Una Stubbs was the versatile and much-loved actor who graced our screens and playhouses for nearly 60 years. Equally at home in both comedy and straight drama roles, Stubbs, who has died aged 84, is best known for the character of Aunt Sally in the popular children’s series Worzel Gummidge and as Mrs Hudson in Sherlock.
She was born in 1937 in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, one of three children of Angela Rawlinson and Clarence Stubbs, a factory worker. She grew up in Hinckley, Leicestershire, and her mother later sent her to La Roche Dance School in Slough.
Although now best known as an actor, Stubbs began in showbusiness as a singer and dancer. Interviewed by The Guardian in 2012, she was asked about her career changes, saying “with work, I’ve always stepped over. I was a chorus girl, then I was an individual dancer, then I stepped over from being a dancer into sitcom. I hadn’t had any acting training, so I was very aware of that, and now I just think, ‘Oh, I hope I can be good enough.’”
Her first major film acting role came in Summer Holiday (1963), portraying Sandy, one of a trio of young women who tours Europe with four mechanics in a converted double-decker bus. Directed by Peter Yates, the musical heralded a new genre of feel-good tourism movies, thrilling film-goers with its views of life abroad. Cliff Richard, her co-star, recalled of the time: “She was the most exciting person to be with, she was funny, she could really do just about anything, act, dance, [and] could even sing.”
Spurred by the success of Summer Holiday, which topped the UK film charts alongside From Russia with Love that year, Stubbs was now a familiar face on the big screen. Turning to television comedy, she starred in the sitcom Till Death Us Do Part from 1965 to 1975. As the daughter of Alf Garnett, she and Warren Mitchell would draw up to 20 million viewers each episode for the programme and its sequel In Sickness and in Health (1985-1992).
In the ever-popular Worzel Gummidge, Stubbs played the charming but bossy Aunt Sally opposite Jon Pertwee as the messy and bumbling scarecrow of the title. Running for four seasons from 1979 to 1981, she and Pertwee were firm favourites with audiences young and old.
For the hit BBC drama, Sherlock, Stubbs delighted viewers in the role of Mrs Hudson, the eccentric landlady and neighbour at 221 Baker Street. She memorably says in its first episode, “I’m your landlady, dear, not your housekeeper”, and it is soon revealed that Holmes’ rent is reduced because he secured the conviction of her gangster husband, Frank. But such is her importance to Holmes, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, that he later voices the opinion that if Mrs Hudson were to leave Baker Street, “England would fall”.
Appearing on Who Do You Think You Are? in 2013, family history researchers revealed that Stubbs was the great-granddaughter of Sir Ebenezer Howard, the urban planner and founder of the garden city movement, who had created new towns including Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City, where Stubbs herself was born.
Alongside her successful acting career, Stubbs was a talented artist, recognised for her deft and witty watercolour portraits. She used her artistic background to great effect on The Big Painting Challenge, a Bake Off-style competition where she and co-presenter Richard Bacon sought – and found – some of the country’s best amateur artists.
She had been ill for several months and died at home in Edinburgh, with her family at her side. Her agent, Rebecca Blond, said: “We are desperately sad to have lost not only a wonderful actress, whose screen and stage career, spanning over 50 years, was so extraordinarily varied, from Till Death Us Do Part to Sherlock, as well as memorable performances in the West End, at the Old Vic, Donmar Warehouse, Sheffield Crucible and National Theatre, but also a wickedly funny, elegant, stylish, graceful, gracious and kind and constant friend.”
Stubbs was married to the actor Peter Gilmore from 1958 to 1969. They adopted a son, Jason. She was subsequently married to the actor Nicky Henson from 1969 to 1975, with whom she had two sons, Christian and Joe, who are both musical composers.
Una Stubbs, actor, born 1 May 1937, died 12 August 2021