Una Stubbs began her screen career dancing with a box of chocolates back in the 1950s in television adverts for Rowntree’s Dairy Box. She was slim, lithe and full of energy, with a toothy smile and wonderfully expressive face, and hip in slacks and a stripey top, very much of her time.
But in the case of Una Stubbs “her time” was to prove a surprisingly elastic concept. In a long and varied career she connected with successive generations in a string of diverse films and television shows.
In the 1960s she was Cliff Richard’s fellow traveller in the wholesome road movie Summer Holiday and the daughter of Warren Mitchell’s outrageous racist Alf Garnett on the classic sitcom Till Death Us Do Part.
In the 1980s she was the haughty, life-size fairground doll Aunt Sally on Worzel Gummidge, the popular children’s show starring Jon Pertwee as the titular scarecrow, and a team captain on Give Us a Clue.
And in recent years she had the recurring role of Sherlock Holmes’s landlady Mrs Hudson in Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, who she had known since he was an infant, having worked his mother actress Wanda Ventham.
Latterly Stubbs lived in Edinburgh, where she had family. Many years earlier, in 1967, she appeared at the Edinburgh Festival in a production of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale with Nicky Henson, who she married a few years later after her first marriage ended in divorce.
Stubbs was born in 1937 in the Hertfordshire town of Hatfield, just outside Welwyn Garden City. One of her great-grandfathers was Ebenezer Howard, the pioneer of the garden city movement.
Her father worked in the Shredded Wheat factory in Welwyn Garden City and her mother worked nearby in the cutting rooms at Denham film studios. However Stubbs grew up largely in Leicstershire and Slough, in Berkshire, where she was enrolled in dance school. “My parents saw my lack of intellectual ability and thought this was a good move,” she said.
By her mid-teens Stubbs was working professionally as a dancer and actress. She played the fairy Peaseblossom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Theatre Royal in Windsor, and danced in the chorus line at the London Palladium, though she observed that most of the dancers were blonde and busty, while she was brunette and “completely flat-chested”.
She was a dancer on the early pop show Cool for Cats and she met her first husband Peter Gilmore, who later starred in The Onedin Line, when they appeared in Grab Me a Gondola, a stage musical set against the Venice Film Festival. They married in 1958, divorced a decade later and she married Henson, a marriage that also ended in divorce.
She got her big break when she was cast as Sandy, one of the girls who Cliff Richard and his pals pick up when the girls’ car breaks down in the 1963 film Summer Holiday. The girls then join the boys on their trip across Europe in the iconic London double-decker bus.
There was an obvious chemistry between her and her co-star and they appeared together the following year in Wonderful Life. It seems the chemistry was not restricted to the screen. Years later Stubbs revealed that there had been a quasi-romance with the singer, famous for his wholesome image.
“We’d held hands and kissed but nothing else happened,” she said. “It was amazing how much fuss was made out of nothing.”
She was involved in Till Death Us Do Part from the outset, appearing in the pilot show that went out in the Comedy Playhouse slot in 1965, when Mitchell’s character was called Alf Ramsey.
The BBC decided to turn it into a series, with the first show going out in June 1966, with Mitchell’s character now called Alf Garnett. Dandy Nichols was his long-suffering wife Else, Stubbs his daughter Rita and Anthony Booth, Cherie Blair’s father, was his idle, socialist son-in-law Mike.
Without the name change there may well have been some confusion with the football manager, once of Ipswich Town, but now just a few weeks away from steering England to victory in the World Cup final.
Both that match and the sitcom have proven controversial over the years. Garnett is a tragic figure, isolated within his own family by his bigotry and unpleasantness – he misses his wife when she goes to visit her sister in Australia and is devastated when she decides to stay there. There was always the danger that some may identify with him as a symbol of traditional English values.
Till Death Us Do Part ran for seven series from 1966 to 1975. It was revived on ITV in 1981 with the shortened title Till Death… in 1981, and it ran for another six series back on the BBC under the title In Sickness and in Health from 1985 to 1992, though Stubbs appeared only in the first two series.
The year 1979 marked her debut both as Aunt Sally on Worzel Gummidge and also as one of the two team captains on the light-hearted celebrity charades show Give Us A Clue. It was men against women, with the men skippered by Lionel Blair. It ran from 1979 to 1991, with Liza Goddard taking over from Stubbs for the final few series.
Stubbs took on a wide range of roles on screen and stage, latterly building a reputation for herself in theatre dramas, including Ibsen and the stage adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
On television she played one of Sybil’s friends in the episode of Fawlty Towers where Basil pretends to have forgotten his wedding anniversary, Sybil thinks he is serious and walks out, and he is determined to maintain the pretence that she is still there. Stubbs also had a stint on EastEnders in 2006 as Honey Mitchell’s eccentric aunt.
Off screen Stubbs enjoyed embroidery and painting. She wrote two books entitled Una Stubbs in Stitches and A Stitch in Time and she was co-host of the first series the BBC’s Big Painting Challenge in 2015.
She is survived by an adopted son from her first marriage and two sons from the second marriage.
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