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.
In the role of Dot Cotton, the chainsmoking, hypochondriac launderette manager of Albert Square, Brown created a great Dickensian character of detail, humanity and colour that enrolled her in the long-running soap’s female pantheon, alongside Barbara Windsor’s Peggy Mitchell, Wendy Richard’s Pauline Fowler, Anita Dobson’s Angie Watts and Pam St Clement’s Pat Butcher.
She joined the cast 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.
June was born in Needham Market, Suffolk, the third of five children of Henry Brown, an entrepreneur in the expanding market of electrical gadgets and appliances, and his wife, Louisa (nee Butler). She was educated at St John’s Church of England school in Ipswich, and, as a scholarship girl, at Ipswich high school.
After wartime evacuation to Leicester, she served in the Wrens in 1944-45, trained at the Old Vic School in London and joined the Old Vic company where, in the 1948-49 season, she appeared in Congreve’s The Way of the World, Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, in a company that included Edith Evans, Faith Brook, Harry Andrews, Robert Eddison and Donald Sinden.
She worked her way diligently round the reps, coming to a greater prominence in two seasons at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon (1955-57) and the Birmingham Rep where, in 1958, she played Hedda Gabler (“one of the most beautiful creatures I’ve seen on a stage” said the actor Nigel Hawthorne) and Lady Macbeth opposite the new star Albert Finney.
Small roles on TV followed in the 1960s in both Dixon of Dock Green and Z Cars, though by now she was up to her elbows in children. Still, she managed appearances in The Rough and Ready Lot (1959) by Alun Owen, with Jack MacGowran and Ronald Harwood as soldiers of fortune at the Lyric, Hammersmith, and in John Vanbrugh’s Restoration classic The Provok’d Wife in a 1963 revival at the Vaudeville with Eileen Atkins and Dinsdale Landen.
Appearing in many TV plays in the 60s,she also featured regularly in the Prospect touring company, based at the Arts in Cambridge, the launching pad of Ian McKellen, under the direction of Toby Robertson and Richard Cottrell.
She maintained her “serious” connections at the Royal Court in two controversial plays: Life Price (1969) by Michael O’Neill and Jeremy Seabrook, directed by Peter Gill, a play about a child murder on a Midlands housing estate that emptied the theatre for 10 days then packed it out for two weeks when the doors were thrown open free of charge; and Just a Little Bit Less Than Normal (1976) by Nigel Baldwin, in which she played the mother of a young victim (Karl Johnson) of terrorist violence. In both, she represented an authentic voice of working-class anger.
Although she played timid, maternal Mrs Parsons in three episodes of Coronation Street in 1970 and Lady Eleanor in the Time Warrior series of Doctor Who in 1973, it was EastEnders that changed her life and put her name in lights.
Dot kept her busy but she did manage another couple of low-life spirits – Nannie Slagg in Gormenghast (2000), with Warren Mitchell, Celia Imrie and Christopher Lee, and a cleaning lady in Margery and Gladys (2003), a black comedy caper of a haughty widow (Penelope Keith) and her cleaner Gladys (Brown) taking off after mistakenly thinking they have killed a teenage burglar; they evade the police (Roger Lloyd Pack and Martin Freeman) and depart for the Caribbean after a night on the town in Blackpool.
A Conservative voter, Brown was appointed MBE in 2008, and OBE this year. She published a fruity autobiography, Before the Year Dot, in 2013.
She was married to the actor John Garley from 1950 until he took his own life in 1957. She married the actor Robert Arnold in 1958. He died in 2003.
Brown is survived by five children from her second marriage, Chloe, William, Naomi, Sophie and Louise. Another daughter, also Chloe, died as a baby.
• June Muriel Brown, actor, born 16 February 1927; died 3 April 2022