Comedy Rewind

When Terry and June got their Happy Ever After

Happy Ever After. Image shows left to right: Terry Fletcher (Terry Scott), June Fletcher (June Whitfield). Credit: BBC

At 8:30 pm on Tuesday 7th May 1974 on BBC1, Happy Ever After by John Chapman and Eric Merriman - had its first airing. Along with successor Terry & June, it epitomised a safe and cosy world where husbands wore suits to the office and wives stayed at home to cook and clean; where there were golf clubs in the back of the estate car and dry sherry in the drinks cabinet.

Starring Terry Scott and June Whitfield, it was a hit with the public and hated by the critics.

The first episode of Happy Ever After was initially broadcast as a pilot under the Comedy Playhouse banner. Comedy Playhouse had been devised twelve years earlier for comedy writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson as a vehicle for new ideas following the end of their very successful sitcom Hancock's Half Hour and long-standing association with its star, Tony Hancock. After a while, the idea of trialling pilot scripts in this one-off half-hour format was extended to other writers to showcase their work. Many great British sitcoms were born of this stable, including Steptoe And Son, Meet The Wife and Are You Being Served?.

Happy Ever After, however, had already been commissioned as a full series - and all but one of the six episodes already filmed - before that pilot broadcast. The decision to split the run into a Comedy Playhouse pilot and 5-part series proper appears to have been made very late in the day, for reasons currently lost to time. Whatever the BBC's thinking, that initial transmission was sufficiently popular for the broadcasts to otherwise go ahead as planned, with the pilot repeated and the rest of Series 1 airing just two months later.

Happy Ever After. Image shows left to right: Debbie Fletcher (Caroline Whittaker), June Fletcher (June Whitfield), Terry Fletcher (Terry Scott), Susan Fletcher (Pippa Page). Credit: BBC
Happy Ever After. Image shows left to right: Debbie Fletcher (Caroline Whittaker), June Fletcher (June Whitfield), Terry Fletcher (Terry Scott), Susan Fletcher (Pippa Page). Credit: BBC

Forty-one episodes would go on to be produced across five series, with John Chapman contributing to all but the final, after which Merriman was joined by John Kane and Christopher Bond.

The basic plot was a simple one: Terry and June Fletcher find themselves 'empty nesters' now that the last of their three children have grown up and left home. They are middle-aged and middle class, residing in a very nice house in middle England - Ealing, to be precise - and are free to do as they please now they have far fewer responsibilities. In the pilot Terry is a mass of contradictions, worried about his daughter (who has only been gone 40 minutes to live in central London), yet full of talk of new horizons and adventures for himself and June now they are finally alone. However, before they can make plans June's maiden Aunt Lucy comes to stay as she has nowhere else to go, bringing an old-fashioned trunk, heavy furniture and a myna bird in a cage! It's only meant to be for a couple of weeks but once she's there, in true sitcom fashion, she never leaves.

Seasoned theatrical actors June Whitfield and Terry Scott were household names due to their extensive TV, radio and film work. They had both been in Carry On films - although never in the same one together - and part of huge television sitcoms. June had worked with every big name in the industry - indeed, long time friend and collaborator Roy Hudd later dubbed her 'the comic's tart' - and she had already gained a reputation for being a highly trusted and talented female co-star. She was one of the leads in the popular TV sitcom Beggar My Neighbour with Reg Varney, Peter Jones and Pat Coombs, while Terry Scott had enjoyed a high-profile show with Hugh Lloyd in Hugh And I. It was in his own series Scott On..., a sketch show where there'd be a different theme each week, such as food, wealth or history, where the two were first paired, quickly developing the incredible on-screen rapport that would stand them in good stead until the late 1980s. Part of this chemistry was down to Whitfield's patience and understanding. In an interview with The Guardian in 2011 she explained: "I've always said one of the reasons I've worked for so long is that I'm no trouble".

Happy Ever After. Terry Fletcher (Terry Scott). Copyright: BBC
Happy Ever After. Terry Fletcher (Terry Scott). Copyright: BBC

Terry Scott, on the other hand, had something of a reputation for being difficult to work with. There are conflicting reports about this, with some former colleagues saying he was charming, whilst others have a very different view. In April 2023, Miriam Margolyes described him in an interview with the Daily Express as "the nastiest man I ever worked with".

But June, in her autobiography ....And June Whitfield, said that what was perceived as being difficult by some was just Scott's exacting standards:

Terry liked to spend as much time as possible rehearsing without the script. You can't look the other person in the eye if you're reading. By having Tuesday off to learn our lines, we could rehearse without books from Wednesday onwards. 'Why can't they learn their lines?' He'd grumbled to me in private. 'I've learned mine.' I tried to explain to him that people like to work in different ways, but he saw it as incompetence and he would get rather intolerant if people didn't match his very high standards. In other words, do it his way.

Certainly, Terry adored working with June and they got on like a house on fire. Terry once quipped: "There's nothing I wouldn't do for her, and nothing she wouldn't do for me, so that's what we do for each other... nothing!"

With this shared rapport a sitcom was the natural place to channel their talents, and in order to capitalise on that chemistry making the characters of Terry and June Fletcher similar to how the public already saw them proved the right thing to do.

Terry was bumbling, good-natured but bombastic, opinionated and somewhat chauvinistic: but then the whole show, its writing and comedy, was unsurprisingly very much of the time. He believes he's master of the house and certainly June allows him to entertain the delusion, but in reality she's the sensible one, mothering him in a relationship often appearing more like that of parent-child than romantic equals. June enjoys many great comic and quite cutting lines, the character far more of a feminist than many would expect from a series of the mid-1970s.

In the pilot, when Terry asks what she'll do all day now the children have left home June replies matter-of-factly that she'll go out and get a job, a suggestion that horrifies him. Indeed in that same episode Terry exhibits attitudes now hard to swallow about women. He describes their 20-year-old daughter as "an old maid" who shouldn't be at college because "careers for women are a waste of time", as women should be 'mothers and wives, but not in that order'. In another episode June reveals she votes Liberal rather than Conservative as Terry does, and fancies going on a trip on her own to see her parents, both suggestions that flabbergast and appal her husband. This is a remarkably modern, liberated Britain and one Terry simply doesn't understand.

Happy Ever After. June Fletcher (June Whitfield). Credit: BBC
Happy Ever After. June Fletcher (June Whitfield). Credit: BBC

The pilot also sets up the characters as having a class divide. June had a first-class education and went to a finishing school; it comes to light that her parents didn't think Terry was good enough for her and at one point June does admonish him for being 'coarse'. It's also said that June had a career before they met but gave it up for marriage and children. Again, writing in her autobiography, June Whitfield explains that an initial idea for the show was that her character would do a degree now the family had flown the nest, ending up as the major breadwinner in the household. In the end that plot idea was shelved.

Regardless, June's character is certainly the more grown-up of the two, having to keep a schoolboy-like Terry under control in a variety of social situations, and either bail him out or tell him off when his latest outlandish scheme inevitably fails. June considered the part a way of playing herself without really being her, but rather, as she put it, 'a version of myself that fitted the show'. In real life she didn't consider herself as much of a nagger as the TV June. In the 2011 Guardian article she explained: "I used to say that if I talked to my husband the way I talked to Terry, I'd be out on my ear. But Terry was so pompous, he'd deserve everything you'd say."

The character of Aunt Lucy was a gift of a part, brought to life by actress Beryl Cooke. Deliciously dotty, she wound Terry up a treat. She would pop up in each episode as a cameo, and as time went by the premise of her being there hampering the 'happy ever after' Terry and June wanted to carve out wears very thin. Her residing in their home for so long when it was only meant to be for a couple of weeks annoys Terry, but it doesn't stop them from doing anything they want to do. In reality, each episode was more of a showpiece for Scott and Whitfield's comic talents and their characters' escapist, farcical escapades.

Happy Ever After. Image shows left to right: Terry Fletcher (Terry Scott), Aunt Lucy (Beryl Cooke), June Fletcher (June Whitfield). Credit: BBC
Happy Ever After. Image shows left to right: Terry Fletcher (Terry Scott), Aunt Lucy (Beryl Cooke), June Fletcher (June Whitfield). Credit: BBC

The series was incredibly popular with the public, pulling in around 15 million viewers each week. Like many sitcom hits, however, it was hated by critics, who took great delight in describing it as low-brow, cosy and safe comedy. It wasn't breaking any real new ground but it never lost its popularity, proving a big success for the BBC throughout its run. June Whitfield thought that the scripts were much sharper than people realised.

One criticism of the show came from an unlikely source, their problem being that it was not cosy enough. In fact, they were concerned by what they considered excessive consumption of alcohol in the programme. It seems bizarre to think now that a mainstream, domestic sitcom like Happy Ever After could get into trouble or be considered in any way subversive but Mary Whitehouse and her Viewers and Listeners Association did, as Whitfield explained in her autobiography:

The scenes with Aunt Lucy tended to take place in the early evening after Terry had come home from work. And so in a ritual, repeated in households all over the country, he would naturally pour us all a drink. This offended the sensibilities of Mrs Whitehouse's organisation, who complained that there was far too much drinking in the show. The BBC took no notice, and we carried on as normal, with Aunt Lucy having just a small one.

Recordings for Happy Ever After invariably took place in front of a live studio audience, Terry Scott revelling in warming them up before the show began. With years of stage, variety and panto experience behind him he had plenty of routines and gags to keep everyone amused. He would coax June out to do a few impressions before the show and she would treat them to her Margaret Thatcher and Margaret Rutherford.

Despite Terry Scott's somewhat variable reputation and the sneering critics, the sitcom seemed to be a happy one amongst cast and crew, and the public were fully invested in Terry and June as a couple. People would often approach either star when they were out with their real-life spouse and wink conspiratorially that they wouldn't say anything to their 'other half' - or be indignant that Terry or June wasn't with who they expected them to be with. Such was their chemistry, many really did believe they were a married couple.

Happy Ever After. Image shows left to right: June Fletcher (June Whitfield), Terry Fletcher (Terry Scott). Credit: BBC
Happy Ever After. Image shows left to right: June Fletcher (June Whitfield), Terry Fletcher (Terry Scott). Credit: BBC

After four series writer John Chapman felt they had taken the show as far as they could, exhausting both characters and situations, and decided to leave. With viewing figures still topping 10 million the BBC wanted more, so Eric Merriman pushed on with two new writers, John Kane and Christopher Bond for Series 5. Sadly, a disagreement - reportedly about the format and its rights - ensued during production and that run proved to be its last. Happy Ever After concluded on 25th April 1979 with a postponed Christmas special called The Go-Between.

With neither Chapman nor Merriman now involved but an enduring popular hit on their hands, the BBC turned to Kane to rejig the format. The couple's surname was changed from Fletcher to Medford; their setting moved from west London's Ealing to south London's Purley; Aunt Lucy, her myna bird and the couple's children were removed. From October 1979, Terry & June was born.

Happy Ever After is sometimes forgotten and certainly not as well known as its successor, possibly because it is rarely repeated, but also because Terry & June ran for longer, totalling nine series from 1979 to 1987. Terry & June also became something of a target for alternative comedians to ridicule and hold up as the very middle-class, cosy type of comedy they were railing against.

But Happy Ever After was where the long and still much-loved, charming association between Terry Scott and June Whitfield really cemented itself in the public consciousness. Both sitcoms may have been looked down upon by the critics as safe and predictable, but it was the character comedy that made Happy Ever After shine, bolstered by two fabulous comic actors at the height of their talents, who could take a simple situation and make it not only believable but funny. That's a skill not to be sneered at.

Where to start?

Happy Ever After. Image shows left to right: Terry Fletcher (Terry Scott), June Fletcher (June Whitfield). Credit: BBC

Series 3, Episode 3 - It's All In The Title

Terry and June's daughter Susan has become engaged to a Lord with a country estate and an Earl for a father. When they are invited down for the weekend to meet his parents June has misgivings about the whole arrangement and Terry has misplaced airs and graces - it's a toss-up what will give way first: his manners, or his trousers?

Happy Ever After - The Complete Collection

Terry Scott and June Whitfield star in 5 series of the hit sitcom that cemented their comedy-star status across the land, and was later reborn as Terry & June.

Middle-aged couple Terry and June Fletcher expect to settle down in domestic bliss when their children leave home and they are left with a quiet, peaceful house. Their peace, however, is short-lived when ditzy Aunt Lucy (Beryl Cooke) decides she's moving in...

First released: Monday 26th September 2016

  • Distributor: Simply Media
  • Region: 2
  • Discs: 8
  • Minutes: 1,230
  • Catalogue: 166438

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  • Distributor: Simply Media
  • Minutes: 1,230
  • Catalogue: 166438D

BCG may earn commission on sales generated through the links above.

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