THE phrase “national treasure” gets bandied about a bit too much these days.
EastEnders stalwart June Brown is surely deserving of the title, though.
Since first setting foot in Albert Square back in 1985, her soap alter ego Dot Cotton has been synonymous with EastEnders, appearing in a puff of cigarette smoke to offer a doleful look, Biblical quote or a crushing judgement.
As June approaches her 90th birthday, the BBC is honouring the veteran star with a special documentary, June Brown At 90 — A Walford Legend.
Viewers can look forward to a candid interview with the actress herself, and contributions from Walford regulars, including Lacey Turner, Adam Woodyatt and Natalie Cassidy.
June was born in Suffolk on February 16, 1927.
She served in the Wrens (Women’s Royal Naval Service) at the end of the war before joining drama school.
She was trained by the likes of Laurence Olivier at the Old Vic Theatre School, and appeared on stage alongside Sir John Gielgud.
More theatre roles followed. After seeing her in a performance as Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, the Yes Minister actor Nigel Hawthorne reportedly described her as “one of the most beautiful creatures I’ve seen on stage”.
June’s life hasn’t been without tragedy, though.
Her younger brother died as a baby, while her elder sister Marise died aged eight.
At drama school, she met John Garley, whom she married in 1950.
He suffered from depression and committed suicide seven years later.
Her second husband, Robert Arnold, was also an actor, and the couple were married for 45 years before his death in 2003.
June and Robert brought up five children together — a sixth, their daughter Chloe, was born prematurely and died at 16 days old.
But despite the heartache, June has revealed: “I can’t say my life has been dominated by tragedy. I refuse to accept that. I’ve had less than some, more than others.”
By the time she landed her role in EastEnders, June was in her late 50s, and a well-established theatre, film and TV actress.
In fact, long before Walford came knocking, she’d appeared in several episodes of rival soap Coronation Street.
She played Mrs Parsons, the mother of Tony, in 1970 and 1971.
It was Leslie Grantham, who played Dirty Den, who suggested her for the role of Dot, a God-fearing hypochondriac who was always trying to get her wayward son Nick back on the straight and narrow.
Despite only being given a three-month contract initially, after just six weeks, the character was such a success that June was asked to become permanent.
The role couldn’t have come at a better time for the actress, as she’s admitted she felt her career was “vanishing” in the year before she joined the cast.
It also helped that the chain-smoking launderette worker was such good fun to play.
“I could have played Dot as a very dreary woman with a list of illnesses, but I played her with an edge, so it was funny,” June has said.
Dot’s had some wonderful on-screen pairings during her time on EastEnders — with John Altman, who played son Nick and who described her as like a second mother, Gretchen Franklin, who played Dot’s great friend Ethel Skinner, and John Bardon, who played Dot’s husband Jim Branning.
In 2009, June carried an entire episode of EastEnders, with Dot dictating a 30-minute monologue to husband Jim into a tape recorder.
June’s striking, pared-back performance was nominated for a BAFTA Television Award. She lost out to Anna Maxwell Martin, but has said: “You’ve got to laugh in the face of disappointment.”
June Brown At 90 — A Walford Legend airs on BBC One on Thursday, February 16.
Enjoy the convenience of having The Sunday Post delivered as a digital ePaper straight to your smartphone, tablet or computer.
Subscribe for only £5.49 a month and enjoy all the benefits of the printed paper as a digital replica.Subscribe