Una’s excitement over her picture perfect new show

Una Stubbs and Richard Bacon
Una Stubbs and Richard Bacon

If you happen to spot actress Una Stubbs on a bus or in a cafe near you, take a closer look.

The Sherlock star - a keen amateur artist whose work has been displayed at the Royal Academy - might just be doing a stealthy sketch of someone.

Lachlan Goudie, Daphne Todd OBE, Una Stubbs and Richard Bacon

Lachlan Goudie, Daphne Todd OBE, Una Stubbs and Richard Bacon

“If I’m on a bus and there’s a person in front of me or across the aisle, I can quickly squiggle,” says Stubbs, presenter of new BBC One show The Big Painting Challenge.

“In a cafe, the book’s on my knee under the table, and I’ve looked at the person without them looking for quite a long time, saying, ‘Ah yes, their eyebrow does that, their nose does that, and that’s how she sits’. Then I go at it very quickly.”

Stubbs, who played Rita in hit sitcom Till Death Do Us Part and rosy-cheeked Aunt Sally in the children’s TV series Worzel Gummidge, is best known these days as Sherlock Holmes’ landlady Mrs Hudson, alongside Benedict Cumberbatch.

But when people recognise Stubbs mid-sketch, “they get short shrift”, she admits with a laugh. “Then I finish it, and we chat.”

The petite, softly-spoken actress adds: “There was once when I thought, ‘Why am I feeling so dizzy?’, and I realised it was because I’d been drinking so much coffee - I had to keep going to different cafes and drinking more coffee, just so I could see some people!”

The former dancer has been able to indulge her passion for art with The Big Painting Challenge, which she co-hosts with ex-Blue Peter presenter Richard Bacon.

Judged by artists Daphne Todd and Lachlan Goudie, the nationwide competition tests 10 amateur artists’ abilities in different mediums, from landscape to life-drawing.

Each programme in the six-part series comes from a different location across the country, including Northumberland, Liverpool and London. Almost 6,000 entries were received, with a display of works from the finalists and overall winner to be hosted at Tate Britain.

“We had blazing heat for most of the series, which actually made it quite difficult sometimes for the artists, because they were getting sunburnt,” says Stubbs.

“They were working under great pressure,” adds the Hertfordshire-born actress, whose first name is pronounced ‘Yuna’. “It was quite concentrated, but in between tasks, we had a lot of fun. We all enjoyed each others’ company and they were all rooting for each other, which was lovely. Competitive as well, I’m sure, but very caring.”

While the 77-year-old admits she was tempted to join in, she won’t be filling in an entry form if the contest returns for a second series.

“I don’t think I would have coped well. I could only have done the watercolour section, but even then, in that heat, I would find it quite difficult,” she says.

“I work alone quite a lot. So being watched and filmed and spoken to all the time, I would find it tough. And being criticised as well.”

Stubbs did show some of her work to Todd, the portrait and figurative painter who reveals in episode one that her husband refers to her as ‘Miss Blunt’.

“Daphne was very compli ”Daphne was very complimentary and supportive. She just said, ‘Keep going, look all the time, and paint what you see, not what you imagine’.” Stubbs began drawing on linen and embroidering it as a child, a hobby which continued when her three sons arrived. “When I was on holiday with the children, I couldn’t read a book because I couldn’t watch them, but I could stitch and still keep my eye on them.”

She later moved into watercolour painting, and now the grandmother-of-six will sketch in her trailer in the waits between takes on Sherlock.

“I remember years ago [waiting around on set], I said to an older actor, ‘Oh gosh, it’s boring isn’t it?’ She said, ‘One day, you’ll be out of work and you’ll remember this and wish you were wearing that nice dress and working on a film’.”

Her portraits of co-stars Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman (who plays Dr John Watson in Sherlock) appeared last June in the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition. “Those were from memory, actually. I’ve spent so much time with them, I could remember them. They’ve got such wonderful faces.”

Stubbs is hoping The Great Painting Challenge inspires others to get creative, and cites the impact The Great British Bake Off has had on cake-making and sales of baking equipment.

“There’s so much to learn with the critiques - what works and what doesn’t. I hope it does encourage people,” she adds.

“Hopefully the shops will be running out of paintbrushes.”


:: Ronnie Wood - Before The Rolling Stones, guitarist Wood studied at London’s Ealing Art College. Famous purchasers of his work include US President Bill Clinton and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

:: Pierce Brosnan - The Irish actor and James Bond star worked as an illustrator after leaving school. He abandoned his art career to be an actor, but took up painting again in the late eighties.

:: Paul McCartney - The Beatles star held his first exhibition of paintings in Siegen, Germany, in 1999, and in 2002, his first UK retrospective opened at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery.

:: Sylvester Stallone - The Rocky star studied art before his acting career went stellar, and is still a keen painter. In fact, he’s admitted: “I think I’m a much better painter than an actor.”

:: Jane Seymour - The former Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman actress runs her own art gallery in Los Angeles, and her work includes watercolours, oil paintings, pastels and bronze sculptures.

:: The Big Painting Challenge begins on BBC One on Sunday, February 22. An accompanying book of the same name is published by BBC Books, priced £20. Available now