The life of Barbara Windsor

James Oliver 11 December 2020

We take a look back at the amazing life of the bubbly British actress, and the work that won the nation's hearts

It might sound odd to compare Barbara Windsor, who has died aged 83, to fellow blondes Marilyn Monroe or Anita Ekberg (neither of them, after all, ever won a British Soap Award) but they're all of them, in their way, iconic; all of them famous for one moment that's imprinted on the minds of cinemagoers.

Marilyn standing over the air-vent, her dress billowing, Ms. Ekberg in the Trevi Fountain... and our Babs covering her modesty after her bra's pinged off in Carry On Camping; not just (probably) the most famous moment from that series of films, but one of the most famous images in the whole of British cinema.

It was a moment that froze her and defined her—the saucy, cheeky blonde, the human embodiment of vulgar seaside postcards. When she first showed up in Eastenders (in 1994), it was assumed to be stunt casting. People were quite surprised that—blimey!—she was a decent actress too. But then, she was full of surprises, Barbara Windsor.

For a start, “Windsor” wasn't here real name; her parents were Mr and Mrs Deeks. She's not usually included in role call of working class actors made good—yer Michael Caines, yer Albert Finneys—but she was as authentic as any of them, of very humble stock (father a costermonger, mother a dressmaker), born and raised in the old East End. But she knew she was as good as anyone: there's something wonderfully impudent that she took her stage name from the Queen. (Barbara and Elizabeth Windsor were brought face to face when the former was made a dame in 2016.)

She began working in showbiz as a chorus girl in the West End, supplementing her wages by tiny turns providing background glamour in British film, but started to attract more than wolf whistles when she joined the Theatre Workshop. Run by producer Joan Littlewood, the Theatre Workshop was egalitarian and inventive, committed to creating working class theatre using working class actors.

It was through Littlewood that she started to enjoy better roles in cinema, most notably in Sparrows Can't Sing; arriving just as the vogue for Kitchen Sink drama started to wane, it was an adaption of one of the Theatre Workshop's most significant productions. Set in a lovingly depicted East End, it concerns a sailor who returns home to find his wife—Windsor—has shacked up with another bloke. While there's potential there for a gritty, downbeat drama, Littlewood (who also directed) stresses the humanity and humour of these people.

And Windsor was a knockout; the only nod it got from BAFTA was for her, as Best Actress no less (she lost to Rachel Roberts in This Sporting Life). Viewed with hindsight, this might sound surprising; her fellow nominees included Sarah Miles and Julie Christie, neither of whom ever appeared in a Carry On film. Windsor might reasonably have been expected to take more conventionally prestigious roles, and it's not hard to escape the thought that class  played its part; Christie and Miles were, after all, good middle class young ladies who spoke proper.

Or maybe she genuinely chose the path she was most comfortable with. Either way, in 1964, she joined the Carry On team with Carry On Spying. It says much about Windsor's sheer presence that she's so associated with Carry On when she appeared in only nine, far fewer than Joan Sims, say, or Patsy Rowlands. Her persona was that of the brassy blonde who can look after herself; she may have been the go-to glamourpuss but she was every bit the equal of the men who lusted after her, and generally their superior. (These days, it's a little … disconcerting? to see this 20-something young woman being ogled by middle-aged men but hey! #DifferentTimes.)

She was always happy to talk Carry On, having very happy memories of the filming and the camaraderie. (She always shuddered at the memory of that most famous scene in Carry on Camping, though; it wasn't terribly comfy being almost naked in November, when they filmed it.) Kenneth Williams became a great friend—she even brought him with her on honeymoon after she married her first husband. And the flirting her characters did with Sid James onscreen was continued (and escalated) off-screen during a lengthy affair.

The Carry On films made her famous, even if they did stunt her career as an actress; for a long time she was more renowned as a personality—“Bubbly Babs Windsor” (c) every tabloid newspaper in the 1980s)—than as an actress, even if she continued to work on stage and get good notices too. So there was some cynicism when it was announced that she was to play Peggy, the mother of Phil and Grant Mitchell in Eastenders.

It's never easy joining an existing Soap, but Barbara Windsor made it look easy, establishing herself as the matriarch of Albert Square by pure force of personality, never shy to boot people out of “her pub”. She joined the cast in 1994 and  stayed with it on and off, until 2016 when it became impossible for her to continue; she was suffering from dementia, the disease that has now taken her. She asked that Peggy be killed off and she was in an appropriately bold ending, self-euthanised rather than succumbing to cancer.

Her turn in Eastenders solidified the affection in which she was already held—it would be a brave person indeed who tries to argue that she wasn't a national treasure. She may have been a far better actress than she was ever given credit for, but people sensed how much of herself she brought to each role; interviewers routinely confirmed that she was the same off-screen as she was on it, warm hearted, quick-witted and generous. She was also famously down to earth; she would never call herself anything so la-di-da as “an icon”. That, though, is exactly what she was, and a beloved one that.

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