Monday, 16 May 2016
Life after the Carry Ons: Barbara Windsor
This is part of a new occasional series of blogs in which I will look at the careers of each of the main Carry On team players once they left the series. Some would go on to appear in many other productions over the years while others would sadly not be so fortunate. Today I am looking at the later career of Barbara Windsor.
One of the last survivors of the original main Carry On team, Barbara has endured longer than many of her contemporaries, but it hasn't always been plain sailing. From the late 1970s until the early 1990s, Barbara's career sagged in the doldrums while casting directors failed to see past the image of bubbly, frothy Carry On blonde. While this image may have worked well for her in the 1960s, by the time the actress hit middle age, you could understand why she might want to do other things. Although only appearing in nine feature films with the gang over a ten year period, the persona she created was so strong and memorable that even now she is forever linked to the cheeky giggle, saucy innuendos and bra-popping antics in the Pinewood orchard.
However Barbara is a survivor and a tough cookie. She has freely admitted in the past that her life (both professional and personal) has been a complete roller coaster and it certainly made for interesting headlines in the tabloids. So what turns did Barbara's career take after she parted company with the Carry Ons?
Amazingly, Barbara made her last original Carry On film over forty years ago. In Carry On Dick, the sauciest and possibly dirtiest of the series to date, she bade farewell. She had risen up the billing by that stage to be, in effect, the Carry Ons' leading lady, Rogers and Thomas clearly seizing upon her undeniable chemistry with Sid James. Although Barbara wouldn't return for another full film with the team (she missed Behind due to a theatre tour, England due to Sid's recent death and Emmannuelle because she thought it was filth - she wasn't wrong) she did front the 1977 compilation That's Carry On, filming for several days in a editing suite at Pinewood with Kenneth Williams.
Indeed, Barbara's relationship with the Carry On legend ever since has been somewhat chequered. Despite her lack of further appearances in the films, she would be a prolific star of the ATV series Carry On Laughing in 1975. Theatre tours in the late 1970s would capitalise on her Carry On fame with "Carry On Barbara" being the name of several ventures. She returned to film linking footage for a compilation for television in 1983 although has failed to take part in many of the tribute documentaries that have materialised since. In 1992, she turned down a role in Carry On Columbus, only to sail forth in an end of the pier revue at Blackpool with Bernard Bresslaw, which boasted a strong Carry On theme.
Away from the Carry Ons, the 1970s and 1980s saw Barbara's fame maintained by her personal life. There were many theatrical tours though and Barbara grafted in endless regional pantomimes over the years. She also worked with Carry On colleague Kenneth Williams on a production of the Joe Orton play Entertaining Mr Sloane in the early 1980s. An unusual but well received departure for Windsor. The 1980s and early 1990s saw some interesting television work. She had a recurring role as Saucy Nancy in the series Worzel Gummidge alongside Jon Pertwee. She popped up in sitcoms such as You Rang M'Lord? and One Foot in the Grave and even sent up her old Carry On persona, co-starring with Jack Douglas and Kenneth Connor in Harry Enfield's Norbert Smith: A Life.
All this was a far cry from the 1960s starlet who took Joan Littlewood's Stratford East by storm. However Barbara's luck would change in 1994 when she was cast as Peggy Mitchell in the BBC 1 flagship soap opera, EastEnders. Barbara spent sixteen years in Albert Square and was one of the show's biggest and best loved actors. She was extremely prominent throughout her mammoth stint, regularly silencing critics with her spirited portrayal, gritty storylines and impressive performances. There is no doubt that EastEnders saved Barbara's career and completey turned around her fortunes.
These days, Barbara is a fully fledged national treasure. She has been given the freedom of the City of London, won countless awards, had portraits of herself unveiled all over the place and even been made a Dame. She epitomises Britishness and we must all respect her grit, determination and lust for life. She's leading a quiet life these days compared to the previous decades although I doubt she'll ever fully retire and I hope she never will. Barbara seems to have found lasting happiness with Scott, her husband of 16 years and good for her.
Barbara's return to EastEnders will end another chapter in her long career and I think for many, due to the nature of her exit, it will be painful to watch. Whatever comes next, it's bound to be unexpected, colourful and very, very Barbara!