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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Mark Lawson

June Brown: the genius chainsmoking queen of the East End

A character adored by all … June Brown as Dot Cotton in the Walford launderette in 1987.
A character adored by all … June Brown as Dot Cotton in the Walford launderette in 1987. Photograph: BBC

June Brown, a pivotal figure in EastEnders for 35 years, achieved two significant firsts in British soap opera.

Dorothy “Dot” Cotton (later Branning), scripture-quoting chainsmoking mum of a killer, was the first BBC soap star to match the impact of the monstrous but compelling women, such as Ena Sharples and Hilda Ogden, in ITV’s Coronation Street, which met in EastEnders its first real ratings rival.

On 9 February 2020, the 35th anniversary of EastEnders’ launch, in a Sun newspaper poll on the popularity of the soap’s characters, Dot Cotton achieved 86% approval ratings – the highest of anyone tested.

Brown’s contribution to the show – and status as one of its most accomplished performers – had already been internally recognised in Episode 3518, screened on 31 January 2008. The script was subtitled Pretty Baby, but has become known as Dot’s Monologue. It was a 29-minute soliloquy, the first and, to date, only single-character episode of a UK soap ever.

It would have been too steep a breach of soap realism for Dot to acknowledge the presence of the camera or audience. So the script by Tony Jordan used the conceit of Dot recording a message for her second husband, Jim Branning, to be played to him in hospital as he lay comatose after a stroke.

Dot’s Monologue … Brown’s 29-minute soliloquy from 2008 remains the only single-character episode of a UK soap ever.
Dot’s Monologue … Brown’s 29-minute soliloquy from 2008. Photograph: Bbc One/Adam Pensotti/BBC

Jordan combined this idea of a prompt tape with the literary model of Samuel Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape, in which an old man leaves a reel-to-reel diary for posterity. Dot’s ecstatic memories of young love, refracted through her depression, were consciously Beckettian, as was the bleak ending in which she concludes that, if her husband recovers, he will have to go to a home as she can no longer care for him.

Jordan, and the show’s then-producer John Yorke, conceived the idea partly in recognition of Brown being the most classically trained and technically gifted actor in the regular cast, but also to keep her interested in a character she had by then been playing for almost two decades. (Brown had taken a sabbatical, from 1993-97, to explore other work.)

Punctuating the memoir-confession with stubbing out of fags from yet another pack of Final Draw (BBC anti-advertising rules mean that Walford residents have to smoke fictional brands), Brown justified the creative team’s gamble. Herself twice widowed, she combined an emotionally authentic depiction of grief and love with the pacing and phrasing skills of someone who had once played Shakespeare and Ibsen leads on stage. The episode, for which Brown won a Bafta TV nomination (only the second soap performer to do so, after Jean Alexander, for her Hilda Ogden), established her at the heart of the show, where she remained, Brown’s workload reducing only due to deteriorating eyesight, until she retired at around the time of the soap’s 30th anniversary.

Although born in 1927, before British television existed, Brown belonged to the second generation of great British soap opera women. Violet Carson and Margot Bryant, born in the last years of the 19th century, had created the genre’s matri-archetypes, the moralistic tittle-tattles Ena Sharples and Minnie Caldwell, in Coronation Street, featuring in its first scene in 1960.

Brown herself appeared in what was then the UK’s predominant soap, for three episodes in 1970-71, as a minor Salford woman called Mrs Parsons. Her other TV roles before EastEnders, though, had been generically varied, including five appearances in episodes of Play For Today, of which the most noted was Edna the Inebriate Woman, a drama about alcoholism, written by Cathy Come Home screenwriter Jeremy Sandford, which was watched by 29 million viewers in 1971.

Few people in any field, outside royal families, take on a life-defining role when they’re approaching 60, but that is what happened to Brown in 1985, when Michael Grade, then running BBC One, decided the channel needed to attract the vast early evening soap opera audience that ITV monopolised with Coronation Street, Crossroads and Emmerdale Farm (now known as Emmerdale).

June Brown as Dot Cotton.
June Brown as Dot Cotton. Photograph: Mike Hollist/Daily Mail/REX/Shutterstock

Charged with finding a BBC answer to Corrie, creators Julia Smith and Tony Holland carefully studied the template for the fictional north-west town of Wetherfield by the ITV show’s architect, Tony Warren, who had made Coronation Street British TV’s first female-led drama.

When Smith and Warren went to the Canary Islands in March 1984 to write a “Bible” of the main characters for a show that had the working title East 8, they did not include Dot. But in a later stage of planning, reflecting on the vital female spine of Corrie, they added three more, including a supportive mum for young villain Nick Cotton. The genesis sketch identified Mrs Cotton as a religious, hypochondriacal, gossipy chainsmoker, with a job in Walford laundrette.

As a Christian with a concept of sin that conveniently excluded scandal-mongering, drinking and smoking, Dot was recognisably a latter-day sister of Corrie’s Sharples. Brown was recommended for the part by Leslie Grantham, already cast as “Dirty” Den Watts, who had seen Brown convincingly play working-class roles on stage and screen. Dot was not in the first cast photo released by the BBC to publicise the launch, first appearing in the 40th episode, in July 1985, as part of Nick’s back-story.

Her character, unlike some in later decades of EastEnders, was an authentic East End type – a feature of criminal trials at the time was the loyal mum who, clutching her Holy Bible as her son was sent down, refused to accept his guilt. Dot was habitually mournful, the lips that invariably held a lit cigarette almost always turned downward; this utterly miserable visage became a signature that was gleefully guyed by impressionists. Her attitude was, though, narratively justified by storylines in which first husband Charlie committed bigamy with Dot’s sister, while Nick was exposed as a murderer, accidentally killed Dot’s grandson and plotted to poison Dot.

A combination of a Suffolk upbringing, wartime evacuation to Wales and London drama training at a time when regional accents were schooled out helped Brown to create Dot’s distinctive voice, in which an East London grounding (the character was born in Walford) is mixed with the intermittent posh notes of someone who considers herself a cut above the locals, and has often chatted with vicars at the church door, plus some stray pronunciations picked up on her travels. (Jordan gave Dot, like Brown, a childhood Welsh spell during the second world war.)

Although sometimes feeling the resentment of any talented actor who becomes overwhelmingly known for one role, Brown understandably came to enjoy a prominence, salary and security of employment that are available to few in their seventh to tenth decades.

Interviewed by Radio Times in 2019, Brown insisted she would continue with her seven-decade smoking habit, and go on drinking her preferred tipples of Guinness and wine, as she had reached an age when tips on living longer were of little interest to her. Unlike some nonagenarians, though, she kept up with popular culture, citing Lady Gaga as a role-model of reinvention.

For the last eight years of Brown’s time on EastEnders, from 2012, her character’s name was doing double duty in BBC primetime. DI Matthew Cottan, a key figure in Jed Mercurio’s police drama Line of Duty, was nicknamed “Dot”. This was a realistic reflection of the way nicknames and banter draw on popular TV, but the in-joke was only possible because of the instant and affectionate mass public recognition of the great soap character June Brown created.

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