Eastenders legend June Brown is starring in a Birmingham show about Edith Piaf. She tells Roz Laws about her biggest career disappointments.
Edith Piaf famously sang of a life free from any regrets.
June Brown, on the other hand, has a few. And one of the greatest is how she never got to play Cleopatra in Birmingham.
She’s thinking about the city because she is about to return to it, to narrate a concert paying homage to the life and music of troubled French singer Madame Piaf.
June, a soap legend thanks to her role as Dot Branning in EastEnders, will narrate Piaf – The Concert at Birmingham Town Hall on February 10.
She first worked in the city more than 50 years ago, in two plays at the Birmingham Rep. She was Hedda Gabler and Lady Macbeth, alongside a young Albert Finney, in the 1958 season.
June was due to go on to play Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, but by this time she was pregnant for the first time by her new husband Robert – they married in 1958 and were together until his death in 2003.
She remembers: “It was thought that I shouldn’t play Cleopatra while pregnant, although I never showed very much and I probably could have done it.
“I have always regretted that. It was the only part I have always wanted to play. I had my chance and I missed it.
“I never had any sickness with my six pregnancies. I always felt fabulously well and hardly showed – I have wide hips and looked slender from the side.
“I actually went on working until three days before the baby, my daughter Louise, was born. I was playing a washerwoman in Cambridge, the show was to finish on a Saturday and Lou was due on the Tuesday.
“She actually came a week early so I missed the last week of the production. But I was back to work within three weeks.
“I didn’t think about being an older mum at 31, I just got on with it.”
June, now aged 85, has suffered more than her fair share of traumas.
One of five children, her baby brother died of pneumonia and her elder sister died aged eight. Her first husband committed suicide and her second daughter, Chloe, was born prematurely at 28 weeks and died after 16 days.
So what memories does she have of her time at the Rep?
“Albie Finney was very young, only about 21. He was a very nice person and actor.
“A few years later I was at the Royal Court and he came to see me in my dressing room. He said ‘Do you remember me?’. I said ‘Don’t be so daft!’, as by this time he was very famous.”
June has been looking back over her life as she’s been writing her memoirs. She took eight months off from EastEnders to concentrate on the book, but admits she is still far from finished.
“God knows why I’m doing it,” she says. “It seems very egotistical.
“But I suppose it’s good for my family, as there are a lot of things they didn’t know about me.
“Because I have lived so long, it’s more about history. I was 12 when the war started and I’ve lived through the 1930s and 1940s.
“It was a different world then and a much nicer society. I don’t like it today at all, we have changed so much. It was much more caring then.”
June has just returned to EastEnders after her break, but scoffs at the suggestion she might be in for some exciting storylines.
“Don’t hold your breath,” she drily exhorts. “Seeing as I was away for eight months, it looks like I’d been away for the weekend, as much as anyone talks about it.
“After 27 years on the show, on and off, there’s not an awful lot they can do with me. Dot would never have an affair.”
Unlike Edith Piaf, whose scandalous life June will be chronicling in Piaf – The Concert. She was persuaded to take part by its creator, Walsall’s Matthew Jones, whose last project was teaming up with Boy George to record 1960s hits in Italian in aid of Marie Curie Cancer Care.