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‘What you really love to do will keep you going’: Remembering June Brown, EastEnders’ iconic Dot Cotton

In tribute to June Brown, who has died at the age of 95, we look back on an interview where she talked about childhood tragedy and her alter-ego Dot Cotton

June Brown was one of the most beloved and best actors in the UK. Her portrayal of Dot Cotton (later Dot Branning) in EastEnders, from a few months after its inception in 1985 to 2020 – by which time she was 93 – was truly sublime. 

Born in Suffolk in 1927, Brown trained at the Old Vic Theatre School in London, appeared in Doctor Who, directed plays in London and briefly appeared in Coronation Street. However, it was her role in EastEnders for which she was always best known.  

Brown’s unmatched ability to play comedy, tragedy and drama as Dot Cotton chainsmoked and gossiped her way through Walford made Dot an icon.

In 2008, Brown made history as the first actor to carry a whole episode of the soap single-handed, winning widespread praise. Even Lady Gaga was a fan, it emerged, when the duo met on the Graham Norton show.

Back in 2013, Brown’s Letter To My Younger self appeared in The Big Issue. In it, she revealed how hard it was losing so many of her long-standing friends as she got older, and explained how she fell into acting by mistake during her time in the Wrens, and wished she had been able to study biology at Oxford University instead.

I was a very happy little girl until my sister died when I was seven and a half. She was eight and three quarters. I lost her companionship, which I’d known all my short life. After that I became a very downbeat, withdrawn little girl. Then gradually I found new friends and slowly went back to normal. We made a lot of friends in those days. Mine stayed my friends all my life, though my primary school friends are all dead now.

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We were very light-hearted people in my day. We had our problems but we took things in a light-hearted way compared to today. The main thrust of our life was to always have fun. We laughed till the tears came down our faces. Life was simpler altogether. We didn’t even have televisions, just radios, and they weren’t portable. People don’t really talk to each other now. Texting is cheaper.

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My advice to my younger self would be to look for the thing you like doing most in your life and if you can make a career out of it, go for that. I think I allowed myself to drift. One should think as a child would. People talk about money and success but that isn’t it – it’s what you really love to do that’ll keep you going. And within that, you’ll also find friends, a community. People who find one thing by they’re really good at are very lucky. And very secure.

Churchill obviously had anxieties but the majority of normal people didn’t consider that we might lose the war. One had optimism. We were a very important country, even though we were little. We didn’t think much about it but it was part of our lives, celebrating Empire Day, dressing up, every year. We didn’t give it the big ‘I am’, having the Empire, but it gave us confidence as a people I suppose.

If I could go back in time I don’t think I’d be an actress. I never intended to be, it was regarded as a kind of dilettanti job then. I only did a play because I was in the Wrens [Women’s Royal Naval Service] and we went to entertain the troops. I really wanted to go to Oxford to study biology. I was fascinated by it. But I took the wrong subjects at school – I gave up on the other sciences ­– and I couldn’t. I’d tell my younger self to persevere with physics and chemistry and I’d go down that path instead.

I would love to have been someone who had a job she loved and did it for 40 years and ended up with a good pension. I am not one of those people. I haven’t got a really good pension. I haven’t been in a secure, my well-paying job for years and years. I knew I liked acting from a young age but it wasn’t a secure life. I earned £2,200 for the tax year 1984-5. I couldn’t pay my electricity. Then I got offered a three-month contract to do EastEnders.

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I was very grateful for EastEnders and ended up staying for a long time, of course. But then I left because I didn’t feel Dot was being used in the right way. She was no longer a gossip, other people were telling her things instead. So I left for a while and did a play in Edinburgh, some good TV. Then I went back.

There’s nothing good about getting older except you speak your mind. You lose your friends, you lose people you love, you lose your partner. The worst losses are the people who’ve known you since you were in your young womanhood. They knew you as you were. No matter how good the friends you make in later life, they’ll never know the girl you were. I’d like to go back and relive the first 30 years of my life. I had a freedom then I’ve not had since.

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