Nick Cotton in 2009
|Portrayed by||John Altman|
|Duration||1985–91, 1993, 1998, 2000–01, 2008–09 2014—|
|First appearance||19 February 1985|
|Created by||Julia Smith and Tony Holland|
|Introduced by||Julia Smith (1985)
Leonard Lewis (1993)
Matthew Robinson (1998)
John Yorke (2000)
Diederick Santer (2008)
|The Return of Nick Cotton (2000)|
Nicholas Charles "Nick" Cotton is a fictional character from the British soap opera EastEnders played by John Altman on a recurring basis from the soap's debut episode in February 1985, through to his last appearance to date in 2009. Nick is the son of characters Charlie (Christopher Hancock) and Dot Cotton (June Brown), and the father of Ashley (Frankie Fitzgerald) and Dotty Cotton (Molly Conlin). His storylines have seen him twice commit murder, succumb to a heroin addiction, and attempt to poison his own mother, amongst numerous other misdemeanours. Nick was also the subject of a special spin-off episode, The Return of Nick Cotton, which aired in October 2000. He has been voted one of television's all-time most villainous characters in a Channel 4 poll. In March 2014, it was announced that Nick would be killed off-screen, to make way for the introduction of his son, Charlie (Declan Bennett), later that month.
Nick Cotton was the twenty-fourth character invented by the creators of EastEnders, Tony Holland and Julia Smith. Nick was not part of Holland's and Smith's original vision for EastEnders, and his creation came about as an afterthought. The first episode of the series was to include the death of an elderly resident, Reg Cox, who had been brutally attacked in his home, and left to die. During the first writers' meeting, where the writers were introduced to the intended characters and early scripts, each independently wanted to know which character had killed Reg. However, Holland and Smith had never intended for the murderer to be unveiled. They had no idea who had killed Reg Cox, and they had felt that "the who" was not important. The fact that he was dead following an attack was the important issue, and Reg's murder was not intended to be solved, it was only there to tell the audience, from the outset, that Walford was a rough and tough place. The writers opposed this. They accused Holland of throwing away a great opportunity and suggested that a murder hunt would provide an array of dramatic possibilities that would captivate the audience. After deciding that all of the twenty-three original characters were incapable of committing the crime, Holland decided to invent an entirely new character, in the form of Nick Cotton. The original character outline for Nick read: "His image is exclusively macho. Vanishes for weeks on end. Mum doesn't ask questions... Unlike Den, Nick is a real crook. Worms his way into people's confidentiality and homes. From then on, lives on his wits. Waiting for the moment to strike; to nick the cash and disappear...Usually chooses his victims who, for one reason or another, are frightened to report him...Nick's a heroin addict." As Nick was only intended to be a semi-regular character, Julia Smith was not involved in his casting and the actor John Altman was chosen by the directors.
Development and storylines
Nick has been described by EastEnders' executive producer Diederick Santer as "the show’s premier villain". An EastEnders Revealed documentary chronicling the character's time on the show deemed him a liar, a thief and a murderer who "thrived on the pain and the misery of those near to him". Co-star Charlie Clements (Bradley Branning) has stated: "You think of soap bad guys, Nick Cotton is definitely up there with the best of them", while Leslie Grantham (Den Watts) opined that "There is no redeeming feature about Nick Cotton whatsoever". This assessment is shared by series story producer Dominic Treadwell-Collins, who has explained: "It’s good to have an out and out villain. I think sometimes you can get a character and go 'Oh, they should have a good side as well, and maybe we should redeem them a little bit.' With Nick, it doesn’t matter. You can go full pelt, foot-on-the-accelerator bad guy." John Altman has discussed the fact that he cannot remember his character ever once being nice, blaming Nick's unruliness on his father's absence during his childhood. Santer has discussed the "wonderfully dysfunctional mother-son relationship" Nick shares with his mother, Dot Cotton, and her perpetual willingness to give Nick another chance, regardless of his history of wrongdoing. Santer explained: "There’s that thing where you sort of dare to hope that someone’s changed, which is really tragic. They’ve let you down a hundred times, and yet you still hope that the hundred and first time they’ll have changed." Grantham has stated that Dot is the "one friend in [Nick's] life", while Treadwell-Collins has affirmed: "Dot's always going to forgive him. And that's the beauty of Nick and Dot." Concurring with this sentiment, Altman agreed: "No matter what he does, she’ll forgive him. So did a lot of gangsters' mothers throughout history. Probably Al Capone's mother thought he was a sweet lad, you know."
The debut episode of EastEnders began with the discovery of elderly resident Reg Cox's dead body, following his murder by Nick. Holland and Smith wanted to introduce the series in a dramatic fashion, and believed the Reg Cox storyline to be a good starting point, allowing various members of the community to be involved with or comment on the circumstances of the old man's murder. Santer has explained that Nick was established as a "kind of spitting, snarling beast right from the outset", with the end of the first episode seeing Nick granted EastEnders' first drum roll ending as he punched through the glass door window of The Queen Victoria pub. After a few weeks of the police investigation, prime suspect Nick left the Square, and in April it was reported that he had been arrested. After Nick's mother, Dot, was introduced to the cast in July, she informed the audience that Nick had managed to get off on probation, and later in the year, he returned to Albert Square. The mystery of Reg's murder was not finally solved until 1988 when Nick confessed to Den Watts in Dickens Hill prison that he had been responsible.
Although Nick was only a semi-regular character, his intermittent appearances were always scripted to make a big impact on the show, as well as all the characters involved in his storylines. He reappeared and left several times during the first few years of the show, causing maximum havoc every time, and it wasn't long before the tabloids had begun to brand the character "Nasty Nick". Altman has commented: "I think they keep bringing Nick back because he’s one of the characters on British TV that people just love to hate". This dislike of the character by the public was shared by the fictional residents of Walford, with Altman explaining: "Every time he comes back he gets shunned by one and all. It’s like being the bad cowboy come riding into town - everybody puts down the shutters and locks up the bar." The character's appearance was tailored to suit this unlikable, "nasty" image, with EastEnders series consultant Simon Ashdown commenting; "When he comes on, you know this guy is bad. He’s got the black hair and the scowl and the leather jacket. He is like that, he is a Dickensian baddy." Frankie Fitzgerald, who played Nick's son Ashley Cotton from 2000–01, agreed: "The look of Nasty Nick, you know, he was a bad guy. Even when he gets dressed up in a suit, he’s still got the earring, he’s still got the rings, he’s still got the tattoo on his neck."
One of Nick's most notable returns to the series occurred in 1990. Nick returned to his mother's life with the claim that he was a born-again Christian, which happened to coincide with her £1000 win on the bingo. EastEnders writer Sarah Phelps explained: "For Dot, the idea that Jesus had finally spoken to Nick, that was all her Christmases coming at once! Nick knew that. It was sort of obvious that Nick could be saying 'Jesus walks with me' and then just go out and kick somebody or nick their wallet." With the help of a fake priest, Nick managed to convince his mother of his newfound faith and then began a slow campaign to control her eating habits and poison her in order to claim her money. The episode which culminated the storyline, written by P.J. Hammond, was set solely in Dot's house and featured an unusually small cast composed of Nick, Dot, Nick's estranged father Charlie (Christopher Hancock), Dot's close friend Ethel Skinner (Gretchen Franklin) and Alistair, the fake priest. At the last moment, in what Altman has called the "one time we saw a glimmer of Nick’s good side", Nick backed out of his plan and stopped Dot from eating the poisoned meal he had intended to kill her with. Once again Dot was left alone, broken-hearted at what her own son had been prepared to do to her.
He was not away from Walford for long. In 1991, he returned to EastEnders with a heroin addiction but his mother was still determined to reform him. Discussing the storyline, Altman has said: "I found the heroin addiction quite exhausting actually, because I grew a really thick beard and my hair was always really filthy. When I was shooting those scenes I met with a guy who was an addict, and he told me things that you go through, like you can’t relax when you’re trying to come off it. You can‘t sleep so you drink loads of alcohol to try and kill the pain. The clock barely seems to move. For me as an actor, they really let me go as far as I could on that. We had letters as well from people saying how it‘s put them off heroin for life, so I guess we did a good job." As the plot unfolded, Dot tried to curtail Nick's addiction by locking him in his room and forcing him to go cold turkey. His resulting paranoia and cravings led him to escape and murder the first person he encountered, The Queen Victoria landlord Eddie Royle (Michael Melia). The episode where Eddie was murdered was the key storyline of the show during the autumn of 1991. Written by Tony McHale, it finished with a cliffhanger featuring Clyde Tavernier (Steven Woodcock) in the gardens standing over Eddie's body and holding a knife. Originally the plan had been for the audience to know from the outset that Nick was responsible, but this was changed to exploit the whodunnit angle. A witness eventually came forward implicating Nick and he stood trial in January 1993. A week's worth of episodes were devoted to the trial, and were all written by Tony Jordan. To present the story of Nick's trial the programme-makers themselves had to review the evidence and watch the episodes leading up to the death of Eddie. In the end, although it was clear that Nick was responsible for stabbing Eddie, it was not clear that it was murder and the jury returned a verdict of not guilty. Altman summarised: "Through having a really good defence and lying his head off once again, he got away with murder".
Nick was written out of the show when June Brown departed from the series in August 1993. Their departing storyline saw Nick introduce Dot to his wife, Zoe, and young son Ashley. Dot was initially unconvinced that Zoe was truly Nick’s wife, as several years before, he had pretended to have a pregnant girlfriend in an attempt to con money out of her. Once Dot was convinced Nick was being truthful, however, she quickly grew close to Ashley, and the family moved to Gravesend together. In 1997, June Brown was persuaded to reprise her role as Dot. Upon her return, Dot explained that Nick had been arrested yet again off-screen for drugs possession, and that Zoe and Ashley had moved away, tired of his criminal acts.
This paved the way for John Altman to reprise his role as Nick in April 1998 when he escaped from prison. He tried to cheat Dot out of her money again by telling her he had AIDS caused by his drug addiction, and that he needed money for his medication and travel around the world before he died. Dot believed him and tried to arrange money for Nick but soon discovered he had been lying about his illness all along, and had him rearrested and sent back to prison.
In late 2000, a special 'soap-bubble' titled The Return of Nick Cotton aired. The episode centred around Nick's release from prison, his reconciliation with his son, and even featured Christopher Hancock who played Nick's father Charlie, making a brief cameo appearance as a ghost almost a decade after his character was killed off. The episode paved the way for Nick's subsequent return to Walford, where he reignited an old feud with Mark Fowler and had a spell in a wheelchair as a result of a fall from the viaduct before departing to a spinal unit in February 2001.
After three months away, he returned in May 2001; he was able to walk but with crutches. This comeback was going to be even shorter than his previous one. Determined to continue the feud with Mark Fowler, he indirectly caused the death of his son, Ashley, after sabotaging Mark's motorbike, only for Ashley to steal and crash it. Following Ashley's death, Dot threw Nick out and told him never to return, as she would never be able to forgive him. She had overheard an argument between Nick and Mark just after the crash, and realised that Nick had tempered with the brakes on Mark's motorbike, which Ashley had then stolen and crashed. She waited until after the funeral before confronting Nick at home.
However, Santer explains: "There will always be a way back to Dot for Nick", a position supported by EastEnders writer James Payne, who states: "[Dot] believes, I think, deep down, that he has the potential for change, that he can be a good boy. I think that she’ll keep wishing that." The first steps towards reconciliation were made in 2006, when Nick developed cancer off-screen, and Dot visited him in prison.
On 2 October 2008 it was reported that Nick would return to EastEnders on Christmas Day that year after more than seven years away. Executive producer Diederick Santer spoke of his excitement at Nick's return, hailing the character as an "EastEnders legend" and "one of the show's best-remembered and best-loved villains". Altman stated: "After an absence of seven years, I am thrilled to return to Albert Square. The BBC have always given me great storylines as Nick Cotton and I look forward to seeing if Nick will once again spread fear and loathing throughout the Square!" June Brown revealed that she had been asking producers to bring Altman back to the soap for 6 or 7 years, as the two of them share such a good working relationship. After spending time in Walsall, Cotton returns; walking normally again, and he is accompanied by his eight year old daughter, Dotty (Molly Conlin). He explained that he had met Dotty’s mother Sandy while living in a squat, and that she was an alcoholic who had recently died, leaving him with custody of Dotty. Altman explained: "Nick needed something, because I think if he didn’t have little Dotty, for him to walk through that door, she would just have treated him as a complete outcast." The actor described other changes to his character since his last appearance, detailing how he had become a plumber, begun dressing more smartly, stopped gelling his hair back and no longer wore an earring.
Although suspicious to begin with, Dot accepted them both into her home, believing that Nick truly had changed this time. Asked whether Nick really was a reformed character, Altman remained ambiguous: "Nick's back, he’s got a cute little daughter. He's become a plumber, he's a changed man. ...Or is he?" As the storyline progressed, Nick's true agenda was revealed when he blackmailed his mother into giving him money for custody of Dotty. A BBC source reportedly told The Sun, "[Dot's] horrified when Nick tells her Dotty is for sale. He shows no emotion and his evil grin sends shivers down her spine. She always knew Nick would sell his soul for the price of some pick ’n mix but she had no idea he’d sell his own daughter.” In a further plot twist, it was revealed to the audience in 2009, that Dotty (real name Kirsty) was colluding with her father all along. In the storyline, Dotty suggested killing Dot for her life assurance policy and they began playing tricks on Dot, leading her to believe that she was suffering with dementia; Nick's aim being to kill Dot and blame her death on her deteriorating mental state. During Nick's brief stay in the square, he overheard Billy Mitchell telling Dot how he let Jase Dyer die and Nick blackmailed Billy demanding regular payments or he would tell Jase's son Jay Brown what Billy did. When Billy's cousin, Phil Mitchell, found out about this, he led Nick into an alleyway and after being wound up and insulted by Nick, he beat him up. Phil gave Billy the opportunity to kill Nick and end this, however, Billy let him go and told Jay the truth himself. The plot with his own daughter to kill his beloved mother climaxes on-screen in June 2009: Nick's plan goes awry after Dotty has a change of heart and ultimately rescues her grandmother from being poisoned, instead drugging Nick. This leads to a series of events whereby Nick, in a bid to escape once his plan has been exposed, holds various members of the community hostage in the café and an accidental fire is started due to a fight between Nick and Ryan Malloy, who was one of the hostages. This results in an explosion at the café with Nick inside. The storyline marked Altman's departure from the show once again. His departing episode was scripted as a cliffhanger, as it was not revealed whether Nick had survived the explosion at the end of the episode. However, in the following episode, on 4 June 2009, Nick is shown to survive the explosion and departs after once again being disowned by Dot. Dotty is left in Dot's care despite Nick explaining to his mother that Dotty is evil.
Nick Cotton has become one of EastEnders' most renowned villains. His 'nastiness' was voted the 25th "Greatest Soap Moment" in a Five poll in 2004, and he has also been voted the 4th most villainous television character in a Channel 4 poll. The Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker has denied Nick's villainous characterisation however, writing: "The man simply isn't menacing; he's half as terrifying as an Argos catalogue. Whereas [Coronation Street villain] Jez Quigley looked as though he'd enjoy riding an onyx stallion through a field full of groaning, recently-impaled victims before galloping home to bathe in the blood of the fallen, Nick Cotton merely looks like he might, at a push, dispute the price of a dented tin of custard with a supermarket checkout girl while you wait behind him, wondering when he last washed his hair." The Times's Fiona McCade satirised the character when Altman appeared on the children's TV show Balamory, advising parents to: "be prepared to cover your little ones’ eyes as the bad boy of soap strides into the colourful, fictional paradise, no doubt goosing Miss Hoolie, upsetting PC Plum and making Josie jump. I also fear for the safety of Archie, the chubby, cheerful posh boy who wears a pink kilt and lives alone in a big pink castle. With Nick in town, he doesn’t stand a chance."
- Smith, Julia and Holland, Tony, EastEnders: The Inside Story
- Ibid. p. 90
- Richard Mears (director, producer), Mark Cossey (executive producer) (2008-12-30). "EastEnders Revealed: Nick Cotton Returns". EastEnders Revealed. Episode 55. BBC. BBC1.
- Brake, Colin, EastEnders: The First 10 Years: A Celebration
- Smith, Julia and Holland, Tony, EastEnders - The Inside Story
- "DOT SQUARES UP TO A NEW START". The Mirror. 28 April 1997. Retrieved 2009-01-04.
- Green, Kris (2 October 2008). "Nick Cotton returns to 'EastEnders'". Digital Spy. Retrieved 2008-10-02.
- Blackburn, Jen (2 January 2009). "Rotten Cotton". The Sun (London). Retrieved 2009-05-16.
- "Eastenders: The Week Ahead: Nasty Nick's plan to kill Dot Cotton". Sunday Mercury. 17 January 2009. Retrieved 2009-05-16.
- Green, Kris. "The café explodes". Digital Spy. Retrieved 27 May 2009.
- Lee, Cara (25 May 2009). "Nick hot'un". The Sun (London). Retrieved 28 May 2009.
- "John Altman on Nick’s dramatic exit!". What's on TV. 1 June 2009. Retrieved 2 June 2009.
- "Television polls", Custard.tv. URL last accessed on 2006-10-26.
- Brooker, Charlie (22 November 2000). "No pain, no gain". The Guardian (London: Guardian Media Group). Retrieved 2008-12-31.
- McCade, Fiona (10 April 2005). "Restless Native: Fiona McCade: I prefer ordinary decent criminals". The Sunday Times. Times Newspapers. Retrieved 2008-12-31.
- Smith, Julia; Holland, Tony (1987). EastEnders - The Inside Story. Book Club Associates. ISBN 0-563-20601-2.
- Brake, Colin (1995). EastEnders: The First 10 Years: A Celebration. BBC Books. ISBN 0-563-37057-2.