Obituary: June Brown, Albert Square's Dot Cotton

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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.

Childhood 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.

Image caption,
June Brown in the part that made her famous. Dot Cotton worked with Pauline Fowler and Ethel Skinner in the Albert Square launderette

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."

A life on the stage

Brown was academically able. She won a scholarship to Ipswich High School and wanted to train as a biologist - but her father put his foot down. He insisted it would be a waste of money fearing she "would only go and get married".

She served in the Women's Royal Naval Service at the end of the war. She was based in Scotland and it was during her time in the WRNS she discovered the joys of acting.

When the war was over she got a job as a cinema operator in Argyll. The newsreels of the liberation of Belsen horrified her. "It was extremely shocking for a girl of 18", she told one interviewer. "We were a very innocent generation."

She won a place at London's Old Vic Theatre School where she met and married her first husband, actor John Garley. He suffered from depression and took his own life in 1957.

Image caption,
A young June as Aisla Crane in 'The Case of the Frightened Lady' in 1957.

"He gassed himself using the coins I had left him for the gas meter," recalled Brown. "He'd had an affair with another actress, although I was the first to be unfaithful."

Despite their regular infidelities, she had found great companionship in her marriage to Garley. It was the second time in her life that bereavement had hit her hard.

Professionally, she was very successful. She spent years with the Royal Shakespeare Company, appearing on stage with Alec Guinness, John Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft.

She played Hedda Gabler and Lady Macbeth but - to her lifelong regret - never got to play Cleopatra.

In 1958, she married actor Robert Arnold who starred in the BBC series Dixon Of Dock Green. The couple shared 45 years of marriage, before Arnold died of pneumonia in 2003.

They had six children together in just seven years, although her second daughter Chloe, born prematurely at 28 weeks, died after just 16 days.

Image caption,
In urgent conversation with Doctor Who's assistant, Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen). June Brown played the 13th century 'Lady Eleanor'.

They were together - despite many more flings and affairs - for 45 years until his death in 2003.

Motherhood saw the acting work dry up. Brown considered completing her education and even began A level biology. But she found it too much to juggle in her forties - with so many children - and never completed the course.

She gave acting another go in the 1970s - with a series of small parts in film and television. There were appearances in Coronation Street and Doctor Who.

And then Leslie Grantham, who played EastEnders' Dirty Den put her forward for the part that would make her a British icon.

Dot Cotton

When Dot Cotton arrived in Albert Square in 1985, June Brown was in her late fifties. She was booked for three months but stayed for more than a quarter of a century.

Dot's lot was largely an unhappy one. She was a hypochondriac, tragic-comic character - gossiping, chain-smoking and always guided by the scriptures.

Image caption,
Arriving in Albert Square in 1985. Dot Cotton's troublesome son Nick was played by John Altman

For years, she tried - and normally failed - to put her good-for-nothing son, Nick (played by John Altman), on the right track. Her capacity to forgive him knew almost no bounds.

There were breaks from the show. Dot moved away from the Square in 1993 amid rumours Brown was unhappy with the axing of her friend and co-star Peter Dean - who played Pete Beale.

After four years away, Brown returned to the Square and resumed the life of Dot. Her character's story was used to develop many controversial themes - including cancer, illegal immigration and homophobia.

In one compelling storyline she helped her best friend Ethel (played by Gretchen Franklin) to end her life in 2000. The Observer wrote that it was "one of the most moving dramatic sequences shown in recent years on British TV."

Image caption,
A 2000 storyline saw Ethel ask Dot to help her die after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

There was constant sparring with her on-screen husband Jim Branning (played by John Bardon), who she married after years of outright rejection. Dot finally relented and accepted his proposal in an episode that aired in 2001.

Their relationship provided many moments to lighten the gloom. When Dot was stuck for words, her response was always the same - a roll of the eyes and that famous exclamation, "Ooh I say!"

Image caption,
June Brown with on screen husband, John Bardon. A rare moment of happiness for Dot Cotton.

In a special episode in 2003, Dot's Story - Tallulah Pitt-Brown played her character's life history by way of flash-backs.

In 2008, June Brown became the first actor in a British soap to carry an entire episode alone. She delivered an emotional monologue of her character's years of loss and grief - dictated to a cassette for her screen husband Jim - lying in hospital following a stroke.

That performance saw her shortlisted for the Bafta for Best Actress. She was the first from a soap opera to be so honoured since Jean Alexander's nomination for her portrayal of Hilda Ogden 20 years earlier.

In 2015, her on screen son, Nick Cotton, finally died from a heroin overdose. Dot served four months in prison for his manslaughter and retired from the launderette - although she did not leave the series completely.

Image caption,
Dot Cotton spent time in prison following the death of her son Nick.

Brown continued to make occasional appearances in the series - despite her eyesight beginning to fail. She finally announced that she intended to leave the show in February 2020.

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.

Image caption,
June Brown at the age of 83 on the Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special in 2010. She danced the tango with Vincent Simone.

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".