The list of institutions originating from the east end of London is long, featuring such highlights as pie, mash and liquor, West Ham Football Club and “Rabbit” by Chas and Dave. Somewhere near the top of the ranking, however, there has to be a place carved out for one of the most recognisable figures ever to grace British TV screens: EastEnders’s chain-smoking, God-fearing laundrette manager Dot Cotton, played by the 93-year-old actor June Brown.
Last week Brown confirmed in an interview with the podcast Distinct Nostalgia that she has left EastEnders for good, after 35 years as Dot. Her final episode – wherein Dot informed Sonia, played by Natalie Cassidy, that she had moved to Ireland, via a voicemail message – aired in January. Though EastEnders says that the door remains open for Dot to return, Brown is adamant that her departure is permanent.
EastEnders itself recently marked its 35th year on air with – what else? – a flooding disaster during a boat party on the Thames, which saw multiple characters on board, and one (Sharon Mitchell’s son Dennis) killed off. Brown joined the BBC soap in July 1985, only five months after it initially began, and as such has been one of the show’s most enduring presences ever since, save for a hiatus between 1993 and 1997.
Over the years, Dot has more than earned her membership to the pantheon of great British soap characters, starring in plots ranging from the ridiculous (she was once arrested for confusing marijuana with herbal tea) to the genuinely poignant. Across her three-and-a-half decade term, Dot memorably tackled issues like addiction – via her relationship with her son Nick – and euthanasia, when, in 2000, she helped her terminally-ill best friend Ethel to die, during an episode that was seen by 16.5 million viewers.
In 2008 Dot also made history by becoming the first soap character to appear alone for an entire episode. The half-hour instalment saw her recording a message on tape for her husband Jim Branning, who had suffered a stroke (this storyline was written into the show when John Bardon, who played Branning, had a stroke in real life). Brown was nominated for a Bafta TV Award for Best Actress for the accomplishment and also received an MBE following the broadcast of the monologue.
Brown’s performance as Dot made her one of EastEnders’s hardiest and longest-serving matriarchs, with the character having presided over countless members of the Branning, Jackson, Cotton, and Fowler families. The programme is well-known for its landladies, battleaxes and bombshells, including Pat Butcher, Pauline Fowler and of course Barbara Windsor’s indelible Peggy “gerrouttamypub” Mitchell (a group of names that – along with Blanche from Corrie and Robert Pattinson – doubles as my answer to the question “If you could invite anyone to a dinner party who would you pick?”). It’s arguable, however, that none of them has had quite as much cultural impact as Dot, whose instantly identifiable auburn shampoo-and-set and Mastermind specialist subject-level recall of Bible verses have made her a cultural touchstone even outside the context of EastEnders.
Like many of the grande dames of soap, both Dot and June Brown are much-loved mainstays of British camp, courtesy of Dot’s endlessly memeable perma-fag-in-hand gait, famous fur-collared coat, and unflappable bluntness. Recently the Instagram account @loveofhuns – which celebrates the best in UK camp, as embodied by WAGs, soap characters and photos of Girls Aloud’s 2000s fashion – dedicated a post to Brown to celebrate her 93rd birthday. True to form almost every image in the post is of her smoking a cigarette – except, that is, for the one where she’s stood with Lady Gaga.
“Iconic” is a word that is thrown around lightly these days, but there are few who can lay claim to its very essence in quite the same way as Dot Cotton and June Brown. Both the character and the actor end their tenure having transcended the soap opera form and expanded its possibilities for warmth, humour, and powerful storytelling by any standards. Without either of them, the Bridge Street Laundrette – and Albert Square at large – will never be the same again.
Lauren O’Neill is a staff writer for Vice