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When former BBC1 controller Danny Cohen described Eastenders’ Dot Cotton as a prime portrayal of a believer on TV during a gathering of Christian media professionals ten years ago, his audience was somewhat unconvinced.
At the Church and Media Conference in June 2011, Cohen had been challenged by delegates to provide an example of ordinary Christians on television who were not “freaks, geeks or antiques”.
Describing Dot Cotton – played by June Brown, who died this week at the age of 95 – he said: “She is a single example of someone who lives out her faith on television in a charitable way.” While some Christian delegates smirked at the suggestion that Dot might represent them and bemoaned the lack of diverse representations of thoughtful, young and vibrant Christians on TV screens, perhaps there is something to be said for the Christian witness of this very ordinary woman from Albert Square.
For the last 30 years or so, Dot Cotton has been the only consistent portrayal of a Christian on our TV screens in the UK. Described by Kathryn and Philip Dodd in their essay From EastEnd to EastEnders as an “evangelist–cum–laundrette supervisor” and by Rupert Smith, author of 20 Years in Albert Square, as self–righteous and “God–bothering”, her simple faith is reduced to this idea that “nothing shakes Dot’s view that the world is good because the creator made it so”.
As I researched for my book published in 2015, More TV Vicar? (DLT) looking at portrayals of Christians on TV, Dot’s character was one I could not ignore. Many of the other characters we see on our screens are not ordinary people, and people of faith are portrayed as far from ordinary; a different species to the rest of us. I wonder whether this is what keeps so many away from church.
In 2002, John Yorke,the former executive producer of EastEnders spoke[HR1] to an audience of clergy in the diocese of St Alban’s defending the soap as being a force for moral good. He referred to the famous euthanasia storyline where Dot was asked by her friend to help her die:
“Dot – the character the Mail on Sunday claimed we made fun of – explored the full panoply of religious belief before coming back to terms with her maker.
As she said to her vicar towards the end of the story, in my favourite line of EastEnders’ entire existence, “I couldn’t manage without my faith, not with the life I’ve had”.
When Alan Bookbinder took over as head of religious broadcasting at the BBC he described EastEnders for the weeks the Dot and Ethel story ran as ‘the best religious programme on television’ and compared us to Graham Greene.” [i]
There aren’t many dramas on television that are brave enough to explore the big theological and moral questions that are the stuff of everyday life. Crime dramas and documentaries might flirt with existential questions, but to see them covered in the minutiae of daily life is something that EastEnders is remarkably good at.
June Brown often said that the only thing her and her character, Dot, shared was their faith. She even confessed in an interview that she had occasionally changed Dot’s lines to make them more consistent with her own Christian beliefs:
“I think I’ve made Dot more like me, it’s something I’ve done which I don’t approve of because I think you should play characters like they’re written but they don’t always write the prayers and the behaviour for a Christian into it. And I’m afraid that I have changed it. Her faith and my faith has changed her.”[ii]
Through the character of Dot Cotton, issues of faith and morality were discussed regularly on EastEnders. I fear that TV producers veer away from having authentic Christian characters in contemporary TV dramas out of religious illiteracy and ignorance, but also out of fear. It is easier and perhaps safer to present one–dimensional characters of faith when there is a lack of understanding of the depth and nuance that is part of the territory for religious believers. We have June Brown to thank for creating such a character through which we could explore our own beliefs and one who was so consistently on our TVs for many years.
June Brown as she played Dot Cotton represented a generation of people for whom faith and church life is central. A people, like Her Majesty the Queen, for whom faith is the mainstay of their life and what gives their life meaning. Sadly, we are seeing this generation die and I do wonder what a new portrayal of a Christian on such a mainstream programme like EastEnders would look like? Will we ever see such a character again?
We see authentic Christian characters in historical dramas such as Call the Midwife but where are the contemporary Christians? I only hope that June Brown’s example might inspire some new characters in contemporary drama who have a faith through which the stuff of life can be explored.
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[i] John Yorke, ‘EastEnders: Faith, Morality and Hope in the Community’ Speech, 4 September 2002 http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/speeches/stories/yorke_stalbans.shtml
[ii] Kerry Harden, ‘EastEnders star June Brown reveals she has changed Dot Branning’s scripted lines to fit her personal faith’, The Mirror, 22 June 2014
Photo credit: June Brown arriving for the 2012 Pride of Britain Awards, at the Grosvenor House Hotel, London. Picture by: Alexandra Glen
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