Matthew Kilburn pays tribute to the late June Brown
June Brown, best remembered for her many years playing Dot Cotton in EastEnders, has died aged 95. Her performance as the painfully quiffed, hypochondriac, Bible-quoting Dot, rarely seen without a cigarette in mouth or hand, made her an icon of British popular culture. She was a proficient stagewoman and could add to anything the EastEnders production team threw at her, from early storylines about menopause and Dot’s prejudice against homosexuality, to later two-handers and monologues where personal crises for Dot were used to break character and audience out of the soap round and vary the format. June Brown could carry these with subtle art.
Doctor Who fans have long enjoyed the juxtaposition between the pessimistic, gossipy, judgemental nicotine-breathing Dot and June Brown’s Doctor Who character, Eleanor in The Time Warrior. June Brown recorded her scenes in The Time Warrior in May and June 1973, twelve years before viewers first saw her in EastEnders, but it’s not just distance which makes the performances distinct. Unlike working-class Dot, Eleanor is aristocratic, and haughty with cause to be. Whereas Dot’s certainties and uncertainties were based on the clash of life experience and her faith in an uncomplicated Christianity, Eleanor’s are based on her social position and that of her husband Edward. Both Dot and Eleanor could be ruthless where called to be. Dot acted, or chose not to act, with a deliberate resignation, feeling the weight of a cross she imagined it was her duty as a Christian to bear, and so share in Christ’s passion, whether or not it was in the best interests of those she was with. In contrast, Eleanor sought opportunities for action, albeit through men as her proxies, with first Hal and then briefly the Doctor expected to murder her enemy Irongron; while the best interests of her proxies might be made secondary to Eleanor’s, she is certain that her interests coincide with the common good. She is the lady of the castle, after all; her husband (and that usually means Eleanor) decides what communal interest is.
Eleanor’s screen time in one Doctor Who story is the merest fraction of Dot’s in more than three decades worth of EastEnders. The scene which established Eleanor and Edward was cut down in rehearsal and in editing, so that Eleanor’s character didn’t have as strong an introduction as intended. In the episode as transmitted we see Eleanor and Edward discuss somewhat defeatedly their situation, and Eleanor leave to give orders for dinner; but we lost the intended succeeding scene where Eleanor finds Hal, ‘the best archer in England’, and orders him to assassinate Irongron. There’s still enough in dialogue and in June Brown’s performance to inform us that Eleanor is the dominant figure in the marriage, and certainly the most decisive. Once Eleanor decides Sarah Jane Smith looks trustworthy, despite her odd appearance, Edward never doubts his twentieth-century visitor.
While June Brown’s Eleanor is always convincing, there are glimmers of a more active role she might have had in the story. I’ve theorized elsewhere that at one stage Robert Holmes had Sarah and Eleanor leading an army of women to take back Irongron’s castle, only for script editor Terrance Dicks to remove this part of the plot on budgetary grounds, either before or after director Alan Bromly insisted on simplification of the script. The scenario of a time traveller disrupting a recognisable historical locale was repeated by Robert Holmes three seasons later in The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977). It’s a pity that there’s no room for Eleanor to anticipate Jago and Litefoot and join the Doctor in running the hideous villain down to his cellar lair. She’d have seized the bow and arrow from Hal and fired the shot that killed Linx herself. Given the opportunity, Eleanor (namesake of that most resilient of women rulers in medieval Europe, Eleanor of Aquitaine) would have been more than a match for a Sontaran, and June Brown would have made the very most of it. There’s a six-parter there in which Eleanor has more sparring time with Jon Pertwee’s Doctor and is a mentor to Sarah Jane Smith, a medieval model of feminism. It was never to be, but it’s a compliment to June Brown that we can think in these terms.