Dot Cotton's funeral was a return to EastEnders' humble, kitchen-sink values
Has a dropped packet of cigarettes ever been more poignant? It was Dot’s funeral on EastEnders (BBC One) and along with handfuls of soil, mourners fondly tossed 20 of her favourite Mayfair menthols onto her coffin lid. At the rate dear old Dot chain-smoked them, they should last at least a few hours of her journey to the sweet hereafter.
Walford residents past and present gathered to pay their respects, following news that Albert Square matriarch Dorothy Branning née Cotton had died off-screen in Ireland. The storyline was written after actress June Brown passed away in April at the age of 95. She never got a chance for a swansong on-screen. This was the next best thing.
An elegiac episode began with a wordless opening tracking shot – a living character didn’t speak until past the three-minute mark – as we respectfully entered Dot’s old house at No 25. In the sitting room lay her candlelit coffin. At the kitchen table, granddaughter Sonia (Natalie Cassidy) was struggling to write a worthy eulogy, while listening to the tapes that Dot made for her late husband Jim after he suffered a stroke – the basis for Brown’s ground-breaking, Bafta-nominated 2008 solo episode, Pretty Baby.
This device cleverly compensated for the lack of Brown herself. The bird-like mannerisms and purplish “Italian Boy” coiffure might not have been visible but viewers could instantly picture both upon hearing that familiar drawl.
Heartstrings were further tugged by lingering shots of old photographs and misty-eyed mentions of names from E20’s past: Ethel Skinner (but sadly not her little Willy), Lou Beale, Pauline Fowler, even Dot’s villainous son Nasty Nick. There was a glimpse of Dot’s familiar fur-collared coat on a hook in the hall and call-backs to classic plotlines including her “special tea”, when she memorably mistook cannabis for a herbal infusion.
The nostalgia kept on coming as a host of familiar faces returned for the ceremony: Colin (Michael Cashman of trailblazing gay kiss fame), Mary the no-longer-punk (Linda Davidson), hapless Lofty Holloway (Tom Watt), typically late because he’d gone to the wrong church, and Disa (Jan Graveson). Nope, I didn’t remember her either.
The biggest surprise was saved for outside the church, where the much maligned Ian Beale (Adam Woodyatt, the soap's longest-serving cast member) lurked furtively. Woodyatt left last year after an epic 36-year stint but his cameo hinted at a comeback, with a suggestion of a new romance.
Dot’s was a traditional Cockney funeral, with horse-drawn hearse, feather-plumed black horses and top-hatted undertakers. Queen Vic regulars lined the streets to see her off. This was a courageously quiet episode, unafraid of contemplative silence. Birdsong, church bells and horses’ hooves were all audible. The production took advantage of its new £87m set with aerial shots, gliding from Walford up to the heavens.
Proceedings were led by a superlative turn from the often under-appreciated Cassidy, her best in nearly three decades on the show. She sat in the darkened laundrette, so often Dot’s domain, to be alone with her memories. There were jokes about Sonia turning into Dot, all sad eyes and old-fashioned values. She could do a lot worse.
There were jarring notes in the home stretch. The “I’m Spartacus”-style eulogy, with the church congregation standing up to chip in, was over-egged. Comparisons to the Queen also felt like a stretch. Yet overall this was a welcome return to the show’s kitchen-sink roots. No histrionics nor implausible plot twists, no cod-Guy Ritchie gangsters nor clumsy attempts to go “yoof”. Just a heartfelt script with well-drawn characters and a strong sense of community. A reminder of the intimate role that good soap opera can play in viewers’ lives.
Following Abide With Me, Dot was played out with her own version of the familiar end music, “Dot’s Theme”, specially created by composer Simon May. It served as a deeply affecting send-off to both the character and the actress. A fond farewell to dear old Dot and the woman who inhabited her for so long.
“You trick yourself into thinking that the people that you love will be there forever,” sobbed Sonia. “Now she’s gone. I can’t imagine a world without Dot in it somewhere.” Nor can we, Son, nor can we.