Friday 11 December 2020

Remembering Dame Barbara Windsor

Dame Barbara Windsor has passed away at the age of 83. A cliché of course, but Barbara was someone you could imagine being around forever. Made public in 2018, her battle with Alzheimer’s disease was a cruel end to a life so full of energy, humour and passion. Barbara fought it bravely, in character with the way she lived her life. Gutsy, determined, full of spirit. And all with her beloved husband Scott by her side.

Barbara Windsor wasn’t my favourite Carry On star. She grabbed many of the headlines over the years and had a firm place in all our affections, but for me Joan Sims and Hattie Jacques were my leading Carry On ladies. I admired Barbara more for her other work – and there was so much of it. She was a grafter who endured many ups and downs during a professional life which spanned seven decades. She will forever be known for her nine Carry On films and her long run as pub landlady and fierce East End matriarch Peggy Mitchell in EastEnders. There was much more to Barbara than that.

Barbara made her name as part of Joan Littlewood’s famous Theatre Workshop troupe of actors, based at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. Barbara rose to fame there, becoming Joan’s ‘Little Bird’. Starring in Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’be and Oh! What a Lovely War, she was a sensation. Her association with Joan led to her big screen break in Sparrows Can’t Sing in 1963. From there, film comedy stardom beckoned.

Barbara’s mother had started it all. Sending her daughter for elocution lessons, this led to training at the famous Aida Foster School. 1952 saw Barbara make her West End debut in the musical Love From Judy – where she first met fellow comedy legend Dame June Whitfield. Barbara stayed in the chorus for two years. Early film roles soon followed, including that of a school girl in 1954’s The Belles of St Trinian’s, a young girl in the chemist’s in Lost (1956), a switchboard operator in Make Mine a Million (1959) and Mavis in On The Fiddle in 1961. Each of these films brought her into contact with future Carry On co-stars. At the same time, Barbara was appearing in cabaret at Winston’s nightclub in London’s West End, alongside another future star – Amanda Barrie.

Barbara first joined the Carry On team in 1964 when she played super spy Daphne Honeybutt in Carry On Spying. She was a breath of fresh air for the series and for me, this first role is her best performance in the films. It mixes saucy humour and a certain knowingness with a sweetness and innocence which was lost in later entries. She also looks absolutely stunning in Alan Hume’s crisp black and white photography. She holds her own in Spying opposite more experienced, male comedy actors in Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey and Bernard Cribbins. All three men would become lifelong friends to Barbara.

Indeed, Kenneth and Barbara were inseparable and in many ways similar characters. So close were they that Kenneth, his sister Pat and mother Louie even joined Barbara on her honeymoon abroad in 1964. Such stories are the stuff of legend for Carry On fans. Although the ideal fit for the Carry Ons, it would be a further three years before she appeared again with the famous comedy team. Returning for a supporting role as Nurse Sandra May in Carry On Doctor, her status as a comedy icon was confirmed. Barbara, dolled up in her nurses uniform mincing up to Peter Gilmore, Bernard Bresslaw or Sid James for a bout of obvious innuendo are images forever imbedded in the nation’s psyche.

Perhaps her most famous Carry On role remains that of the cheeky overgrown schoolgirl Babs in Carry On Camping. The classic, oft replayed exercise sequence with Kenneth Williams and Hattie Jacques’ Matron is part of cinematic history. It gains a reaction from audiences no matter how many times we’ve all seen it. Barbara always talked fondly (if also realistically) about making these low budget films and to her credit, even though for much of her life she was type-cast by them, she never forgot them or her wonderful co-stars. After many of her Carry On colleagues had passed away, Barbara became the main focal point of love and affection for the Carry Ons. As the films became popular and even fashionable again with younger generations, she was a tangible link to the past and never shied away from that. A Carry On ambassador in the 21st century.

If anything was going to eclipse the Carry On image, it was her brave career move to the BBC soap opera EastEnders in 1994. Following several years in the wilderness – summer seasons and the odd television guest role – Barbara was back in the public eye. And for many, it was a surprise to see Barbara flexing her serious acting muscles in the role of Peggy Mitchell. She challenged our perceptions of that fluffy Carry On image by putting in some heart breaking dramatic performances, never less than when her character was diagnosed with breast cancer. Barbara was never afraid of taking a risk or pushing herself and her EastEnders character provoked strong reactions on occasion. She was a star all over again, winning awards for her portrayal of such a strong woman. In retrospect, the role had been waiting for her all her working life.

Departing EastEnders for good back in 2016, her farewell was poignant and final. We did not yet know the serious battle she was facing in real life too. Courageous, steadfast, determined, feisty but with a heart of gold. Barbara was old school showbiz, revered by colleagues old and new. Her final battle may have taken her from us but her light will never be dimmed. She was a national treasure, a one-off, a star who transcended generations and genres. The very best of British. Our Babs.


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