By: Michael Hogan
“Mrs Hudson leave Baker Street? England would fall.” Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock might have said it for hyperbolic effect but it was a measure of Una Stubbs’ reassuring screen presence that viewers knew exactly what he meant.
As the doughty landlady of 221B Baker Street, Stubbs was the beating heart of the BBC’s blockbuster update of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s’s detective stories. Fans worldwide will be united in grief at news that the much-loved actress has died aged 84.
In her 70s when she landed the role, Stubbs enjoyed a welcome late-life career renaissance in Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ globe-conquering reboot. As the eccentric downstairs neighbour to the consulting detective, she brought wily wit and quirky charm to Conan Doyle’s’s familiar long-suffering character.
As is traditional, Mrs Hudson fussed over the sleuth and sidekick Doctor John Watson (Martin Freeman). “She loves them,” said Stubbs in reference to her leading men. Despite repeatedly insisting that she wasn’t their housekeeper, she was forever bringing cuppas and cooked meals to “my boys”. Indeed, in The Sign Of Three, it became clear that Holmes thought his morning tea tray just “sort of happened” because he was never awake when it arrived.
Yet she wasn’t the matronly domestic drudge of previous portrayals. There was a surprising streetwise edge to Stubbs’ incarnation. Beneath that innocent face, quintessentially English diction and cardigan-clad sweetness, there were regular hints that this Mrs Hudson had a chequered part of her own. Rather like Stubbs herself, she wasn’t nearly as cosy as she seemed.
It was revealed that she’d first offered Holmes a hefty discount on his rent because he helped ensure the conviction and execution of her dastardly gangster husband Frank after he committed a double murder in Florida. She later let slip that her and Frank’s relationship was “purely physical”. Cue quizzical raised eyebrows from Watson.
It was a running joke in early episodes that she assumed Sherlock and Watson were a couple (“live and let live, that’s my motto”), despite John’s constant denials. When John later told her that he was getting married, Mrs Hudson immediately asked what his name was.
She took no nonsense from high-functioning misfit Holmes. She’d admonish him for his antisocial habits (“Put away your harpoon!”) and get annoyed when he left human body parts lying around as part of his “research”. This fond-but-firm relationship echoed real-life. As a friend of his mother, actress Wanda Ventham, Stubbs had known young Benedict since he was in a push-chair.
Meanwhile, her passion for art rubbed off on Freeman. The pair would make lunchtime outings to local galleries during filming and he bought several paintings on Stubbs’ recommendation.
In His Last Vow, her character’s full name was revealed to be Martha Louise Hudson née Sissons. We learned that she was a recovering alcoholic and former exotic dancer (she darkly warned Sherlock not to go “YouTubing” for evidence). Her “pressure point”, according to master blackmailer Charles Augustus Magnussen (Lars Mikkelsen) was her penchant for marijuana. She waved this away as “herbal soothers” for her bad hip.
Stubbs’ blend of wit and warmth, of human frailty and hard-won wisdom was deeply endearing. Viewers grew as fond of her as Holmes and Watson – both of whom became fiercely protective of her. When Mycroft (Mark Gatiss) dared tell her “For God’s sake, shut up, Mrs Hudson!”, it was one of the few times that Sherlock snapped at “brother mine”.
In A Scandal In Belgravia, when CIA operatives tortured Mrs Hudson to learn the whereabouts of an incriminating smartphone belonging to dominatrix Irene Adler (Lara Pulver), Sherlock repeatedly threw the spook responsible out of a second-floor window.
It may have taken him four series to hug Watson but he’d been hugging Mrs Hudson for years. She was one of the three people on the list of “everyone you care about” whom Moriarty (Andrew Scott) threatened to kill if Sherlock failed to commit suicide in The Reichenbach Fall. As Mrs Hudson sagely told the uptight Mycroft: “Family is all we have in the end” (though that didn’t stop her nicknaming him “that reptile”).
She was a daredevil driver on the sly, memorably pulling donuts in an Aston Martin during The Lying Detective. When Watson asked how she could afford such a swanky supercar, Mrs Hudson replied: “I’m the widow of a drug dealer. I own property in Central London. And for the last bloody time, I’m not your housekeeper!” She later held our anti-hero at gunpoint, telling him: “You’re not my first smackhead, Sherlock Holmes.”
She might have found fame in the swinging Sixties but 50 years later, Stubbs’ impish humour meant she instinctively understood the ironic playfulness of 21st century boxset drama. Moffat and Gatiss’ scripts were snappy, self-referential and full of dazzling wordplay which Stubbs delivered with deceptive ease.
She was much-loved on-set as she was on-screen. The multi-talented former dancer was also an accomplished artist who co-presented the BBC’s Big Painting Challenge and held exhibitions of her work. Her watercolour portraits of “her boys” Cumberbatch and Freeman, painted on-set, were shown at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.
Head honcho Moffat paid heartfelt tribute on Instagram yesterday: “The loveliest light on Baker Street has gone out”, calling her “the irreplaceable heart and soul of Sherlock”. Gatiss said on Twitter: “Mischief was in her blood. We were so blessed that she became our imperishable Mrs Hudson. Goodbye, darling.” Sherlock producer Sue Vertue added: “You were absolutely our Sherlock mum. You knitted us together.”
It was one of the great joys of my life to work so closely with and to adore Una Stubbs. She was a wonderful, wonderful woman and a great and serenely graceful actor. Mischief was in her blood. We were so blessed that she became our imperishable Mrs Hudson. Goodbye, darling. ❤️— Mark Gatiss 💙 (@Markgatiss) August 12, 2021
Una Stubbs’ career spanned half-a-century, Such was her versatility, range and enviable CV that she was beloved by three generations. During the ’60s, she was Sandy in Cliff Richard’s film musical Summer Holiday and Alf Garnett’s long-suffering daughter Rita in landmark sitcom Till Death Us Do Part. In the ’80s, she was Aunt Sally from Worzel Gummidge (opposite former Doctor Who star Jon Pertwee) and a team captain on primetime charades gameshow Give Us A Clue. To a third generation, she will forever be Mrs Hudson.
All three generations will be feeling a twinge of sadness at her passing. With her prim tones and mischievous twinkle, Stubbs was the nation’s favourite aunt. The sort who’d secretly slip you some pocket money or give you a sly wink after you’d done something naughty. Such was Stubbs’ gift that we all felt like we knew her, even if we’d only met through stage or screen.
Una Stubbs was, as her forename implies, one of a kind. If Sherlock showrunners Moffat and Gatiss ever get the gang back together for more episodes – and fans will desperately hope they do – there will be a Stubbs-shaped hole in the line-up. England might not fall but our TVs will be all the poorer for her absence.