EastEnders’ June Brown reveals agony of going blind and unable to recognise pals
June Brown has told how her eyesight is failing so badly she now struggles to even recognise pals.
The EastEnders legend, 92, who plays Dot Cotton, had eye surgery in 2017 but said her vision has since deteriorated.
June, who suffers from macular degeneration, added: “I’ve got very poor sight. I’ve got extra lenses inside my eyes to try to help me read better.
“They help with peripheral vision, but I’ve got no central vision. I can’t go out socially.
“I never go to soap awards now. I don’t recognise people I know and they would think that I was snubbing them.”
June has always prided herself on being an undemanding, easy-to-please celebrity.
The EastEnders legend has played downtrodden Dot for more than 30 years and, despite the awards and MBE, has kept her own feet firmly on the Walford pavement.
Charming, amenable… you’d never catch June losing her rag with an assistant or getting a cob on during filming.
Unless that assistant is the voice-activated Alexa and June is trying to get a bloody recipe for scones out of the futuristic box.
“Scones, SCONES,” she repeats with increasing irritation in that famous throaty voice.
But Alexa just offers her a Mexican chicken salad with yoghurt dressing… or how about gingerbread-people biscuits?
I’ve been watching June arguing with the digital gizmo for a new TV show that introduces pensioners to hi-tech gadgets.
And despite her fury with Alexa, the much-loved actress later admits it could help her with everyday tasks, like getting the headlines. Because her sight is so poor now she can no longer read newspapers.
June has suffered from macular degeneration for 10 years and despite a revolutionary operation in 2017 that saved her from going blind and helped her recognise faces again, things are now getting worse.
She says: “Alexa could help me keep up with what’s going on in the world, because I’ve given up on my papers now.
“I could read the headlines at one time but that’s impossible now.
“I’ve got very poor sight. I’ve got extra lenses inside my eyes to try and help me read better. They help with my peripheral vision, but I’ve got no central vision at all. I haven’t driven for years and I can’t really go out socially due to my eyesight.
“I never go to soap awards or suchlike now. I don’t recognise people that I know and they would think I was snubbing them. And I have got loads of fan letters that I haven’t been able to read or reply to since it all started.
“I don’t like to just send cards and sign them, I have all different sorts I like to chose from personally.
“So if someone mentioned Ethel, Gretchen Franklin, I’d send them one with a picture of Dot and Ethel. I used to be meticulous about that but now I’ve got nobody, really, to help me do it.”
Clearly frustrated at her lost independence, June adds: “I can’t tell you what it’s like, but you wouldn’t want it, dear.
“So just pray for your health and strength, hearing and eyesight, and an active mind.”
June’s mind and sense of humour are clearly as keen as ever.
And her hilarious run-in with Alexa, which features in the first episode of ITV series Hard To Please OAPs, will delight fans.
June mutters: “All I wanted was a plain recipe for scones for tea with the vicar. Doesn’t she know you just need flour and margarine? No, I’ll stick to cookery books, thanks.
“Alexa was getting me very angry indeed, and I’ve always been so placid.” The show, narrated by Jennifer Saunders, follows eight elderly celebs trying to get to get to grips with devices designed to make life easier.
But the electric cars, remote control golf trolleys, home saunas, and pooper scooper vacuums inevitably leave them baffled and bemoaning modern life.
June is joined by King of the Jungle Harry Redknapp, 72, actress Amanda Barrie, 83, Hi-de-Hi’s Ruth Madoc, 75, Three Degrees singer Sheila Ferguson, 71, entertainer Lionel Blair, 90, former political correspondent John Sergeant, 74, and Jack Whitehall’s theatrical agent dad, Michael, 78.
EastEnders fans were relieved when June renewed her contract with the soap last year. She said she would stay until 2019, but did not give a definitive leaving date.
So has her failing sight forced her to set a date – and how does she cope with learning her lines?
She says: “They use big fonts. They are very kind, and people do make wonderful allowances for me.
“I hope I’m worth it. Well, I suppose if I weren’t they wouldn’t bother, would they?
“As for leaving… you’d have to ask the scriptwriters. They have to decide what will happen to Dot and then they’ll approach me. I don’t think they will kill me off. I don’t think anybody there would like to. I think they’ll probably just send me off to Ireland forever, but I really have no idea.
“And I don’t like to think about the end of things, it’s not wise.
“I think if you always think positively then positive things will come to you.”
June was raised in Ipswich and served in the Wrens at the end of the Second World War. She later trained at the Old Vic theatre school and launched a successful stage career.
Actor Nigel Hawthorne, who saw the young June play Hedda Gabler, called her “one of the most beautiful creatures I’ve seen on stage”.
Her long TV career has included roles in Corrie – alongside Violet Carson, who played battle-axe Ena Sharples – Doctor Who, The Sweeney and Minder.
But she became a household name in 1985 for playing Dot, the devoted mum of murderous Nasty Nick Cotton (John Altman) and, more recently, wife of Jim Branning, played by the late John Bardon.
Despite her challenges – June is also hard of hearing – she’s still remarkably spry, as viewers will see when she tries an exercise machine on the new show.
She says: “That was the only gadget I really liked. It was a fitness mat thing you lay on to work your legs.
“I am very good at doing my exercises. I do a Tibetan routine every day [called the Fountain of Youth] that keeps me supple. Ruth Madoc said she wished she was as flexible as me.
“I don’t think of myself as 92. I sometimes walk past a plate glass window and don’t recognise myself, because I still see myself as young and very beautiful. It’s better than feeling old.” In one episode of Hard To Please OAPs, June tries an e-cigarette, but soon goes back to fags she insists she will never give up.
She says: “I ‘learned’ to smoke when I was a teenager because it was the fashionable thing to do in the 1940s.
“But I never inhale, I puff, like Puff the Magic Dragon. I had very severe pneumonia just before I recorded the show last year. Then, over Christmas, I had pleurisy… and I haven’t got over it quite as quickly as last year.”
But June, who has five children and six grandchildren, refuses to let old age get her down.
She says: “What’s the point of worrying? I could go to sleep tonight and not be here tomorrow. ‘Oh dear, June’s gone,’ they’d say.
“But I believe in an afterlife, that there is something else, and I’m not frightened of dying.
“A lot of people are terrified of it. Maybe they believe in an afterlife too but are scared of going on and on.
“Gretchen was a lapsed Catholic and she was afraid of this business of going to purgatory.
“But she had a good heart, she wouldn’t have done.”
June pauses, realising she should be talking more about gadgets and being a hard to please OAP.
“Let’s not bang on about death, darling,” she laughs. “There’s lots more work to be done yet.
“And who knows? I might even learn how to get a scone recipe out of Alexa.”
Hard to Please OAPS, Tuesdays, from April 9 at 8.30pm on ITV.
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