In the last days of 2018, die-hard fans of Absolutely Fabulous lost a dear friend: Dame June Whitfield. The veteran actor – who passed away at 93 – famously played the long-suffering mother of Edina Monsoon (Jennifer Saunders) and grandmother of “Saffy” (Julia Sawalha) on the much-loved-by-gay-men Britcom.
According to reports, Whitfield passed away peacefully in her sleep. It seems fitting that a character known for her no-fuss, no-frills attitude would slip away in such a gentle manner.
The Art of Being Gran
I have written about the show before. I once recounted watching the show with a born-again Christian who couldn’t fathom people like Patsy and Eddie existed. On the other hand, I wanted there to be real-life versions of these women, and I hoped to find them. I am an unabashed fan of the series, and I’ve had other important friendships that blossomed over a shared love of AbFab.
Gay fans like me tend to quickly identify with Eddie or Patsy (Joanna Lumley) — as opposed to Saffy or her slightly batty, beloved gran. Why? Even where Eddie and Patsy were portrayed as wildly over the top, Saffy and Gran faced an even harsher label – decidedly uncool. (It’s worth noting the born-again friend I referenced above identified with Saffy, as my own mother did with Gran).More Hot Stories
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Yet, if you are familiar with how Absolutely Fabulous found comedy in contrasts, it is clear that Whitfield played her role to perfection. Like Saffy, Gran served as a foil to Eddie’s tragically hip ways. Watching Whitfield act made one realize she was not merely cracking jokes; she was an actor employing her craft — delivering cool, calm responses that had the ring of a genuine mother-daughter relationship. She even evidenced a sense of ennui about Eddie’s escapades. Gran had seen it all before; so why bother getting upset?
In some scenes: Gran hardly even needed to glance at Eddie before delivering cutting reads such as: “Are those your old trousers, dear?” when Eddie entered sporting a pair of clownishly tight 1970s bell bottoms. “It was rather like putting toothpaste back into the tube even then.”
While Patsy and Eddie are known for reaching heights of physical comedy on the show, Gran rarely got very physical. But she could steal scenes with just one look. In an early episode of the series, Patsy asked Saffy to give her a “breast-check.” That set-up is humorous enough, but what put the cherry on top was when Gran passed the open door to Saffy’s bedroom and scurried away — clearly thinking she’d caught them in the midst of an intimate encounter. In a later scene, Gran fumbled to cover her own breasts when approached by Saffie – bringing the comedy full circle.
Fans knew Gran could be a thorn in Eddie’s side. Among other exasperating behaviors, she was known for taking items from Eddie’s house to donate to charity.
“Just leave, and go straight out that front door,” Eddie directed Gran in “Poor,” my favorite episode. “Do not go upstairs to my bedroom and steal things.”
“I don’t know what she’s talking about,” Gran replied. “She’s deranged.”
“I passed that sad little excuse for a charity shop yesterday,” Eddie accused. “I saw your little piece of handiwork in the window. Must be the only genuine Lacroix, Versace, quilted bedspread in existence.” Again, we see a reference comes full circle at the end of the episode, when Gran seemed to be sewing another quilt – perhaps out of Eddie’s latest dry cleaning.
Goodbye, English Rose
Upon her passing, Whitfield received accolades for many roles — including a series from the mid-1970s called Terry and June (which, as of this writing, you can enjoy on YouTube). I highly recommend it to fans of British comedy from the era of Are You Being Served? as Whitfield doesn’t disappoint, and it’s a chance to see her play the kind of physical comedy she didn’t do on AbFab.
Whitfield was awarded the rank of Dame in 2017. Prince Charles reportedly told the actress that her nomination “had been a long time coming.” And it was reported that Queen Elizabeth II herself used to imitate Whitfield’s voice early in her radio career. For a proud Briton, joining the ranks of Maggies Smith and Judie Dench as a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire was doubtlessly an incredible compliment.
Though her career also encompassed a popular film series known as Carry On,she’ll probably be best remembered on this side of the pond for playing Gran. It’s nice to think that the women best-known for the series — Jennifer, Joanna, Julia, and June — having a kind of familial bond. Perhaps that’s why I was most touched by Julia Sawalha’s tribute on her Twitter account to be the most touching.
“Thank you Dame June Whitfield, for teaching me my craft with such grace and dignity,” tweeted Sawalha. “I always wanted you to know how in awe of you I was, however, you were always far too humble to accept my adoration. You were a great source of inspiration to me. Bye-bye Gran.”
So though I may have always been more of an Eddie or a Patsy than a Gran, and though I may have only come to truly appreciate the depth and breadth of her career upon her passing, I will echo Sawalha’s sentiments by saying fondly, sadly and simply, “Bye-bye Gran.”
Read about the passing of another unforgettable actress beloved by gay fans, the great Carol Channing.
Photo of June Whitfield by Slapstick Festival / CC BY 2.0
Last modified: January 15, 2019