June Brown was a jobbing actress in her late fifties and her career was on the skids when Leslie Grantham saw her on an episode of Minder and recommended her to the producers of EastEnders for the role of Dot Cotton, a chain-smoking, Bible-quoting gossip who worked in the local launderette.
It was initially intended as a three-month engagement which would enable Brown to pay back money she had borrowed from her sister to survive after she found herself on unemployment benefit.
Three months turned into 35 years, with a four-year break in the 1990s. And Dot Cotton became one of the best-known characters not just on EastEnders, but in British soap opera. Brown made her debut as Dot in 1985 and finally retired two years ago, at the age of 92.
But Brown never wanted to be an actress in the first place. She wanted to be a doctor, but her father refused to "waste” money on university fees for a daughter who would surely marry and become a mum at the first opportunity.
Born June Muriel Brown in Needham Market in Suffolk in 1927, she was of mixed English, Irish, Scottish, Italian and Jewish ancestry. One of her forebears was a well-known bare-knuckle fighter in London’s East End. Her father was a businessman and commodity trader.
She was one of five children, but two died young, including an older sister with whom she was very close. She won a scholarship to Ipswich High School, served in the Wrens (Women’s Royal Naval Service) towards the end of the Second World War and was based at Loch Lomond.
After the war, she trained as an actress at the Old Vic school in London. In 1950 she married actor Johnny Garley, who she met when they were both cast in Twelfth Night.
Both continued relationships with other people, while their own relationship proved volatile. He threatened to stab her and she came home next day to find that he had gassed himself. His suicide note was written on the back of a script. It was 1957 and he was just 30.
The following year she married another actor, Robert Arnold, had six babies in quick succession and often took them to work with her. They remained married until his death in 2003.
Juggling acting and motherhood, Brown worked mainly in provincial theatre; she played Lady Macbeth opposite a young Albert Finney at Birmingham Rep and she also landed occasional film and television roles.
She played five different characters on Dixon of Dock Green between 1965 and 1969. She was Mrs Parsons, an acquaintance of Ena Sharples with a musically gifted son, in a few episodes of Coronation Street in 1970-71. And she featured in The Time Warrior storyline on Doctor Who in 1973-74.
But as she approached her sixties she was finding work increasingly elusive. Then, a one-off appearance in the cockney comedy-drama series Minder, with George Cole and Dennis Waterman, was seen by Leslie Grantham, who played “Dirty” Den Watts on EastEnders.
And in due course it led to a career-defining role in EastEnders, which had launched just a few months before she joined the cast.
“I’d done some films, I’d done Sunday Bloody Sunday, I’d worked for Sam Peckinpah and John Schlesinger and I’d done some television,” she wrote in her autobiography. “Suddenly my salary dropped from £14,000 a year down to £3,300.”
Brown was worried that playing a recurring character on a soap opera might discourage offers from other producers and directors, but her financial situation was such that it forced her hand.
Brown’s character, Dot Cotton, was brought in to inject a new humour into the show. She was gossipy, sanctimonious and unintentionally hilarious. But she also had a heart of gold. Soon she was about as popular as Dirty Den himself.
As well as providing humour, Dot featured in several controversial and occasionally sensationalist storylines over the years, including one about euthanasia. And she refused to call an ambulance when her ne’er-do-well son Nick overdosed on heroin, insisting: “I ain’t called the ambulance. I prayed to let Jesus decide whether the world was a better place without you.”
She was named Best Actress at the Inside Soap awards in 2001, when a story about Dot having schizophrenia was also deemed best storyline, and she won again in 2005. She twice won Best On Screen Partnership, with John Bardon, her on-screen husband, at the British Soap Awards. Bardon and his character both suffered strokes and in one celebrated episode Dot dictated her life-story onto tape for him.
Such was her popularity and clout that Brown was turned into a puppet on Spitting Image and had her daughter Sophie on set as her make-up artist. Like her character, Brown was a Christian. She was also a Conservative, with both a big and small C.
Brown continued to work in theatre, stripping off for a stage version of Calendar Girls in the West End, playing Mrs Danvers in a touring production of Rebecca, and directing and acting in a tragi-comic play called Double D at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1993. It was written by a young playwright called Matthew Westwood, whom she had encouraged since he wrote to her at the age of 13.
Brown was made an MBE in 2008 and an OBE in the 2022 New Year Honours. She danced a tango on a Strictly Christmas Special in 2010 at the age of 83. She is survived by five of her children.
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