June Brown is an example to us all: A Walford Legend - review
16 February 2017 • 9:00pm
Alistair McGowan, when looking for a way into a voice, sometimes found it helped to approach via a stepping stone. Thus he once made the joyous discovery that Dot Cotton sounds an awful lot like Albert Steptoe. They have the same bygone vowels of working-class London. It was even funnier that they both had a period look of gaunt undernourishment. June Brown, who plays Dot Cotton in EastEnders, is an example to us all. Remarkably, even though her character has been laid off from the launderette, the actress is still turning up for work in Albert Square at the age of 90. I’m no aficionado of EastEnders, so this tribute was a pleasant primer which explained what I’ve been missing for the past 30-plus years.
Even fans of the show who have charted Dot Cotton’s every move since 1985 may have been surprised to learn about Brown’s pre-Walford career. She was interviewed in the Noël Coward Theatre. The stage, she explained, was her preferred home where she played Hedda and Judi Dench’s sidekick and directed a play “all about sex toys”. The memory had gone a bit. “I think that’s me,” she said of a snap of herself in The Taming of the Shrew. A still from Corrie was brandished. “That is whoever I was.” Another picture showed her in academic livery. “I don’t know what I’m a doctor of,” she mused. “I must ask them one day.”
The focus of June Brown at 90: A Walford Legend (BBC One) was her stint as Nick Cotton’s old ma and Ethel’s friend. The monologue episode in 2008 hinted at Dot’s shared DNA with the world of Alan Bennett. She got a Bafta nomination for it, but Anna Maxwell Martin won for something ground-breaking which has barely been thought of since. Awards, eh? There might have been more on her private life and her drive to carry on working, although that was all covered in this week’s Desert Island Discs. She began by arguing that it’s a very amateur actor who identities with her character, adding that she and Dot have nothing in common. By the end the ground had shifted under her feet. “I’m very bossy really,” she said, and it wasn’t clear which woman that first person was referring to. Not Albert Steptoe, anyway.