show in 1961. She also appeared in the Tony Hancock Show, the comic’s first series for ITV, and when he moved back to the BBC in 1961 she went with him.
Whitfield was a regular fixture in comedy films and television shows through the 1960s, and first appeared with Terry Scott in 1968. After the success of Scott On it was suggested that they team up in a situation comedy, and Happy Ever After, written by John Chapman and Eric Merriman, was introduced in 1974. It was an immediate success, but after five series Chapman thought the formula was exhausted and quit; the BBC wanted to persevere, however, and because of a dispute over rights, the names of the characters changed and the title became Terry and June, mostly written by John Kane. Over both series, Scott and Whitfield notched up a staggering 107 episodes, and became so identified as a couple that some viewers thought they were married in real life.
Offscreen, however, the discreet and fastidious Whitfield and the opinionated Scott had little in common. On the set she was content to acknowledge that her main function was to “drift the laughter towards Terry’s lines”.
Because of Whitfield’s cosy image, the idea of casting her as Jennifer Saunders’s mother in Absolutely Fabulous in 1992 was a comedy masterstroke. Whitfield and Julia Sawalha (as granddaughter, Saffron) provided the calm centre of this blisteringly funny series about two vodka-swilling, drug-addled friends Saunders as PR agent Edina Monsoon and Joanna Lumley as magazine editor Patsy. Mother, slightly senile and preoccupied with her puzzle books, and Saffy represented traditional virtues of consideration and respect for others. The show ran for five series, plus specials and a 2016 film, and is ranked as 17th in the greatest British TV shows of all time by the British Film Institute. In recent years Whitfield appeared in episodes of Dr Who, Last of the Summer Wine, EastEnders and Coronation Street.
Whitfield was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1994 British Comedy Awards and inducted into the Royal Television Society’s Hall of Fame in 1999. In 1985 she was made an OBE, and in 1998 a CBE. In her autobiography, published in 2000, she summed up her life: “Not a rags-to-riches story, or one bursting with revelations; there isn’t even an unhappy childhood, only a life full of love, affection and laughter, of gigs, gags and a couple of gongs.”
Date of Birth: 11 February 1936, Lansing, Michigan, USA
Birth Name: Burton Leon Reynolds
Nickname: Burt Reynolds
Burt Reynolds, the mustachioed megastar who first strutted on screen more than half a century ago
An iconic Hollywood sex symbol in front of the camera, Reynolds also tried his directorial hand behind it, and later earned a reputation for philanthropy after founding the Burt Reynolds Institute for Film & Theatre in his home state of Florida.
His roles over the years ranged and pivoted from Southern heartthrob to tough guy to comedy, notably in his role as Rep. David Dilbeck in the 1996 film "Striptease," which flopped at the box office but earned him widespread praise for his comedic prowess.
But it was John Boorman's 1972 thriller "Deliverance," which cast Reynolds as outdoorsman Lewis Medlock, that is widely credited for launching his early career.
Reynolds called it "by far" his best film.
Born in Lansing, Michigan, Reynolds and his family moved to South Florida when he was 5, according to his autobiography.
At Palm Beach High School, he first made a name for himself as a football star and earned an athletic scholarship to Florida State University. But when injuries derailed a promising athletic career, Reynolds turned to acting.
He then scored small parts in the late 1950s before landing a role in the New York City Center revival of "Mister Roberts" in 1957, as well as a recurring spot in the TV series "Gunsmoke."
By 1974, Reynolds had hit it big and starred as an ex-football player who landed in prison in the film "The Longest Yard." Two years earlier, he broke taboo and posed nude in Cosmopolitan magazine, which helped cement his growing status as a sex symbol.
He later said he regretted that centerfold image, which showed Reynolds spread out across a bearskin rug, and said it distracted attention from his "Deliverance" co-stars and likely cost them an Academy Award.
Reynolds' notoriety soared through the late 1970s and 1980s, during which time he spearheaded the "Smokey and the Bandit" and "Cannonball Run" movie franchises. He also earned People's Choice Awards in 1979, 1982 and 1983 as all-around male entertainer of the year.
But he also turned down some of the biggest roles in Hollywood history, including James Bond to Han Solo in George Lucas' 1977 blockbuster "Star Wars." Reynolds also reportedly was among Paramount Pictures' top choices to play Michael Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola's 1972 epic "The Godfather."
In 1998, Reynolds scored his sole Oscar nomination, for best supporting actor, after his portrayal of a porn film producer in the film "Boogie Nights," despite his dislike of the film and its apparent glorification of the porn industry.
Years later, with a mustache gone gray, he suffered from health issues that led to open heart surgery. Reynolds also checked into a drug rehab clinic in 2009. The purpose was "to regain control of his life" after becoming addicted to painkillers prescribed following back surgery, his manager said.
Once among Hollywood's highest-paid actors, Reynolds later fell into financial trouble amid private ventures in an Atlanta restaurant and a professional sports team, though he continued to make cameo appearances and teach acting classes.
Date of Birth: 14 August 1930, Southwark, London, UK
Birth Name: Elizabeth Joan Winch
Nickname: Liz Fraser
Liz Fraser specialised in comedy in a career that stretched from cough and spit parts in 1950s Ealing Studios films to a guest star suspect in the latest series of Midsomer Murders (2018). She also worked with Tony Hancock and Sid James, and starred in the classic I’m All Right Jack (1959) with Peter Sellers, but her long and varied career was almost inevitably overshadowed by her membership of the Carry On team.
The slap and tickle British film institution of innuendo and pratfall, awash with music hall one-liners, Carry On celebrates its 60th anniversary this year and remains as popular as ever, a reassuring never-never land of off-colour jokes, whose occasional sexism, racism and homophobia is somehow muted by the sheer exuberance of the performers. Typecast as a cheery blond bombshell, Liz appeared in four films, joining the established team of Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey, Joan Sims, Kenneth Connor and Hattie Jacques for film number five, Carry on Regardless (1961).
Liz herself always maintained that her early glamour girl roles had a virginal quality about them. Indeed, even as a happy-go-lucky stripper in Doctor in Love (1960), the coquettish policewoman in The Pure Hell of St Trinian’s (1960) or the nautical fun-seeker Sandra in Double Bunk (1961), there was an endearing innocence at play.
Double Bunk remained her favourite film, allowing her to polish an effortless working relationship with Sid James that would enhance many a British comedy. She worked with him on Hancock’s Half Hour, and when the BBC gave James his own series, Citizen James, from November 1960, Liz played his hapless, ever-tolerant girlfriend.
However, more dramatic character roles eventually came, including the lead role of Delilah, an ageing model and actor, in the TV drama Sight Unseen (1977), an episode in the She anthology series. Here Liz essayed a touching performance of faded beauty.
In 1988 she again drew on personal experience she had cancer three times to bring poignancy to the character of Mrs Dewey, an elderly woman dying of cancer, in Eskimos Do It (1988), part of the BBC2 Screenplay series. The previous year she had had a small but intense role as the gin-soaked mother Mrs Brent in Miss Marple: Nemesis.
Other television roles included Doris Entwhistle in the sitcom Fairly Secret Army (1984-86), starring Geoffrey Palmer, and she had guest appearances in many series including The Avengers, The Goodies, Jason King, Robin’s Nest, Rumpole of the Bailey, Birds of a Feather, Last of the Summer Wine and Foyle’s War.
Born Elizabeth Winch in Southwark, south London, she was the daughter of a travelling salesman father, who died when she was 11, and a mother who owned a small shop off the New Kent Road that sold practically everything. In September 1939 she was evacuated to Crockham Hill in Kent, close to Winston Churchill’s Chartwell estate; the prime minister would often visit his evacuee neighbours. Next to having dinner with Judy Garland, this was Liz’s favourite name-drop.
Liz went to St Saviour’s and St Olave’s grammar school for girls and later trained at the London School of Dramatic Art. She made her stage debut with the Red Rose Players repertory company at the New Hippodrome, Accrington, in Lancashire in 1953, before joining the chorus in Babes in the Wood at the Brighton Hippodrome. Soon afterwards she adopted her stage name from a brand of biscuit.
Date of Birth: 11 March 1964, Doncaster, West Riding, Yorkshire, UK
Birth Name: Emma Gwynedd Mary Chambers
Nickname: Emma Chambers
The Vicar of Dibley, conceived by the writer Richard Curtis, began in 1994, the year in which the first female Church of England priests were ordained. The TV sitcom starred Dawn French as Geraldine Granger, the incoming vicar facing a mixture of bewilderment and prejudice in the sleepy fictional Oxfordshire village of the programme’s title, but Emma Chambers, who has died unexpectedly aged 53, proved to be a scene-stealer as Alice Tinker, the St Barnabas church verger scripted as dim but lovable.
“Just like Alice I am vulnerable, emotional and caring, but I am not thick,” Chambers once said. “I think she is gorgeously naive, like a child, and that is one thing I am not, I am a cynical old bitch!”
Her best remembered film role, in Curtis’s 1999 romcom Notting Hill, was the eccentric Honey Thacker, star-struck and overawed at meeting the Hollywood actor (played by Julia Roberts) who has fallen for her bookshop-owner brother (Hugh Grant).
Emma was born in Doncaster, South Yorkshire to John, a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, and Noelle (nee Strange). The family moved around and, while attending St Swithun’s school, Winchester, Chambers acted in Winchester college productions – saying she “enjoyed showing off” and played lacrosse for Hampshire. Her parents eventually split up and she trained at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, where the former EastEnders actor Ross Kemp was one of her contemporaries.
Her sister, Sarah Doukas, and brother, Simon, went on to run Storm Model Management, which discovered Kate Moss at the age of 14.
Chambers made her television debut as Margaret, one of the young Brangwen children, in a 1988 BBC adaptation of the DH Lawrence novel The Rainbow. In between one-off roles on TV, she played Charity Pecksniff in a six-part serialisation of Charles Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit, which began in the same week as The Vicar of Dibley.
The popular BBC sitcom, written by Curtis with Paul Mayhew-Archer, ran for two series, from 1994 to 1998, finishing with Alice’s marriage to Hugo Horton (played by James Fleet), her second cousin once removed. Geraldine described both as having the intellectual capacity of a cactus and the wedding was notable for the two bridal attendants dressed as Teletubbies. Chambers won the 1998 British Comedy Award for best actress and returned as Alice in various Vicar of Dibley specials between 1999 and 2007.
She had significant supporting roles in the sitcom How Do You Want Me? (1998-99) as Helen Yardley, sister of the newlywed Lisa (Charlotte Coleman) returning from London to be near her family in the countryside, and Take a Girl Like You (2000), Andrew Davies’s adaptation of Kingsley Amis’s comic novel, as Martha Thompson, the bored housewife hostile to her beautiful, northern lodger.
Chambers’ West End theatre debut came with the part of Geain, estranged daughter of Ian McKellen’s composer Jerome, in Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy Henceforward (Vaudeville theatre, 1988-89) after appearing in the original 1987 production at the Stephen Joseph theatre, Scarborough. In his casting notes for Geain, Ayckbourn stipulated: “Not a child, please. Just a very small actress.” Chambers lodged with McKellen for a while and said she regarded him as a father figure.
When, in 1989, she starred in the Scarborough premiere of Ayckbourn’s Invisible Friends as another teenage daughter, Lucy Baines, who has an imaginary companion to relieve the awfulness of living with her family, the critic Harry Eyres praised Chambers’ skill in “conveying Lucy’s kaleidoscopic emotional states with startling immediacy” and negotiating the tricky device of also acting as the play’s narrator. She reprised the role in London at the Cottesloe during two stints with the National Theatre company (1991-92) that included appearances in productions such as Franz Kafka’s The Trial and Alan Bennett’s The Madness of George III.
She gave a hilarious performance as Orgon’s daughter Mariane in Tartuffe (Almeida theatre, 1996) and starred as Sheila in Michael Frayn’s Benefactors (Albery theatre, 2002), a performance described by one critic as “a touching study in parasitic helplessness”.