Obituary – June Brown – EastEnder’s Dot Cotton
Among all the outstanding actors who have appeared in the BBC’s television soap EastEnders over the years, none lasted longer, nor retained such huge popular affection, as June Brown, who has died aged 95.
- Died: April 3rd, 2022
- Details of death: Died peacefully in her sleep aged 95.
June Brown, who has died at the age of 95, won her place in British hearts playing the chain-smoking washerwoman, Dot Cotton in EastEnders.
It was a part she would play for more than 30 years – well past her 90th birthday.
In person, Brown was a riot. One Guardian writer described her as “Kenneth Williams trapped in the body of Cilla Black”.
But like her on-screen persona, her private life was touched by extremes of emotion – with great happiness, romantic love affairs, terrible heartache and family tragedy.
June Muriel Brown was born in Needham Market, Suffolk in 1927. Her father, Harry, was a wealthy businessman who went bust investing money in German banks before World War Two.
Her mother, Louisa, was a milliner – who June was convinced loved her far less than her four other siblings. Brown would describe herself as a “mongrel”. Her grandfather was from Scotland, her mother from Italian stock.
On BBC One’s Who Do You Think You Are? she discovered one of her great-great-great grandfathers had been a famous Jewish bare-knuckle fighter in London’s East End.
Her younger brother, John, died of pneumonia in 1932 when he was just 15 days old. Two years later, June lost her elder sister to meningitis. The loss of 8 year old Marise affected her deeply.
It “shaped the way I behaved for a long time”, she wrote in her autobiography, Before The Year Dot.
“In particular, it influenced my expectations of men,” she said. “Too dependent, I found it impossible to be happy alone. I was constantly in and out of love, always looking for the kind of caring she had given me.”
She joined the cast of EastEnders in 1985, playing for eight successive years until 1993, when she took a break – and appeared in Rodney Ackland’s Absolute Hell, a vivid chronicle of bohemian low-life in London just after the second world war, at the National Theatre, alongside Judi Dench – before returning to the fray in 1997 and continuing for more than 20 years more, announcing in 2020 she had left the soap “for good”.
As Dot, she gossiped for Britain, battled heroically with a wayward son, lost her job, helped her best friend to a comfortable death, married and lost a husband, Jim Branning (John Bardon), and maintained a running sparring match with Leonard Fenton’s kind GP, Doctor Legg. She often came out with the unexpected, and a nation hung on every word, inhaled every puff, as she gallivanted spikily among her neighbours.
Only an actor of vast experience, in life and in show business, could possibly have played, and sustained, such a role, and Brown qualified gloriously on both counts. Apart from anything else, she produced six children in seven and a half years with her second husband, all of them in her fourth decade.
“And here’s a funny thing,” she said, quoting Max Miller, “when I was in hospital, having given birth to my first child, I did my ballet exercises every day at the end of my bed. A week later, when I left the hospital, my waist had reduced to 24 inches; ironic, given how much I shunned exercise as a girl – and how little I do now!”
When she appeared in Calendar Girls in the West End in 2009, aged 82, she claimed she was the only one of the replacement cast who stripped completely naked for the photo call. She simply could not care less about propriety or coy camouflage. She was one of those rare people in life, let alone the theatre, who simply said what she thought, did what she felt like and got away with it.
Four years after Calendar Girls, in 2013, she bonded big-time with Lady Gaga on the Graham Norton television chat show, to such an extent that it was she who came across as the more outlandishly eccentric and hilarious of the two. Sipping from a large glass of red wine, she had the audience, and her fellow couch squatters, who included Jude Law, eating out of her hand for half an hour.
The Real June Brown
Inevitably, June Brown would often be asked how much she resembled her most famous creation. There were many similarities.
She chain smoked from the age of 16 and would claim that tests had proved her blood was the colour of nicotine. She was a devout Christian and consummate chatterbox – in turn prone to bursts of melancholy followed by gales of gravelly laughter.
But the comparisons only go so far. June Brown was an avid supporter of the Conservative Party.
Her favourite TV shows were not the soaps – but Newsnight and Panorama. Ironically, for a soap star, she thought the time children spend watching television is abominable. As for Twitter, her views were withering.
She once told The Times that she was “never going to be made a Dame doing Dot” – but she was awarded the MBE for services to drama and charity, before that was upgraded to an OBE in the last New Year Honours.
And she claimed to have planned her funeral carefully.
“I want to be buried at sea,” she told one interviewer. “The Britannia Shipping Company drops you off round the Isle of Wight. I’ll be in a nice white nightie and they wrap you in a balsa wood coffin and weight it.”
It’s probably not what Albert Square’s scriptwriters would have planned for Dot Cotton. But – for June Brown – it would be a fitting send-off for such a “one of a kind”.
Date of birth: February 16th 1927
Date of Death: April 3rd 2022 (aged 95 years)