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Cotton picks at her past

So, who does actress June Brown think she is? Certainly not Dot Cotton, the perpetually downtrodden, disappointed and fatalistic character she plays in EastEnders.

Eighty-four (though not terrified of looking it), charming, elegant and funny, June is nothing at all like Dot. Well, except for the fact that both of them smoke seemingly almost incessantly -- although June's cigarettes are of a classier variety than Dot's, with little gold rings around the filters. And she sometimes uses a cigarette holder. More Cotton Club, you might say, than Dot Cotton.

"I'm not truly English," she says. "I'm not truly anything." That's a pretty accurate take. Her parents were Jewish and lived in the London's East End, although there was Irish and, it turns out later, Spanish blood in the mix.

June, who seems reasonably devout and has a large, loving family, would like to think of herself as traditional East End Jewish as well, but she's not entirely convinced of her religious and racial heritage. It seems to be genuinely bugging her. The first ancestor she hits upon is a great-great-great-great-grandfather called Isaac Bitton.

"Bitton . . . it doesn't sound very Jewish to me," she tells a historian. But Isaac was a Jew and like many Jews, as well as blacks and Irish, he became involved in the bare-knuckle boxing scene. He was an undefeated champion, in fact, who once fought (and beat) and opponent over an epic 72 rounds.

Bare-knuckle boxing could be brutal -- but oddly, rarely fatal -- and the fighters showed one another the kind of mutual courtesy and respect as equals that they didn't enjoy in the wider world.

It won them fame, too, although never fortune. The rich were the ones who bet on bare-knuckle boxing and it helped them get richer. Lord Byron was a fan. Isaac, having retired from boxing and ballooned to 17 stones, married at 38 and died penniless at 60.

His unhappy end mirrored that of his father, Abraham, a trader who'd been forced out of Algeria by the Spanish, and his mother, Rachel, who was from Spain. Having journeyed via Holland, Isaac and Abraham ended up in the East End of London.

For various reasons, Rachel and the rest of their children became trapped in Amsterdam. She outlived all of them except Isaac and died without ever knowing her son was alive and living in London. Ideally, this episode would have ended with the touching sight of June laying a sunflower and a drawing of Isaac on Rachel's grave in Amsterdam. But the need to stretch the programme to an hour meant it dragged on, journeying ever farther back into June's family history, and becoming murkier and less compelling by the minute.

The second episode of three-parter The Tenements magnified both the series' strength and its weakness.

The strength lay in the testimony of elderly former residents of the tenement buildings, some of whom had featured in last week's opener, and the evocative archive footage, although there was far too little of it used here.

The weakness, as I mentioned here last week, is the reality TV element, which is an awkward fit with the straightforward documentary material. The Winstons seem like a lovely family, as authentically Dublin as coddle and stew (which they cooked for dinner last night), but placing them into a half-baked reconstruction of tenement life for a weekend trivialises the subject matter.

The fact that the senior members of the Winston group are already familiar with what it was like in No 7 Henrietta Street, since the family lived there until 1972, makes this segment even more of a needless distraction. There's also an unnecessary concentration on a single part of the city. How about some stuff from The Liberties, one of the biggest tenement sprawls in old Dublin?

Still, this is an elegantly produced series and Bryan Murray an engaging guide.

who do you think you are? HHIII the tenements HHIII