The actress Barbara Windsor has died at the age of 83, after having been ill with dementia for some time. The obituaries will doubtless use many of the same phrases: “the passing of an iconic national treasure”, “when her bra flew off in Carry on Camping it led to the sexual awakening of a repressed nation” and “as the landlady of the Queen Vic, Babs, as she was known, became known to a younger generation”.
Windsor was four feet ten of giggling, suggestive femininity
All of these things are true. But just as the death of Ken Dodd in 2017 saw the end of a great tradition of vaudeville and music hall, so the demise of Barbara Windsor represents a similar passing, that of a sensibility that could be found disparately in the postcards of Donald McGill and the theatre of Restoration comedy. Four feet ten of giggling, suggestive (but never overly eroticised) femininity, Babs was a uniquely British actress and comedian whose true worth, thankfully, was realised comparatively early in her long career.
Hers was an extraordinarily rich and varied life. Born in Shoreditch in 1937 as Barbara Deeks, she won a scholarship to a convent school, during which time she had elocution lessons. She had set her sights on an acting career from an early age, and prospered, at a time when bright young things from a working-class background did not have to compete for roles apparently mainly designed for the privately educated. Nonetheless, she changed her surname in 1953, in a nod to the Queen’s recent coronation. She first appeared on stage at 13, in the West End at 15, and made her film debut in the first and greatest of the St Trinian’s film series, The Belles of St Trinian’s. At 17, she was rather more appropriately cast as a schoolgirl than many of the rather superannuated cast were, and she was soon earmarked for greater things.
Her most significant collaborator in “artistic” work was Joan Littlewood, the uncompromising and innovative theatre director. Littlewood cast her in several productions at her Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, most notably the future Oliver! composer Lionel Bart’s Cockney lowlife comedy Fings Ain’t What They Used T’Be, and gave Windsor her most notable dramatic role on screen in the film Sparrows Can’t Sing. Coincidentally, the screenwriter Stephen Lewis would later go on to both fame and typecasting in the role of the put-upon bus inspector Blakey in On The Buses. Windsor played a young woman who has left her absent sailor husband and moved in with a bus driver, much to the returning adventurer’s distaste and anger.
The film represented a slice-of-life drama of early Sixties Britain, devoid of the mini-skirted glossiness and Union Jacked-Jaguars that would inaccurately come to epitomise the era in the eyes of the nostalgic, and Windsor managed to bring a potentially thin role to vivid, affecting life. She was nominated for a BAFTA for the role, and although she was beaten by Rachel Roberts, who won for This Sporting Life, she could at least enjoy the spectacle of one of the East End’s most glitzy celebrations of the decade, orchestrated by her former lover Reggie Kray and his brother Ronnie. As she later reminisced, “I arrived in a Roller with my first husband, Ronnie Knight. There were thousands of people lining the Mile End Road, cheering and waving flags. Evidently Ronnie and Reggie had turned them all out of their houses, saying, ‘Let’s welcome our little lady. Let’s show royalty how we are’.”
Yet it was two roles that would define Windsor in the bulk of her career. In the latter instance, it was her performance as the East End matriarch and Queen Vic landlady Peggy Mitchell in EastEnders, forever telling miscreants and ne’er-do-wells to “clear outta my pub!” Arguably she lacked the rich dramatic opportunities with the role that her co-star June Brown was offered as Dot Cotton – she never had the single episode monologue that Brown had in Pretty Baby, receiving a BAFTA nomination in the process – but she rose impressively to both the comic and tragic opportunities within the role, with a particularly affecting final appearance in which, knowing that her breast cancer had turned terminal, Peggy decided to take her own life.
Windsor was usually on screen to be ogled, a state of affairs that she accepted with good grace
However, as Boris Johnson praised her “harmless sauciness” in the wake of her death, it was not her role as Peggy that he was referring to. After her success in Sparrows Can’t Sing, Windsor seemed briefly set on a conventional dramatic path, accepting a role in Ionesco’s absurdist comedy Rhinoceros opposite Tony Hancock. However, alcoholism meant that Hancock was unable to fulfil his obligations to the role, and an out-of-work Windsor took the role of Daphne Honeybutt in the ninth Carry On film, Carry On Spying. The part was not an especially taxing or demanding one, generally requiring Windsor to titter a great deal and look ornamental while the machinations of the plot, such as it was, were left to the series regulars Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey, along with guest star Bernard Cribbins. Yet it established Windsor as part of the Carry On core team, and she would appear in eight subsequent films in the series.
It is fair to say that the Carry On films never offered particularly distinguished roles for women. The three central female mainstays, Windsor, Hattie Jacques and Joan Sims, were marooned in variants on a theme in film after film. Jacques was the matronly battle-axe, often finding herself in some more than usually compromising position with Williams or, if he was unavailable and the writing was more than usually unlikely, Hawtrey. Sims was landed with the maternal roles, usually in some sort of chiding position opposite a lecherous Sid James. Which meant that the sex appeal, such as it was in those films, fell to Windsor. She was usually on screen to be ogled, groped, chased and otherwise propositioned, a state of affairs that she accepted with good grace and amused humour.
Williams, by all accounts a misanthrope with few close friends, was a great admirer of her, on both a personal and professional level. Not only did he say, of her famous décolletage, that she had “a chest like a confectioner’s counter”, but he wrote in his diary, of a trying evening with his colleagues, “Had Sid, Hattie, Joan, Barbara, Bernard & Charlie around for dinner. They were all perfectly awful except for Barbara whom I love more than anything else in the world.” It would not be a Williams diary entry without a sting in the tale, however, as he qualified his praise by saying “and even she is a stupid cunt”.
Such an insult proved to be entirely unfounded. While the Carry On series never delved into the slice-of-life melancholy of contemporary television sitcoms such as On The Buses or Til Death Us Do Part, most of the actors in the films led deeply miserable private lives, bedevilled with closeted homosexuality, alcoholism and career-ending typecasting. It was telling that the two who avoided such fates and went on to considerably more successful careers, Windsor and Jim Dale, tended to play the most likeable and normal characters in the films, reflecting their cheerier and friendlier personalities.
Hers was a remarkable life, lived extremely well, and richly deserving of the Damehood
Although she continued to pursue a theatrical career both distinguished (Brecht, Orton, one of the great Marias in Twelfth Night) and best forgotten (Lionel Bart’s disastrous Robin Hood musical Twang!), she remained known as a light comic actress, something that she skilfully parlayed into her performance in EastEnders. Much as many might have liked her to come out in later life and decry the Carry On series for its sexism and antiquated attitudes, she never did. Despite her work with Littlewood, she was a proud Tory voter who once commented in a Seventies interview (promoting Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, of all things) that “I’ve always voted Conservative … most actors do”. She became Johnson’s “Street Party Champion” in 2011, and what political engagement she had during the last years of her life centred on attempting to draw attention to the dementia that she had been diagnosed with in 2014.
There will never be another Barbara Windsor, just as there will never be another Carry On series. She expressed a risqué guilelessness that countless starlets have attempted to imitate since, but never with the peerless success that Windsor epitomised. She was, despite Williams’s comments as to her intelligence, the savviest and most self-aware of performers, whose apparent limitations swiftly became her strengths, and she had that rare quality of total likeability that many actors have aspired to but very few manage to convey. Hers was a remarkable life, lived extremely well, and richly deserving of the Damehood that she was awarded in 2016.
My only regret is that she can now never be cast in a fantastical Carry On Brexit as a particularly giggly Ursula von der Kempen, always coquettishly telling Sid James’s Boris Johnson to “put away his withdrawal agreement”, while Kenneth Williams’s Michael Gove huffs histrionically about the precise firmness of the Brexit he requires. We can but dream.
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