First published in 2015
June Hudson is accustomed to being grilled by journalists and fans about her work on Doctor Who and Blake’s 7 in the 1970s and 80s, so she’s delighted to talk about EastEnders for once. She was there at birth of the soap 30 years ago. Indeed, June had the task of setting up an entire, new wardrobe department at BBC Elstree.
For June, going to the BBC’s new studio base in Hertfordshire was “like coming full circle – I began my career there as a costume designer in 1962 when it was ATV Studios, and I left in 65 or 66 to join the BBC.” By 1984, June had worked on many Dickens and Shakespeare productions, as well as sci-fi shows, for the Beeb. “Then they told me, ‘Maybe it’s time you did something more mundane.’ ” She was chuffed to be assigned to EastEnders – where her biggest challenge would be the soap’s cantankerous creator, Julia Smith, soon to be dubbed “The Godmother”.
“I was always put with difficult people because the BBC thought I could handle them,” laughs June. “I admired Julia enormously – what a brilliant woman! She took me for lunch at a restaurant at the bottom of Wood Lane and said, ‘You’ll do for me.’ She wanted to work with me because of my reputation but she also thought I had the right personality for the job. I hate trouble. I’d do almost anything to avoid it. There’s no need for conflicts. It’s not about battles; it’s about having a successful show.”
However, the two women clashed over the look of EastEnders. “Julia said, ‘You should be able to get all the clothes from Oxfam.’ But I’d done my homework – weeks of research in the East End, in Ridley Road and Roman Road markets. I noticed how bright and fashionable the people were. I felt I had to make a stand with Julia over the look, the brightness of real East Enders. It was all about pride and image in the East End in the early 80s. I was amazed by the sheer cash – people getting wads of notes out of their pockets as thick as your wrist.
“But we didn’t have wads of cash!” When EastEnders started, it had 23 regular characters, but June only had a budget of £700 per person and that had to pay for their entire wardrobe – shoes, underwear, jewellery and accessories. Clothes for all seasons.
Among the bulging cast, June immediately bonded with Wendy Richard. “Wendy was so professional. Dear Wendy. For her I have the deepest admiration.” Known for playing sexy blondes, Wendy Richard was about to transform herself into frumpy Pauline Fowler. “Julia said, ‘Wendy can have whatever she wants. She’s the star.’ She was the only actor allowed a star dressing room 24/7. All the rest had to vacate and come back.”
June and Wendy’s paths had first crossed in 1972 on the BBC sitcom, Are You Being Served? Twelve years later their EastEnders association got off to a hilarious start when June called at Wendy’s flat opposite Baker Street station.
“She said, ‘Now June, I can’t remember – are you a p*** artist?’ I laughed and said, ‘Well, I like a drop of wine but wouldn’t say I’m a p*** artist.’ Wendy said, ‘Because I am. Well, not really. But let’s just go and have a drink. By the way, I only drink champagne.’ So we did a tour of pubs from Soho to the East End where they all knew her. When we got to each pub, the barman would say, ‘Oh hello Wendy,’ and get a bottle of champagne from under the bar.
“On the second day, I said, ‘We really ought to find some clothes.’ And she said, ‘Oh June, clothes are easy. Let’s go and have lunch somewhere.’ This went on for nearly a week. And I said, ‘Look Wendy, we’ve got to do this!’ She said, ‘My costume’s easy. It’s dreary stuff. Not glamorous. I’ve got a friend who makes these blouses up. She knows my measurements, she can make them.’ Wendy was brilliant. I loved her very much.”
Peter Dean played Pauline’s brother, market stallholder Pete Beale. He was a key character, but June reveals: “They were going to bump him off early. He was supposed to be dancing on the counter in the Queen Vic then drop down dead from a heart attack. But because he came from a costermonger family and was a genuine East Ender, they kept him on.”
Peter Dean never lost his anxiety about being written out. “He used to say, ‘Am I getting any new clothes then?’ And I’d say, ‘Maybe we’ll get you a new shirt.’ Then I realised if I got something for him, it was reassuring, a sign he wasn’t going to be sacked. He kept asking Julia for new leather jackets. He had about four. He actually stayed for ages and was there when I left.” (Pete Beale was killed off in 1993.)
Anna Wing played Lou Beale, Pauline and Pete’s mother, the ultimate crabby battleaxe for the first three years of EastEnders. “Anna was quite old then,” says June, “and when we were filming on that half-built outdoor set, she was freezing. I used to buy a teeny bottle of brandy and put it in her coffee.”
The veteran actress, then in her 70s, was a proper trooper, making her own way each day to Elstree Studios. “Eventually, she said she’d like a car, but Julia insisted, ‘She’s not having a car. We’ve already negotiated with her agent not to have a car.’ ” Lou Beale was bumped off in 1988, but Anna Wing lived till she was 98, dying in 2013.
Lou’s main mucker was Ethel Skinner, a daffy old dear played by Gretchen Franklin. June had worked with her before on Nicholas Nickleby (BBC 1977). “I liked her enormously. She went everywhere with this huge cat that she’d cuddle. [Ethel had a pug called Willy in the series.] Gretchen once said, ‘He has a very good life. He spends his entire life thinking of No 1.’ And Julia said, ‘Yes, a bit like Gretchen.’ ”
The Watts family at the Queen Vic pub were the other mainstay of early EastEnders. “Anita Dobson [Angie] was heaven,” says June. “I loved, loved, loved working with her. She was pretty, sensitive, warm, kind. She was delightful to dress. She looked wonderful. She was utterly adorable.”
June is equally effusive about Leslie Grantham, who played the caddish “Dirty” Den. “He was fabulous. I first met him at a tailor’s. A very elegant, good-looking man.” She recalls him being “cagey” about his background and of course Grantham’s dark secret was that he’d been jailed in the 1960s for murder. “After the story broke, there was dead silence on set. No one knew what to say, but then people slapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘The past is past.’ On the whole they were very kind to Leslie. He was very popular.”
Den and Angie’s daughter, Sharon, was played by Letitia Dean, who’s currently back in EastEnders after several long spells away. Sharon embodied the “Little Princess” type common in the East End 30 years ago. “Letitia was very pretty and prettily dressed, in a little pink fluffy dress. She had a slight weight problem so I said to Julia, ‘Maybe she could lose a few pounds.’ Julia snapped, ‘I don’t want her to. If she’s going to lose weight, she’s doing it in front of the cameras.’ In other words, as part of a story. She was right, of course.”
June says the key to being a good costume designer is “You’ve got to be as gentle as a dove and cunning as a serpent.” Julia Smith once criticised her for her loyalty to the cast. “She wanted me to keep her informed about the actors, and I said, ‘What do you think I am! You want me to go sneaking about?’ Costume designers do not do that! I wouldn’t dream of it.”
June now chuckles at the memory of a spat they had over whether someone would wear a dirty old apron in the Bridge Street café. “I did make a booboo there. I said, ‘You know, Julia, the East End is not somewhere where you’ll see dirt and dust and grime. If you want to find griminess in kitchens and cafés, go to Putney and Richmond. You certainly won’t find it in the East End.’ ” June gasps: “Julia lived in Putney! Hush my mouth. So embarrassing.”
Although the early episodes achieved a careworn, grungy patina, June Hudson stuck to her guns and several characters looked smart and colourfully dressed. And soon she felt vindicated: “The Sunday Mirror ran a story – ‘The bright and fashionable East End – will the BBC get it right?’ Somebody stuck it on Julia’s door… and it wasn’t me.”
Several years later, after they’d both moved on from EastEnders, June Hudson had lunch with Julia Smith at BBC Television Centre, and her former boss, the Godmother of EastEnders, finally conceded on the “bright and fashionable” East End: “D’you know, I think you could have been right there, June.”