When Absolutely Fabulous’ Edina ('Eddie') Monsoon complained that she was fat and that there was a skinny person inside her “screaming to get out,” her mother, played by June Whitfield, replied dryly: “Just the one dear?”
In another episode, Eddie recalled, via flashback, going to her first rock concert as a teenager in the early 1970s, the evening ending with her stumbling, possibly drunk and stoned, back through the front door of her cloying suburban home.
There amid a self-induced fug of booze and substances, her father was just an armchair-seated blur and Eddie's mother was in her face, enquiring with clueless, sunny persistence whether her daughter had enjoyed watching bands like “The Rolling Who.”
Whitfield, a true British comedy great who died at 93, and who was made a Dame during the 2017 Queen’s Birthday Honors, was best-known to American audiences for playing “Mother” in the hit BBC show and later 2016 film. She was the perfect needling foil to Edina (Jennifer Saunders) and Patsy’s (Joanna Lumley) raucous outrageousness and never-ending rebellion.
“Mother” was always popping into the adult Edina’s house—how did “that woman” keep getting in, Edina ('Eddie') would demand—to see grand-daughter Saffy (Julia Sawalha), and while there would alternately unnerve, truth-tell, and steal from her daughter (especially smart designer duds for the charity shop she and her friends ran).
The brilliance of Saunders, who created Absolutely Fabulous, in choosing Whitfield for the role is that there was no one better to both play and also utterly subvert the role of that traditional Middle England mother, because Whitfield had become a household name playing that exact role.
Whitfield knew how engrained that image was, and, like that other multi-skilled veteran Betty White, how to play with, extend, and make mischief with that image.
In a statement to the U.K. Press Association, Saunders said: “It's so tremendously sad to lose June. I will always be grateful that she agreed to be in Ab Fab and even more grateful that she became a dear friend. She lived and worked with an extraordinary grace. Everything June did was perfectly measured. She was so loved and I will miss her hugely.”
Whitfield began her seven-decade career in radio, later on screen playing opposite many British male comedy stars including Arthur Askey, Frankie Howerd, Dick Emery, and Benny Hill, as well as appearing in four Carry On films.
Whitfield had become famous playing a suburban wife in the BBC comedies Happy Ever After (1974-1979) and later its immensely popular offshoot Terry and June (1979-1987). The memorable theme music of the latter immediately summons up memories of frosted-paned front doors and the cheery ring of suburban doorbells. Before being made a Dame, Whitfield was appointed an OBE in 1985 and a CBE in 1998. She also received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1994 British Comedy Awards.
In Ab Fab, Saunders and Whitfield gleefully upended Whitfield’s sensible twinset and shampoo-and-set propriety with “Mother.”
This was a middle-class mother as both innocent adrift in her daughter’s bonkers world and yet also malign emotional mafioso and kleptomaniac who knew exactly where to hit Edina where it pierced the most. Mother was as wary of her daughter as 'Eddie' was of her.
As Edina once archly informed her mother, “I've started repressed false memory therapy. I'll get something on you yet. You in a wood in a hood: it's all coming back to me.”
Eddie was perennially annoyed by Mother’s presence, and would even haul her out of the house up the basement stairs by her collar. As in any great comedy, every member of the dysfunctional family unit needed the other.
Sawalha paid tribute to Whitfield, by thanking her in a tweet for “teaching me my craft with such grace and dignity.”
Lumley told ITV News: “I am heartbroken to lose such a darling friend and shall never forget her sensational talent, humor and her generosity to us all who had the joy of working with her on Ab Fab. She will always have a most special place in my heart.”
Sawalha’s Saffy—a fusspot Little Miss Normal gulping for air in a sea of family weird—was the glue and referee between her at-odds mother and grandmother.
When Saffy had an affair with her married lecturer, Edina delighted everyone present (a rare, uplifting occurrence, and including us viewers) by punching the cheating bloke out. Later Edina looked at the all-smiling-female-populated kitchen table and grudgingly accepted Mother could stay.
Saunders and Whitfield gave “Mother” just the right amount of shade and perversity to at least partially explain Edina’s own madness.
In Mother we saw exactly what Edina was rebelling against and escaping from: a stuffy 1970s home full of bland, fattening food that would make her body squishy (later, Mother will compare her self-conscious daughter to skinny Patsy); this is a parent who doesn’t listen, is quick to judge, and who is later critical of her fashion PR daughter’s lifestyle, yet happy enough to avail herself of its trappings.
Whitfield's Mother was a doyenne of airy, biting zingers rather than loud putdowns, deployed as either the perfect cherry on top or swift undercut to whatever madness was unfolding chez Edina.
When “daddy” died, with Saffy desperately upset and Edina in sneering denial, Mother was determined to continue with her multiple choice quiz. Margaret Thatcher, she asked aloud, was prime minister for 900 years, 3,000 years, or 11 years?
“Ooooh, it’s a trick question,” Mother pondered. But it had felt like a very long time.
When Saffy asked her mother and grandmother where the latter would now live, both Edina and Mother looked at each other, horrified, and said in unison, “Not here,” with Whitfield following through with: “No dear, I’m quite happy where I am. In fact, I’ll have a little more room.”
Hearing her husband’s funeral would be the following Monday, Mother said: “OK, I’ll make a note of that. I think I’m free. Oh, I’ll have to cancel bridge.”
Saunders’ wonderful, subtle writing and Whitfield’s acting also gave space to Mother to tenderly place a flower in her husband’s coffin with an affectionate, whispered farewell. Moments later, when Edina and Patsy have both drunkenly fallen into open graves, Mother noted: “Let’s hope someone fills them in before they get help.”
When Patsy was both stressed out and loving every moment being at the center of a parliamentary sex scandal, Mother (not knowing it was she) walked into the kitchen wielding a tabloid and offering the summary: “Another pig-ugly MP making a fool of himself with some scrawny old hooker, I see.”
Mother added: “Nothing like a good old sex scandal. Bit more exciting than the ones in my day.” To which Eddie responded: “God, what was it in your day? ‘Woman Shows Ankle To Chimney-Sweep Shock’”?
When Edina was in court charged with drunken and disorderly behavior, Whitfield continued with her knitting and opined that the judge should jail her daughter. Whitfield’s face when Mother saw Saffy inspecting Patsy’s breasts for possible lumps was the picture of genteel confusion.
Whitfield herself said she was happiest playing the comedic foil, and not having the pressure to lead a series single-handed. She played Mother beautifully for five seasons of Ab Fab, including the 2016 movie.
You may have also seen Whitfield in Friends; when Ross goes to London to marry Emily, it is Whitfield, playing housekeeper Mrs. Combs, who intercepts a vital phone call from Phoebe. In her later years, she also appeared in British soaps Coronation Street and EastEnders (playing a secret-possessing nun in the latter), and played Miss Marple in a sequence of BBC Radio 4 adaptations.
In 2016, Whitfield told TV host Lorraine Kelly of continuing to work into her 90s, “Nowadays the only thing I like to do is if it's reasonably short, preferably sitting down quite a lot, dying, you know... I mean, I'm old enough to be selective, but of course I love anything that comes up.”
Whitfield’s was a career that not only crossed generations, but also kept impressive pace with the changing landscape of comedy, as shown in her tour de force in Ab Fab. As I write that, I’m remembering Mother preparing to wash dishes at Eddie’s kitchen sink, and inquiring utterly puzzled as she holds up her hands encased in two condoms: “They don’t put fingers on these gloves any more.”