June Brown wasn’t just Dot Cotton to EastEnders fans. Having appeared on the soap for 35 years, in 2,884 episodes, June Brown was part of British televisual furniture.
The chain smoking, devout, gossiping Dot left EastEnders without much ceremony back in 2020 (her goodbye consisted of a message to Sonia saying that she was moving to Ireland). Yet to many viewers it hardly felt as if she had left the soap at all. She had long since ascended to the wider British cultural consciousness. Today, Dot Cotton remains one of our most referenced fictional characters, and memes of her most memorable scenes proliferate online.
Brown was a comic genius. Who could forget the time she accidentally walked into a living room to see Jane Beale giving Ian Beale a pole dance? After pausing for a second she uttered, flatly, “forgot me book”, then walked out again. Or the time that she got into a fight with her Sat-Nav and drove the wrong way down a busy street. Or the expression on her face when she believed her budgie had suddenly learned to speak (it was an echo caused by her computer).
Her comic timing was not her only gift. Brown had been an actor for decades before she debuted on EastEnders in her fifties. An old school professional, she excelled in some of the soap’s most serious storylines. Many will remember how she supported her friend Ethel (Gretchen Franklin) through a terminal illness. In 2008 Brown became the first and only actor to carry an entire episode of EastEnders: the instalment consisted solely of a monologue spoken by Dot, as she recorded a message for her husband, Jim (John Bardon), who was in hospital, while smoking a cigarette.
At home, I latched onto every word. “I know it is silly, remembering such a little thing,” Dot said, recalling the death of her uncle and the song he used to sing to her as a child as he tucked her in each night. “But when I look back, I know that from that moment on, everything that I ever cared about I’ve lost.” She was, rightfully, nominated for a Bafta for Best Actress for her performance in the episode, making her the second actress nominated for work in a soap opera.
Brown always insisted there were few similarities between her and her character (“I am not one of those who lives the part — that’s a very amateur approach,” she said on a BBC documentary) but she played the part so well that to millions, she will always be Dot. Thankfully, the people were also able to see the real Brown, most memorably in an appearance on The Graham Norton Show. The often eclectic mix of celebrities on Norton’s sofa resulted in Brown swigging wine and vaping next to, of all people, Lady Gaga. When Norton introduced them, he asked if the American singer was familiar with EastEnders. “Don’t say yes, darling,” Brown interrupted. “If you’re not you’re not, and I don’t blame you.”
Many will say, following her death on 3 April aged 95, that June Brown was EastEnders, and EastEnders was June Brown. I would go further. June Brown was British television, and British television was June Brown.