Just before Christmas last year, fans of Gogglebox were shocked to learn of the death of one of the show’s most loved cast members. Following a short illness that resulted in him contracting pneumonia and sepsis, Leon Bernicoff died on 23rd December, aged 83. Now his wife June has lifted the lid on their love story, and the Gogglebox years, in a memoir.
“Leon never wanted to talk about life ending, I think he thought we were both immortal,” June tells me, as she talks about their lives together over a cup of tea.
Leon and June had been fixtures on the Channel 4 show from the start, in March 2013. Viewers became accustomed to eye-rolling looks from June as the couple watched telly from their twin armchairs, with Leon aiming cheeky jibes at everyone from David Cameron to Jeremy Clarkson and Andy Murray. He also teased his wife constantly. Fans of the show will remember him recording the answerphone message: “I can’t take your call now because I’m making love to June. Sorry about that. Bye.”
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They had been together for more than 60 years. They grew up during the Second World War (June was born in 1937, Leon 1934). Leon’s parents ran a clothes shop in Ellesmere Port in Cheshire; June was from Tredegar in South Wales, birthplace of the founder of the National Health Service, Aneurin Bevan, and former Labour leader Neil Kinnock.
The book describes how they met in freshers’ week at Alsager Teacher Training College in Cheshire in 1955. “He was very self-confident, very charming and chatty, and he had this mop of curly hair and a deep, gravelly voice,” June tells me. She also remembers that “he and his friend Bob had a bit of a reputation with the girls” – the first time they went out together, a friend told her: “You watch him.”
He invited her and her friend to a dance, then asked her to walk outside with him. They kissed for the first time that night, although Leon was surprised when June later told him, “You were so obvious.” Their courtship, however, wasn’t to be all plain sailing.
She was from a strict Welsh Nonconformist background. Leon was Jewish, but he hadn’t told her. Coming from the only Jewish family in the town where he grew up, Leon had experienced anti-semitism first hand. He had introduced himself to her as Les and, June says, “he kept this up for at least 18 months of our relationship”.
It didn’t make any difference to her, of course, when she discovered his faith but it would prove to be a problem for their parents. When Leon finally invited June to his family home for dinner, after four years, his father Maurice told her that if Leon married her, he would be dead to his Orthodox family.
“That was quite traumatic,” June says, “because Leon had never mentioned it before.” But his parents soon gave up their objections. “One of our happiest moments was when we actually drove away after we got married,” June says. They went to Bournemouth for a week on honeymoon. “He would say, ‘So you’re Mrs Bernicoff now,’ and I’d say, ‘Yes’ – we were very happy. And when we had the children, he was delighted.” Their first daughter, Helen, was born in 1963; Julie followed two years later.
Family life and teaching dominated for many years, alongside Leon’s passion for Everton FC, but in spring 2012, two researchers walked into Leon’s bridge club looking for candidates for a new TV show. Their lives were about to change.
As June describes in her memoir, their daughter Helen said: “Mum! Please don’t let Dad appear on television! You know what he’ll be like!” But, she tells me, “We were very appreciative that we were given that opportunity… You don’t stop having an opinion because you draw your pension.”
June’s worst fears were realised when Leon broke wind during their first appearance on screen. She knew his sense of humour well: “He used to come out with absolutely outrageous things,” she says.
But the touching side of their relationship came through, too. In one clip from the show, after watching the final scene of Gladiator, when Russell Crowe’s Maximus was reunited with his family in the afterlife, Leon told his wife: “He’s died and he’s joined them. I like to think that’s true, you know… I’d join you, you see. Always, June.”
“He was a very sensitive person,” June tells me. “I know that didn’t always come over. He would say, ‘I don’t know what I’d do if you weren’t here.’”
But it is June who has had to adjust to life without Leon. It was very sudden. On the day he went into hospital, they had been planning to go out for Christmas lunch together. Leon had suffered several bouts of ill health in recent years, but a series of tests had given him the all clear. “He wasn’t well a year ago, then he seemed to get over it,” June says. “Maybe I just didn’t want to think I was losing him.”
Family and friends have been very supportive, June says, and there has also been a big response from fans of the show. “Some people stopped me and just touched my arm and said, ‘I’m so sorry’, and I’ve felt a great warmth from that.”
She won’t continue on the show without him. “Gogglebox was always Leon and June,” she says, “and now there is no Leon.”
Leon and June, Our Story: Life, Love and Laughter by June Bernicoff, is published on 20th September by Blink Publishing
Gogglebox airs at 9pm on Channel 4 on Fridays