An interview with June Whitfield

Actress June Whitfield outside Age UK Kentish Town.

We caught up with President of Stage for Age, June Whitfield, at the opening of our new look concept store in Kentish Town, 11 June, to talk about her career, fashion and her views on getting older:

What made you want to get involved with Age UK?

Oh, I think I was co-opted! [Laughs.] Many years ago, around 1989, when Sir Ian Trethowan was the Head of Thames Television, he thought that so much was done for children, that it was about time that the theatrical profession leant their name to the elderly. So that was when ‘Stage for Age’ was formed, as a sort of fundraising arm of Help the Aged.  And now we’ve got amalgamated, so we’re all Age UK.

What would you say are the worst and the best things about getting older?

Take it as it comes, I think. The worst thing, obviously, is illness. But if you’re reasonably healthy, I mean, bits obviously drop off or creak …. But I suppose the best thing is you probably eventually know  who  you are.

That’s reassuring.

[Laughs.] And I think you probably value the important things in life more, like families and things like that.

Do you have any tips for staying healthy as you get older?

It’s the luck of the draw really. It’s your parents, and your genes, and your family, and various things. Keep your fingers crossed and don’t anticipate disaster. I mean, wait until it happens, then worry about it.

Looking back over your career, you’ve worked with some amazing people - Tony Hancock, Benny Hill, Frankie Howerd, Dick Emery, Noel Coward - and worked in some amazing shows - Steptoe and Son, the Carry on Films, Absolutey Fabulous, Miss Marple, Only Fools and Horses - it’s like a “Who’s who” of British television! Do you think your career’s got better as you’ve got older? What for you have been the highlights?

Many, many highlights. I mean, probably the first real highlight was the radio show, “Take it from here”, written by Frank Muir and  Dennis Norden which was absolutely fantastic. And then I think a highlight was working for Noel Coward. That was fantastic, in the 1950s. It was a time when the Café de Paris had cabaret, and artists from America and all over the place. And we used to go along after the show and watch them all, which was a great time.

And then of course, what you might call, as my husband used to say, “If you’re not on television, you’re dead.”

Oh dear.

I mean, if you’re working in the theatre for many years, not so many people know about it.

Oh, I see.

Then of course, “Absolutely Fabulous”. That was a rebirth. But finally street cred - Dr Who and Coronation Street!

You’re going to be 85 this year, and you’re still working. Do you think people should be forced to retire when they get older?

No. I’m lucky enough to work in something that I love doing, and not everybody has that privilege. So I can understand people yearning for their retirement. But the sad thing is that unless they have something else of interest to do, and I think it happens to perhaps a lot more men in a way than women, when they retire and think, “Thank goodness.” But if they don’t play golf, they don’t garden, they’ve got no other interests at all, then they really are very frustrated, I think.

Yes, I think it’s important to stay active.

It’s important to stay active, to do something. I mean, these wonderful volunteers here in all these charity shops, it’s great for them. They have something to do, by helping other people. So if you’re capable of moving and standing about a bit, I would advise everybody to not just sit down and grow old,  but to start doing something.

Today Siouxsie has shown how you can recreate some of this season’s key looks from old clothes that have been donated to Age UK Kentish Town. Do you think this proves my Dad’s theory that if you keep clothes for long enough, they eventually come back into fashion?

The extraordinary thing is they do sort of come back into fashion but either the shoulders are too wide or they’re too narrow, you know. But I am afraid I am a bit of a hoarder. I have proved to myself that it’s alright occasionally, because I’ve provided clothes to wear on television for something in the ‘50s, you know [laughs].

Do you think older people could teach young people a thing or two about style?

Well, styles change, don’t they? I mean, younger people always want to be different, don’t they? I mean, different from their elders. So long as that goes on, who knows where we’ll go next? I mean bikinis will be in, you know, in winter on the high street…

If climate change has anything to do with it…

Older people tend to ignore fashion and trends and stick to what suits them. Because perhaps on the whole they have more confidence in themselves. “I’m sorry, I’m not wearing something that goes up and down, and round about, and everything else.” But the young always go for fashion and good luck to them.

And a final question, what’s your favourite bit about the shop’s new look?

I do think it’s beautifully laid out, and it must have been terribly hard work to get it to that stage. You can see the number of people who are here, I mean obviously it’s appreciated. And you can find wonderful bargains.

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