With her charming smile, distinctive voice, and undeniable talent, Una Stubbs was a beloved figure in the entertainment industry. From her early days as a dancer to her iconic roles on the small screen, her natural talent for light entertainment, comedy and drama meant that she was always in demand and the longevity of her career was remarkable. Una also had a rare gift that endeared her to millions – instant likeability.
Una was born on 1 May 1937 in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, where her mother, Angela, worked in the cutting room of Denham film studios. Her father, Clarence Stubbs, was a factory worker where Shredded Wheat cereal was made. Her great-grandfather was Ebenezer Howard, an urban planner who founded the Garden City Movement and Welwyn Garden City. Una was the middle of three children; a sister, Claire, was two years older, a brother, Paul, two years younger. They moved to Hinckley, Leicestershire, when Una was young but moved back down south again where Una trained at the La Roche dancing school in Slough. She made her acting debut at the Theatre Royal, Windsor, as the fairy Peaseblossom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As a 16-year-old, in 1953, she danced in a Folies Bergère-style musical revue, Pardon My French, at the Prince of Wales Theatre, alongside Frankie Howerd and the pianist Winifred Atwell.
She first appeared on television as one of the Dougie Squires Dancers on the British television music show Cool for Cats in 1956. During this time, she met and became lifelong friends with the dancer and choreographer Lionel Blair. In 1958, Una became the cover girl for dairy box chocolates and appeared on posters and in television commercials. That same year she made her movie debut in Grab Me a Gondola, a musical based on an original play by Julian Moore and James Gilbert, adapted by Norman Hudis who worked on the first six Carry On films. ‘Gondola’, now sadly forgotten (not even an IMDb entry) is set at the Venice Film Festival, echoing the real-life antics of publicity-seeking starlets. Also, in 1958, Una married the actor Peter Gilmore (the lead in BBC TV’s The Onedin Line in the 1970s).
Over the next couple of years there were appearances on The Strange World of Gurney Slade, Benny Hill, The Stanley Baxter Show, The Dick Emery Show and a low-budget TV film starring Tommy Steele titled The Tommy Steele Show: Quincy's Quest. But in 1963, Una became known to a bigger, international audience, when she was cast in the Cliff Richard film Summer Holiday. At that time, Cliff was one of the most bankable stars in Britain and Summer Holiday was the second most popular release at the British box office only beaten by the James Bond film From Russia with Love. Una also appeared regularly on television in Don’t Say a Word, a charades-based game made by Associated-Rediffusion.
In 1965, Una was cast in a Comedy Playhouse presentation titled Till Death Us Do Part. In this, she was Rita Ramsey, the daughter of Alf and Else Ramsey (Warren Mitchell and Gretchen Franklin) and the girlfriend of Mike Rawlins (Anthony Booth). The presentation proved popular enough to go to a full series, with a few changes. The family surname was changed to Garnett, Gretchen Franklin, who was unavailable, was replaced by Dandy Nichols and Rita and Mike were now married.
The first truly groundbreaking use of comedy to highlight the ignorance of bigotry and hatred, Till Death Us Do Part courted controversy right from the start and remains a television series that divides opinion almost sixty years later. For Una, the role of the consistently even-handed Rita was one that she would return to until the 1980s, chalking up 64 appearances as Alf Garnett’s long-suffering daughter, long after Else had passed away and her marriage to Mike had broken up.
Una’s own marriage ended in 1969, but she remarried the same year to character actor Nicky Henson. Also, in 1969, she joined the Young Vic and appeared as the Princess in The Soldier’s Tale and in Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs. In 1975, Una played the lead role in Irma la Douce. There was a successful return to comedy in 1979 when she appeared in an episode of Fawlty Towers (The Anniversary) and in the family comedy series Worzel Gummidge in which she played the scarecrow’s reluctant girlfriend, Aunt Sally. Una joined the series from episode three, as the wooden fairground attraction that Worzel helps escape to Scatterbrook Farm. She appeared in 20 episodes from 1979 to 1981 and there would have been more had it not been for the television company, Southern Television, losing its franchise. In 1986, Channel 4 & Television New Zealand commissioned Worzel Gummidge Down Under, which was shot in New Zealand, and 22 further episodes were made. Una appeared in 11 of them.
In the 1980s, the format for Don’t Say a Word was revived and given a makeover as Give Us a Clue, and Una was one of the regular team captains. The other was Lionel Blair.
Una returned to the stage for more serious roles in the 1990s, beginning at the Royal Exchange in Manchester as Mrs Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer, followed by Lady Markby in An Ideal Husband and finally as Terence Rattigan’s confused and desperate heroine Hester Collyer in The Deep Blue Sea, at the Mercury Theatre in Colchester in 1997. In 1998, she appeared in the children's fantasy comedy The Worst Witch, playing the part of the eccentric chanting teacher, Miss Bat, at an academy for magicians called Cackles Academy.
As we entered the new millennium, Una’s career went in unexpected but hugely successful directions. She won critical plaudits as a hilarious partner to Penelope Keith in a stage adaptation of Noël Coward’s Star Quality and appeared alongside Emily Blunt’s Juliet as the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet at Chichester. In 2005, she joined the National Theatre playing Mrs Holt in Ibsen’s Pillars of the Community, and later joined Peter Hall’s summer season at the Theatre Royal, Bath, to play Mrs Pearce in Pygmalion.
During this period, Una would often be seen on television and made appearances in The Catherine Tate Show, EastEnders, Marple, Benidorm and Call the Midwife, to name a few. In 2010 she was cast as Mrs Hudson, the housekeeper to a certain Mr Holmes in Steven Moffat’s hugely successful series Sherlock. She had known her Sherlock co-star Benedict Cumberbatch since he was four years old, as she had worked with his mother, Wanda Ventham. Una was the subject of an episode of the BBC series Who Do You Think You Are?, in 2013.
Una also enjoyed painting and for many years she sketched vignettes of characters around London, and held exhibitions of these near her Mayfair home. So she was thrilled to be asked to co-host (with Richard Bacon) the first series of the BBC series The Big Painting Challenge (2015).
Aside from acting, Una found time to write two books on a favourite pastime of hers; embroidery. Una Stubbs in Stitches was published in 1984 and A Stitch in Time was published in 1985.
After several months of ill health, Una Stubbs died at her home in Edinburgh on 12 August 2021, at the age of 84. Tributes poured in from fans and colleagues. Steven Moffat remembered Stubbs as "the loveliest light on Baker Street", her agent Rebecca Blond, who represented Una for more than 20 years, said she would "miss her enormously and remember her always", broadcaster Gyles Brandreth paid tribute saying she was "Such a funny, lovely, gifted lady - a marvellous actress with a special style & a great (and impish) sense of humour," and Bonnie Langford said: "She made everything look so effortless. A consummate professional, kind, gracious, elegant, versatile and fun. Her Aunt Sally was a masterclass alone."
Una Stubbs had an illustrious career spanning over six decades, and her contributions to the world of entertainment are undoubtedly remarkable. Her ability to bring characters to life with her infectious energy and genuine talent solidified her status as one of Britain's most beloved actresses and a national treasure who will be valued for years to come.
Published on January 29th, 2024. Written by Marc Saul for Television Heaven.