by Julie Bindel
Tuesday, 5
April 2022
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07:30

Dot Cotton: the last great working-class dame

June Brown gave representation to a neglected strand of British femininity
by Julie Bindel
June Brown (Dot Cotton). Credit: Getty

The actor June Brown has died, and with her ends an era. Her most famous character, Dot Cotton, whom she played in EastEnders between 1985 and 1993 and then from 1997 onwards, exemplified everything that is superb about British working-class women of a certain generation.

Chain-smoking Dot, long-suffering mother of Nasty Nick, wore her headscarf with pride, and was far less of a parody than the likes of Corrie’s Hilda Ogdon. Rather, Dot was a real-life character that those of us raised by such women recognised. She wore too much make up, clutched her cardigan at her breast, and took liberties left, right, and centre.

Dot was very much like the mothers and grandmothers on the estate where I was raised. Her first words in 1985 were: “Give us a tea, Lofty. And a glass of water so I can take a paracetamol.” Of course, she was a hypochondriac, but rarely seen in a sickbed. Simultaneously nailed to a cross and tough as old boots, Dot made us laugh, cry, and sigh with frustration, often all at once.

Given the run-around by bad men, namely her husband and son, female viewers empathised with her. In 1990, Nick planned on killing his mother by poisoning her dinner in order to steal her bingo winnings, but changed his mind at the last moment. But Dot was no martyr: she was too resourceful for that. Women of her generation and class background had to be canny and look after themselves, because nobody else would.

Like those I was raised with, Dot had proper, loyal friendships with other women. Despite her strict Christian beliefs, she agreed to help her terminally ill best friend Ethel to die by giving her morphine. The episode, watched by more than 16 million, showed Brown’s superb acting skills to a tee.

In 2015 Dot’s son confessed to several murders, and in response, she gave him heroin and chose not to call an ambulance when he overdosed. “I prayed to let Jesus decide whether you get better or whether the world was a better place without you.” This showed how, as much as she had been taken for a mug by the men in her life, Dot had her limit.

And nor was she keen on change. Following a four month stretch in jail for Nick’s manslaughter, Dot decided to leave her job at the launderette where she had worked for decades, having heard it was to become a dry cleaners.

Dot’s wit, warmth and sheer chutzpah made her a working class icon to aspire to, despite the difficulties life threw at her. Tough and tenacious, when Dot was floored, she would pick herself up, dust down her apron, and live to fight another day.

Constant cups of tea, pink acrylic dressing gown — she was so much like my grandmother, and in many ways, Brown the actor appeared to be similar to Dot. Four years ago, aged 91, Brown told a journalist there was no point giving up drinking and smoking because she was bound to die soon in any case.

The passing of June Brown and her character Dot might mark the end of representation for these indefatigable grand dames of working-class stock. I mourn that passing, because, clichéd as it sounds, such women are the bedrock of society.

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Claire D
Claire D
4 months ago

That’s the best article I’ve read by Julie Bindel, humane, full of honesty and feeling, thank you.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
4 months ago

She was not of course working class: she played working class roles. Which somehow makes her even more admirable

Andrea X
Andrea X
4 months ago

In the subtitle you talk about femininity and then in the very first sentence you call *her* an “actor”? Would she have liked it?
(Not a fan of EastEnders, but nice article nevertheless)

Last edited 4 months ago by Andrea X
Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
4 months ago

I’ve not seen this actress in East-enders (I don’t like soap opera, they go on and on and on… and story lines become progressively more ridiculous), but I did see her in a number of “miniseries” as well as one Dr Who story (can’t remember which) as well as some of these TV plays Sunday Night Theatre? And my memory is of a woman who can really “inhabit” the role, no matter how ridiculous it was. I think I might have seen her in a stage play once, but memory is fading there. ButI do remember is a quote which I managed to find on-line so I have got it right:
I wouldn’t vote Labour, dear, if you paid me. I vote Conservative. Myself and possibly some comedians are the only people I know who always voted Conservative.
Working-class dame she may have been, but she didn’t see the working-class party as for her; a terrible indictment.

Andrew D
Andrew D
4 months ago

Only an indictment if you see the working class as a single unified tribe, of one mind. It used to suit the Labour party to do so (before it became middle class), but that don’t necessarily make it so.

M P Griffiths
M P Griffiths
4 months ago

“Brown the actor appeared to be similar to Dot”.
Whereas in reality (according to recent obituaries), the chain-smoking apart, Ms. Brown was a cultured and elegant lady who spoke with an “RP” accent.