“It’s only a driving test; you’re not going to the Astral Plane.”
—Jim Branning to his Dorothy
By Larry Jaffee
Still grieving over the death on 12 September 2014 of my friend John Bardon, whom we EastEnders fans know as Jim Branning, I was able to smile as I watched a recent WLIW episode with Jim attempting some brevity as Dot fretted amid new-age drone music and incense to calm her nerves.
The scene and above quip perfectly captured John’s sense of humour and comic timing, which he delivered for 882 episodes from 1996 until 2011. He never fully recovered from his 2007 stroke, and was bedridden for much of these past seven years.
John was 75 when he died, and he is survived by his wonderful wife Enda, with whom I also became acquainted over the past decade. They married in 2002, and in the fall of 2005 they took a trip to New York, which they enjoyed very much. They were feted at a fan event and privately by American soap star Eileen Fulton at the Friar’s Club, which was a Mecca to John.
It was Wendy Richard (Pauline Fowler), who told me of John and Enda’s New York holiday. He hadn’t been to New York since 1958 when he won a transatlantic cruise. It was Enda’s first time in New York. They had been married for about three years at the time of their New York trip.
Enda told me on the phone a few years ago that what bothered John the most about the aftereffects of his stroke was his inability to paint any longer. He had been an enthusiastic artist.
I first met him at the studio in January 2002 in the canteen. I was about to eat a sandwich alone when Michael Greco (Beppe di Marco) and Marc Bannerman (Gianni di Marco) invited me to sit with them (we had met at the studio the previous year) and introduced me to John.
He was welcoming, and wanted to know all about New York, especially whether I had seen the film East Is East, in which he played a bigot, not unlike Jim when he first arrived in protest of his daughter Carol’s relationship with Alan Jackson.
I told him how I watched the episode on BBC-1 the night before and he was chatting up Dot. “She wasn’t having it,” John agreed. Well, within the year Mrs. Cotton the bible-quoting widow fell for the charms of Jim, the usually skint Queen Vic barfly and gambler.
This unlikely courtship in the senior set turned out to be an inspired casting move by the EastEnders production team, proving opposites can sometimes attract. Initially portrayed as a racist, Jim ironically becomes best mates with Patrick Trueman, a native of Trinidad. I once told John that one of my favourite EastEnders scenes is when Jim and Patrick dance to the classic reggae song “The Israelites.”
“Everyone at EastEnders is absolutely heartbroken to learn that John has sadly passed away,” the official EastEnders website announced of his death. “His bravery, dignity and courage in battling against the devastating effects of his stroke were admired by all who had the privilege of working with him.
“Loved by us all, John was an exceptionally talented actor whose humour, mischievousness and brilliant performances made Jim Branning one of Walford’s most lovable, memorable characters and we will miss John forever.
“Our love and deepest sympa- thies are extended to Enda, his truly wonderful wife, at this very sad time. May he now rest in peace. John will be sorely missed by all those who knew and worked with him.”
Cast members were also grief-stricken, most of all June Brown, his on-air wife Dot. “I am so sorry that John has passed away but hope that he is now at peace after seven difficult years. I shall miss him very much as I loved him dearly. My thoughts are with his devoted wife, Enda.”
Brown would visit Bardon often while he was at his Essex home, following his stroke.
Bardon told me during our 2005 interview that although he loved “June to bits,” she’d typically take character preparation “to extremes … she’s got to know what’s in her handbag. She’s got to know where she’s come from, why she’s there, where she’s going, what she’s had for breakfast.”
In the same way that he didn’t appear to be a romantic match for Dot Cotton, Bardon also exhibited musical theatre ability. His performance as a gangster in Kiss Me, Kate won him the Laurence Olivier Award in 1988, in which he took great pride.
John also relished his comedy stage tribute to the British Max Miller, which ran for eight weeks in the West End, as well as touring Britain. At the pre-Christmas 2005 EE fan meeting in New York, John demonstrated both his singing and comical talents.
Upon learning of Bardon’s death, Shane Richie (Alfie) tweeted: “Jim Branning funny, grumpy, endearing, mischievous, massive talent. Walford will always miss you RIP John Bardon.”
“I’m absolutely gutted,” Perry Fenwick (Billy Mitchell) told the BBC. “John was a lovely, lovely man to work with. I’ll miss him.”
Natalie Cassidy, who plays Sonia, also was saddened. “I never had a real granddad so John was like an actual granddad to me. He was a lovely man and I learnt a lot from him,” she told the BBC.
Bardon, who took his grandmother’s maiden name when he became an actor, was born on 25 August 1939 in the town of Brent- ford in Middlesex. He thought his given name, John Michael Jones, was too ordinary for an actor.
The epitome of a jobbing actor, his acting career didn’t take off until he was in his thirties when he joined a repertory company in Exeter. He eventually landed minor TV roles in Dad’s Army, Are You Being Served?, Miss Marple, and Coronation Street, among numerous others. Although acting steadily, not much stuck.
In fact, he was working as a Heathrow Airport shuttle driver when he received the 1999 call from EastEnders to come back permanently, three years after he made his first appearance on the show.
“They said it would change my life forever, which it has done,” he told the Walford Gazette in 2005. “I get spotted everywhere I go,” he said, citing a then recent trip to Turkey. “It does my head in,” John told me when we last spoke about the popularity of EastEnders and Jim in particular in the U.S.
The EastEnders humour that we grew to appreciate emerged when I accidentally said, “Goodbye Jim, I mean John,” wrapping up our Walford Gazette interview in Novem- ber 2005.
He quickly responded, with a laugh, “Only one time allowed, Larry! That’s all. You better warn the others as well.”