IT should not come as any surprise to learn that while filming the 1960s road-com film, Summer Holiday, Cliff Richard and newcomer Una Stubbs could often be seen holding hands and having a little cuddle. Cliff was certainly seduced by the energy, charisma and sense of fun that Stubbs generated for those who forever entered her orbit.
Her Sherlock co-star Martin Freeman said of his friend – who has died, aged 84, after a long illness at her home in Edinburgh – that she “was one of the more fun and exciting things to happen in my life”. And that sentiment was echoed by all those who worked with her, including comedy legend Stanley Baxter.
But Stubbs wasn’t simply a bucket of energy. Her brown eyes revealed a vulnerability that transmitted into her performance. She was self-deprecating, describing herself as “gauche and gawky” and revealed her own nickname, “Basher”, for an alleged lack of dance technique.
Yet Una Stubbs didn’t survive in showbiz for almost 70 years because people liked her, and she had eyes which the camera fell in love with.
She was determined to succeed. Indeed, when working as a chorus girl in London’s West End, she would sometimes kick off her shoe into the audience to attract attention.
However, few would have considered the middle daughter of Clarence Stubbs, a Shredded Wheat factory worker, and Angela, who worked in the cutting-room at Denham Film Studios, would become such a success story.
Stubbs certainly never imagined a career in acting, far less starring as a sharp-tongued daughter in Till Death Us Do Part, as a puppet in Worzel Gummidge, or a tough-as-teak housekeeper in the rebooted Sherlock.
Growing up in Leicestershire, the family moved to Slough, where Una was sent to La Roche Dance School but it was not because her parents believed their daughter to be the newMargot Fonteyn. “My parents saw my lack of intellectual ability and thought this was a good move,” she said. “It was.”
At 14, Stubbs played Little Boy Blue in Goody Two Shoes at the Theatre Royal, Windsor. She joined the Folies Bergère at the Palladium but was out of sorts. “It was fashionable to be blonde and busty then,” she shrugged. “I’ve always been small and brunette.” She said she was in awe of the nude dancers who “all seemed to end up marrying lords and princes”.
Pixie-haired Stubbs danced through her late teens and early twenties, working with Baxter in the revue, On The Bright Side, until hit by fame, of sorts, when she became the Dairy Box girl. Casting directors loved her irrepressible optimism and huge heart.
Meantime, in 1958, she married actor Peter Gilmore and the couple adopted a son, Jason. But in 1963, Stubbs’s career rocketed when she leapt onto the platform of Cliff’s big red bus, cast as Sandy, who revealed energetic jazz dance steps and a smile more infectious than the mumps. A few years later, Cliff made her a co-star on dozens of episodes of his Saturday night variety show.
Of course, no life is bypassed by heartache. Stubbs’s mother suffered from serious depression and as a child Una had blamed herself for her mother’s unhappiness. The actress herself had a difficult time when she divorced Gilmore and, in 1969, married Nicky Henson, her second marriage which ended after six years. “I was probably a boring wife,” she said in one interview. “Once, I saw Nicky with Marguerite [a ballerina whom he married in 1986] and I said: ‘Nicky, is that how I was supposed to be?’”
The self-reflection, thankfully, didn’t wreck her career. More career peaks arrived. She became a national treasure in Till Death Us Do Part, the controversial sitcom starring Warren Mitchell.
In 1979, she landed the role of ice-cold Aunt Sally, a wooden fairground attraction, in the magical scarecrow series Worzel Gummidge, who was infatuated with her.
Stubbs also appeared regularly as a team captain on the charades panel show Give Us A Clue.
But, in a move which underlines her character, Stubbs walked away from the series, citing boredom, and into a period of working in low-paid theatre. With three children, the single mum found times were often tough. “I had to work to keep the family afloat,” she said.
“Offers used to come in and I’d think: ‘That pays quite well, I’ll do that.’ But there were times I was doing theatre when I’d think: ‘Oh gosh, this is so shabby.’”
Not always. In 1988, Michael Grandage cast her in Twelfth Night, her first Shakespeare, at the Crucible in Sheffield.
She also appeared at the National in The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, as a meddling neighbour. “I used to play kooky,” she said, grinning. “Now I play barmy.”
But if audiences needed any reminder of Stubbs’s versatility, she returned to TV to play Mrs Hudson in Sherlock.
What shocked new fans was that Una Stubbs, who was also a celebrated artist, didn’t look like a woman in her eighties. Indeed, she embraced ageing.
“It’s like being a rich teenager,” she said. “You have the same freedom, and a few more pennies in your pocket.”