The actress Una Stubbs, who has died aged 84, enjoyed a screen career that spanned three generations of showbusiness, with leading men ranging from Sir Cliff Richard to Benedict Cumberbatch, and Jon Pertwee in between. Indeed, decades before she played the housekeeper Mrs Hudson to his Sherlock Holmes, she used to babysit the young Cumberbatch at his home.
Remembered in equal measure for her roles in the film Summer Holiday, the sitcom Till Death Us Do Part and the children’s classic Worzel Gummidge, she was also an exuberant dancer and an accomplished stage actress.
Offstage, she was a talented amateur painter whose watercolour portraits of Cumberbatch and their Sherlock co-star Martin Freeman featured in the Royal Academy’s 2014 Summer Exhibition.
But it was a career that began, improbably, in York, on the lid of a box of chocolates.
It was around 1958 that she was chosen to be the cover girl for Dairy Box, produced by Rowntree’s. Dressed in leggings, she was photographed in acrobatic poses designed to make the product attractive to the emerging teenage market. She went to the factory in York to meet the staff, unaware at the time that her grandfather had once been one of them.
She had been picked as the “Dairy Box girl” after making her TV debut two years earlier as a dancer on the ITV music programme Cool For Cats, hosted – somewhat bizarrely – by the future wrestling commentator, Kent Walton.
But it was the success of Cliff Richard’s second feature, Summer Holiday in 1963, which made her a star, as the two of them sang and danced their way across Europe in a London bus. The two of them became almost a double act, appearing in the follow-up film, Wonderful Life, and in a string of TV specials throughout the 1960s.
Meanwhile, she cemented her place as a TV regular by starring opposite Warren Mitchell in Johnny Speight’s sometimes controversial Till Death Us Do Part and its sequel, In Sickness And In Health.
From 1979 to 1981, she played Aunt Sally to Pertwee’s Worzel Gummidge, and was for several years a team captain in the weekly game show Give Us a Clue, which reunited her with Lionel Blair, in whose dance troupe she had performed in cabaret before Summer Holiday.
In the theatre, she was in the 2001 West End production of Noel Coward’s Star Quality with Penelope Keith and Don Carlos with Derek Jacobi in 2005. She also appeared in productions of La Cage Aux Folles and Pygmalion and was in the original cast of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the National Theatre in 2012.
By that time, she had taken on one of the biggest roles of her career, as Mrs Hudson in Sherlock. She liked to say that she treated Cumberbatch and Freeman in the same way as the way she treated her own sons, and indeed she had known Cumberbatch since he was four, looking after him on occasion for his mother, her fellow actress Wanda Ventham.
Una Stubbs was born in May 1937 in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, to parents Clarence Stubbs, who was originally from York but who had moved south to work at the Shredded Wheat factory, and Angela (nee Rawlinson), a film editor at Hatfield’s old film studio.
Showing an interest in dance, Una was sent to La Roche Dance School at 14, and turned professional as soon as she was old enough.
She was married to the actor Peter Gilmore, star of The Onedin Line, from 1958 to 1969 and the pair shared an adopted son.
She then married another actor, Nicky Henson, with whom she had two sons. They divorced in 1974.