June Muriel Brown – best known for her role as Dot Cotton on long-running BBC Soap EastEnders – was born in Suffolk, on 16 February 1927, the second of five children. She had a comfortable childhood – they were relatively well-off as her father had made a lot of money as a produce buyer in the Far East.
Despite the financial comforts of the early years, June Brown experienced more than her fair share of tragedy. When she was 5-years-old, her mother gave birth to the fourth child, the first boy. But he contracted pneumonia as a newborn and died at just 15 days old.
“The result was that I’ve spent my life looking for a companion who could show me the same sort of love. And I’ve never found anyone to match her.”
Two years later, tragedy struck the family again. June was incredibly close to her older sister Marise. There was just over a year between them – they were best of friends and did everything together. Tragically, when Marise was 8-years-old, she died from complications following an ear infection. June was utterly devastated and felt very lonely afterwards. “The result was that I’ve spent my life looking for a companion who could show me the same sort of love. And I’ve never found anyone to match her.”
“You’re a girl and you’ll only get married”.
June was a clever child at school and won a scholarship to attend Ipswich High School. She wasn’t interested in acting at the time; she loved biology and wanted to study Osteopathy. But her father refused to pay for her to study, stating “You’re a girl and you’ll only get married”.
At 18, towards the end of WWII, she left home and joined the Wrens (Women’s Royal Navy Service). She was a beautiful young woman and admits to attracting the opposite sex and being sexually active, although keeping quiet about it. There was a tremendous sense of liberation – of not knowing what tomorrow would bring and therefore making the most of today.
During her time in the Wrens, June performed in a play which piqued her interest in acting. Her sister saw an advertisement for the Old Vic Theatre School which had recently reopened in London and encouraged her to apply. She was successful and was classicallt trained in acting. Whilst studying, she met her first husband, John Garley, a fellow actor. They married when she was 23. They had immense fun together, were great friends and he made her laugh a lot. But sadly, he suffered from depression and took his own life when he was just 31 years old. June was 30. Speaking on BBC Radio4’s Desert Island Discs, she described how she coped with this tragedy through the help of friends. She grieved in private and would cry when she was alone.
“On the surface, I was fine. But, inside, my heart was breaking.”
A year later, she remarried – another actor, Robert Arnold. Children quickly followed and she gave birth to six children in seven years. Tragically, their second-born, Chloe, was born prematurely and died in infancy. Again, June was left to cope with her terrible grief. “On the surface, I was fine. But, inside, my heart was breaking. Even today, I can’t make a noise when I’m crying. That’s because I’d lie in bed at night after Chloe died, Bob asleep, the tears running silently down my cheeks.”
She didn’t stop working when the children were small and would take them to work with her. She recalls taking one child, as a baby, on the train from South Croydon to Charing Cross, pushing the heavy pram up St Martin’s Lane to the theatre and leaving the infant in a dressing room while she rehearsed or performed. When the other actors went out for lunch, she’d feed the baby and have a sandwich in the dressing room. After the play was finished, she’d make the journey home again on the train. “I don’t know how I did it, looking back”. She and Robert were married for 45 years until he died from dementia in 2003.
June has a long and distinguished career in television including roles in Coronation Street, Doctor Who, Minder, The Bill and Oliver Twist. She’s appeared in comedies, dramas, films, documentaries and chat shows. To date, she’s the oldest contestant to have entered Strictly Come Dancing, at 83.
On stage, she’s performed the roles of Hedda Gabler and Lady Macbeth; her plays include Rebecca, An Inspector Calls, The Lion in Winter and A View from the Bridge. She’s performed in numerous pantomimes and was in the 2009 West End production of Calendar Girls.
“As long as I’m capable of working, and can learn lines and move around, I will carry on. I’d be utterly bored if I stopped.”
But she’s best known for her role as chain-smoking, scripture-quoting Dot Cotton – now Dot Branning after her character married – on the long-running BBC soap EastEnders. June joined the show in 1985 and apart from a 4-year gap and a 6-month break she took to write her autobiography ‘Before the Year Dot’, she’s worked on the soap continuously.
In 2005, she won Best Actress at the Inside Soap Awards, and in the same year, also received the Lifetime Achievement award at the British Soap Awards. In 2009, she was nominated for the BAFTA TV Award for Best Actress. She is only the second performer to receive a BAFTA nomination for their work in a soap opera. She was awarded an MBE in the 2008 Queen’s Birthday Honours.
June has no plans to retire, even now, having recently turned 90. “As long as I’m capable of working, and can learn lines and move around, I will carry on. I’d be utterly bored if I stopped.”
What an inspirational woman!