When Dot met Ethel: A tribute to June Brown

When long-running TV soap EastEnders was launched on BBC1 in 1985, 13 million viewers tuned in to watch the first episode.

The tale of the trials and tribulations of everyday life in the fictional borough of Walford, in the East End of London, has been on our screens ever since.

Originally created by Julia Smith and Tony Holland, EastEnders has featured many different stars, portraying hundreds of characters, in more than 5,000 episodes during the show’s 37-year run. While some characters come and go, none have been more loved than the big-hearted launderette assistant, Dot Cotton.

The on-screen mother of fictional villain Nick Cotton (one of TV’s most hated “baddies”), Dot was played by veteran British actress June Brown, who has sadly passed away recently, at the age of 95. She began her time in EastEnders in 1985 and officially left the cast in 2020 at the age of 93.

June Brown
© Featureflash Photo Agency / Shutterstock.com

Show business legend

Brown, born in Needham Market, Suffolk, in 1927, was a true show business legend who was classically trained at the Old Vic Theatre School in London. She enjoyed many roles in the theatre and made her TV debut in Coronation Street in 1970, playing a character called Mrs Parsons for three episodes.

She also had roles in Doctor Who, the comedy drama Minder, the nursing soap Angels, costume drama The Duchess of Duke Street and long-running drama The Bill. Her film credits included the horror movie Psychomania, the comedy Bean, the crime thriller Target and many more.

After she joined the cast in the 40th episode, on 4th July 1985; it was EastEnders which made Brown a household name. Dot was born in Walford and spent her youth helping to care for her younger siblings until she married her wayward husband Charlie Cotton when she was 18.

Dot and Ethel

One of her oldest friends was fellow Albert Square dweller Ethel Skinner, played by Gretchen Franklin. When Dot Cotton met Ethel, they were two young girls living in the borough of Walford during World War II. The two became lifelong friends and there were many story lines devoted to their warm and often moving relationship.

Both characters had a hard life, Dot dealing with her son’s criminal activities and Ethel losing her whole family during the wartime bombings.

Although Dot and Ethel had met years before, according to their EastEnders’ backstory, of course all of this had been off-screen. However, viewers felt like they had known them for years, thanks to the incredible acting skills of Brown and Franklin.

Their characters’ relationship was portrayed with genuine affection throughout the series, the two women having a lifelong friendship and supporting each other through the highs and lows of life.

Were they true friends off the camera?

In fact, Brown and Franklin were good friends in real life too and admitted to enjoying a friendly rivalry when it came to their acting careers.

In 1995, Alan Titchmarsh interviewed both actresses on his TV show, Pebble Mill, about their roles as Dot Cotton and Ethel Skinner. In May 2005, at the age of 93 years, Franklin presented the Lifetime Soap Achievement Award to her friend and co-star Brown at the British Soap Awards.

Brown appeared in 2,884 episodes of EastEnders and had some of the most memorable and poignant story lines seen on television. Her character’s own son, Nick, tried to poison Dot at one time, and he became known as TV’s Mr Nasty or Nasty Nick.

Groundbreaking monologue

Brown made history when she became the first soap character to carry a whole episode through a monologue. The episode saw Dot record a 30-minute tape for her second husband, Jim Branning, who was in hospital following a stroke. Her performance won Brown a BAFTA nomination.

In 1997, Dot dabbled in alternative medicine, with one hysterical plot line involving the senior citizen mistaking cannabis for herbal tea – she ended up being arrested!

Dot’s most poignant story line was when she helped Ethel to die in a heartbreaking assisted suicide plot. Ethel was diagnosed with terminal cancer and asked Dot to help her to die. This was at odds with Dot’s Christian faith, and she had to grapple with her lifelong religious beliefs before deciding to grant her oldest friend’s wishes.

When Brown finally left Eastenders in 2020, the plot saw her moving to Ireland for a quieter life. Brown had decided herself she could no longer go on playing Dot and her appearance on 21st January 2020 was to be her finale, although the producers said the door was always open for her to return if she wished.

Multiple award winner

Brown won multiple awards for her portrayal of Dot Cotton and the way her character was used to explore often controversial subjects such as homophobia, euthanasia, cancer and immigration. She won Best Actress in the TV Quick and TV Choice Awards in 2000 and the Inside Soap Awards in 2001.
Awarded the MBE in the Queen’s 2008 Birthday Honours, she was also made an OBE in the Queen’s 2022 New Year Honours. Both of her awards recognised her services to drama and charity.

Brown’s EastEnders’ legacy will live on following her death. As one of Britain’s best home-grown actresses of the 20th and 21st centuries, she has left an indelible mark on British soap operas.

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