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DOT THE DRAMA QUEEN; JIM SHELLEY on June Brown's masterful solo show BEST FOR SOAP EXCLUSIVES.

Byline: JIM SHELLEY

IT'S not often that the soaps justify their rather self-important, self-appointed title of "serial drama".

But tonight's episode of EastEnders is as powerful and poignant a piece of drama as you will see on TV all year, and destined to be showered with prizes.

It is the first time any of the soaps has ever given a whole episode over to a monologue.

Such is the quality of the writing (by EastEnders' titan Tony Jordan) and, above all, the performance of Walford goddess June Brown as Dot Branning, it may be some time before any of them attempts it again.

Dot sits at her kitchen table smoking (naturally), recording a message for husband Jim who was hospitalised some time ago by a stroke. All week, Dot has been recording "get well soon" messages from her fellow residents of Albert Square.

And it's only at the end of her own heartbreaking outpouring that we learn her decision on whether she can cope with looking after Jim at home, or whether he is going into a nursing home.

Now nearly 81, June learned her trade at the Old Vic, and played Lady Macbeth opposite Albert Finney. Nigel Hawthorne (Yes Minister) once described her as "the most beautiful creature to ever walk the stage" after seeing her in Hedda Gabler.

Not many people know that she was once in rival soap Coronation Street, playing Mrs Parsons for three episodes in 1970, back in the days of Ena Sharples.

And tonight, June - one of two remaining original Enders cast members - proves what the soaps can achieve when they use actors of genuine class and let them show what they are capable of.

She is the only actor in soaps capable of carrying an entire episode single-handed. And, above all, she seizes the chance to restore Dot as a character of real depth and emotion, lifting her above the caricature she has recently become.

The fact that co-star John Bardon (who plays Jim) is recovering from a stroke in real life adds an extra terrible pathos to the episode.

At times, the script is as touching as anything in Alan Bennett's Talking Heads series as Dot tells Jim how she misses the sight of his razor beside the sink, or the sound of him crying, "What are you blathering on about, woman?!"

After Pauline's funeral, she remembers him lighting candles for her: "I thought, 'I'm going to be all right. I don't need nobody but my Jim'."

But it is the sense of a life lost, wasted, that hangs heaviest over this episode as Dot puts her past on the record in the manner of Samuel Beckett's masterpiece, Krapp's Last Tape.

Dot's childhood was so awful that when she was evacuated, she says: "I was the 'appiest I 'ad ever been. I'd never 'ad much love, you see, as a little girl. I was never 'eld or told I was special."

She was sent to her aunt and uncle's: "They couldn't have children of their own so that made me special. I was their little girl. I thought that my mother didn't want me no more and that I was in a family, a real family. And I'd never 'ad that before."

Tears well up in her eyes as she remembers her Uncle Bill singing the pre-war song Pretty Baby to her at night.

But the real power of the piece comes from the haunted expression that June gives poor Dot, capturing perfectly, horribly, the terror that being old - getting old - holds for all of us. She says: "When I look back, I know that, from that moment on, everything I ever cared about, I lost."

Dot was sent back to London ("among the filth, people snarling at each other, drunkards"). She lost her husband Charlie. Her best friend Ethel died in her arms.

And she knows she will probably never see her son "Nasty" Nick again. And now Jim is ill.

"I'm on me own again. It's not fair!" she wails. "What did I ever do? What did that little girl ever do?"

The famous "dum dums" of tonight's closing theme tune are replaced with Pretty Baby.

Anyone who isn't in pieces by then, frankly, hasn't got a heart.

EASTENDERS, BBC1, tonight, 7.30pm.

From stage to Square..

1927 June Brown born in Suf folk.

1932 Her baby brother John dies of pneumonia, aged 15 days.

1934 Elder sister Marise dies from a similar illness to meningitis, aged eight.

1945 Serves in the WRENS at the end of the Second World War.

1945-1947 She trains at London's Old Vic Theatre School.

1947 First job with the Old Vic Theatre Company pays pounds 5 per week.

1948 Appears in Dr Faustus and as Lady Macbeth at The Old Vic.

1950 Marries first husband John Garley.

1957 John gasses himself to death at home.

1958 She is described by Nigel Hawthorne as "one of the most beautiful creatures to ever walk the stage" after he sees her in the title role in Ibsen's Hedda Gabler.

1958 She marries Robert Arnold, star of Dixon Of Dock Green.

1959 Daughter Louise is born.

1960 Second daughter Chloe, born prematurely at 28 weeks, dies aged 16 days.

1961 Daughter Sophie born.

1962 Son William born.

1964 Daughter Chloe born.

1965 Daughter Naomi born.

1965-1969 Has various one-off roles alongside Robert in Dixon Of Dock Green.

1970 Appears in Coronation Street.

1973-1974 Is Eleanor in four episodes of Doctor Who, alongside Jon Pertwee.

1976-1977 Takes the role of Violet Leyton in The Duchess Of Duke Street.

1983 Plays Aunt Sadie in Now And Then.

1985 Starts as Dot Cot ton in EastEnders on Leslie Grantham's recommendation.

1993 Takes a four-year break from Enders and directs the play Double D.

2003 Husband Robert dies.

2008 Today June takes centre stage as Dot, as EastEnders screens the first solo show in British soap history.

'As powerful and poignant a piece of drama as you will see on TV all year'

'June seizes this chance to restore Dot as a character of real depth'

CAPTION(S):

MACBETH On stage with Albert Finney at Birmingham Rep, 1958; HEDDA GABLER Leading lady in Ibsen's classic, 1958; EASTENDERS June, as Dot, reveals her past talents as a classical actress in tonight's one-woman episode Pictures: VANDAIMAGES.COM; SOAP START: In Corrie with Violet Carson, who played Ena Sharples; COSMIC: In Doctor Who; FAG ASH DOT: In 1988; MOTHER BROWN: With daughters, from left, Sophie, Louise and Naomi
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jan 31, 2008
Words:1083
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