National treasure Dame Barbara Windsor died on Thursday night, aged 83. This was long-expected, but it is still a shock — she was indestructible showbiz royalty. As Joan Collins rightly says: ‘Showbusiness has lost a legend.’
Her final years were clouded by Alzheimer’s disease, which first became apparent in 2014 when she could no longer learn her lines — and she’d always been what is called in the profession ‘a quick study’.
Through sheer persistence, Babs managed to keep playing Peggy Mitchell in EastEnders for a further two years. Once she could no longer perform, she channelled her energy into the Alzheimer’s Society. In an open letter to the Government, she wrote: ‘My heart goes out to the many, many people who are really struggling to get the care they so desperately need.’
National treasure Dame Barbara Windsor died on Thursday night, aged 83. This was long-expected, but it is still a shock — she was indestructible showbiz royalty. Pictured: Reggie Kray (right) with Barbara Windsor and her first husband Ronnie Knight (left)
As Joan Collins rightly says: ‘Showbusiness has lost a legend’. Her final years were clouded by Alzheimer’s disease, which first became apparent in 2014 when she could no longer learn her lines
Dame Barbara Windsor, best known for her roles in EastEnders and the Carry On films, has died aged 83, her husband Scott Mitchell (pictured in one of their final photos together last Feburary) revealed
Sadly, her condition worsened during lockdown, and she’d been in a care home in London since August.
But let’s remember Babs in her prime, the irrepressible 4ft 10in larger-than-life personality of whom Benny Hill announced: ‘You’ve got to see these t*ts. They’re fantastic!’
She was a tabloid Press dream, her life and career, as she said herself, ‘a cross between a Carry On and a Joe Orton play’.
There were five abortions. She associated with gangsters. Attendees at her parties included bank robbers and killers, with names such as Limehouse Willy and Big Scotch Pat.
She showed signs of nymphomania in her teens, when she admits she became ‘a right little goer, putting it about freely’. By the year 2000 she was able to look back at ‘God knows how many partners over more than 40 years’.
Outside of the showbiz world she was made a Dame (pictured) in the Years Honours List in 2016 for her services to charity and entertainment
Barbara (pictured as a child) was born in Shoreditch to a fruit and veg cart seller and a dressmaker, making her stage debut aged 13
In the 1950s she attended the Aida Foster Theatre School in London’s Golders Green (pictured) before becoming a household name in the 1960s and 1970s
The catalogue included Charlie and Reggie Kray (‘I had no regrets’), George Best (‘it was a great night’) and veteran Carry On star Sid James, a relationship that now seems, in retrospect, controlling and coercive, barely consensual. ‘I thought he just wanted to give me one. Wallop!’ Babs joked grimly.
Until she married Scott Mitchell, 26 years her junior, in April 2000, when she was 63, Babs had appalling taste in men — always going after sorts who were a combination of machismo and sentiment, and who would drink a bit and get into fights.
One such, Thomas Powell, had his face slashed, ‘which would make it difficult to play the harmonica’, Babs commented sympathetically.
The 4ft 10in star first found fame in her role as a buxom blonde in the Carry On films – pictured in Carry On Again Doctor – and later became a household name playing Peggy Mitchell, the Queen Vic’s battle-axe landlady in BBC soap EastEnders
One of Dame Barbara’s most famous scenes was in 1969’s Carry On Camping, when her bikini top flew off in the middle of an exercise class (left). Right: Dame Barbara in Aladdin aged 20
In 1964, she married a hoodlum called Ronnie Knight, who drove a Ford Zephyr. ‘We went at it frantically,’ explained Babs. Ronnie had no respect for the law and was in and out of prison and the courts, accused of murder, for which he was acquitted, and arson.
Eventually, still pursued by the police, he took refuge in Spain. Babs was always trying to secure bail and furnish alibis.
Every time she answered the door, the Old Bill thundered up the stairs with sniffer dogs.
A psychologist would argue that when it came to partners, Babs, who was born in 1937 in Shoreditch, East London, was trying to find and replicate her estranged father, John Deeks. He was a surly and charismatic ex-soldier, who found it difficult to settle down after the war. He and Babs’s mother, Rose, clashed openly. Rose, a dressmaker who was fond of running up flashy clothes, was herself prickly, unpredictable, critical, easily bored — so the atmosphere at home was tense and violent.
Babs’s parents eventually divorced, and they took out their frustrations on their only child. If he saw her in the street, Babs’s father cut her dead. ‘Most nights I’d cry myself to sleep,’ she recalled. ‘I was so frightened and miserable.’
Her parents’ temperamental restlessness was something Babs inherited. She was highly intelligent, quick and shrewd.
She took her Eleven-Plus exam a year early and ‘went on to achieve the highest marks in North London’.
At Our Lady’s Convent in Stamford Hill, Babs was always top of the form, unless she decided to be naughty. Each weekend she attended dance schools in Stoke Newington and was never to know what stage-fright meant, as ‘confidence oozed out of me’.
The TV icon – who became a Dame in 2016 (pictured) – appeared in her first film The Belles Of St Trinian’s as a teenager (pictured)
Dame Barbara curtseying to Dame Shirley Bassey at Buckingham Palace. Dame Barbara said at the time: ‘I was getting the MBE, and I put on hat and gloves for the Queen. I’ve known Shirley Bassey since I was about 16 and she was being made a Dame. I thought ‘I’ve got to curtsey to her, haven’t I?’ I know my place. She shrieked with laughter’
Permission was reluctantly granted for her to appear in pantomime at Golders Green Hippodrome, of which she said: ‘I thought showbiz was waiting for me.’
It was. Though Babs worked briefly in a shoe shop, the theatre had claimed her. She left school without qualifications and was hired to play juveniles on a tour to Coventry and Bournemouth.
Being 4ft 10in in her socks, her secret of employment was that for years she never looked older than 12 — indeed, at 56 she was still bouncing about as Aladdin.
Plus, with puberty came her breasts. ‘From the word go,’ she said, ‘I had blokes giving me the eye and chatting me up.’
She found this enormously flattering — it was attention.
The Queen visited Elstree Studios – where EastEnders is filmed – in 2001. There she met Dame Barbara who played Peggy Mitchell
Dame Barbara Windsor pictured at home reading her autobiography All Of Me
TRIBUTES FROM THE STARS
SIR Elton John: The world has lost the biggest ray of light. And Heaven has the sweetest and funniest angel. #RIP
David Walliams: Goodbye Dame Babs. You were my first love as a child in the Carry On films and I will love you for ever. Working with you, spending time with you and being your friend was one of the greatest thrills of my life. The unofficial Queen of England, an icon treasured by the nation.
Paul O’Grady: I’m absolutely gutted to hear that my friend of 30 years, Dame Barbara Windsor, has passed away. She was an incredible lady and if you looked up the definition of ‘professional’ in the dictionary it would say Barbara Windsor. My love and sympathy to her husband Scott. Rest in peace, Bar, it was a privilege to have known you.
Boris Johnson: So sad about Barbara Windsor, so much more than a great pub landlady and Carry On star. She campaigned for the lonely and the vulnerable — and cheered the world up with her own British brand of harmless sauciness and innocent scandal. Thoughts with Scott and all her family and friends.
Dame Joan Collins: Showbusiness has lost a legend. Barbara Windsor: You will be missed.
Patsy Palmer: I’m extremely sad to hear that my friend Dame Barbara Windsor has passed away. I’m thinking of the hundreds of memories we shared. Too many to comprehend. We were like family for a long time, but you will never meet a more professional actress than Babs. Scott, you were the best husband she could’ve wished for. You deserve the highest accolade.
Christopher Biggins: She was exceptional. She would never go out of the house without looking A1. She wouldn’t put a Mac on to buy something around the corner. She would do the full make-up. The seams on her stockings had to be perfect and the hair wonderful. She was a joy to be with, her enthusiasm for life. Everybody loved her.
Despite her physical assets, her blonde bubbliness and her cheeky and infectious laugh, there was always something more to a Barbara Windsor performance — a self-mockery that would eventually achieve for her the iconic and indisputable status of national treasure, a light entertainment version of Judi Dench, her fellow dame.
As Kenneth Williams, a hard person to please, wrote in his diary in 1964: ‘She is a charming little girl . . . immensely likeable, vulnerable and funny. Totally adorable.’
Babs was also always the very opposite of insipid — she never looked bruised and puffy, like, say, Diana Dors. Indeed, Williams liked Babs so much that when she and Ronnie went on their honeymoon to Madeira, he insisted on going with them. He also took his mother and sister.
As well as her acting, Babs was a nightclub singer with Danny La Rue and Ronnie Corbett, who, along with a couple of lecherous dwarves in the cast, drove her mad because their ‘heads were level with my chest’.
She was recruited by Joan Littlewood — ‘who could be a right cow!’ — to appear in Lionel Bart musicals at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. She also made a well-received film with James Booth, directed by Littlewood and written by Stephen Lewis, later of On The Buses fame, called Sparrows Can’t Sing.
The Dame (pictured in Carry On Abroad) was also a self-proclaimed ‘Tory and fervent nationalist’ and once declared that anyone who didn’t wear a poppy for Remembrance Day should ‘sod off’
Barbara Windsor and her first-husband Ronnie Knight with gangster Reggie Kray (right) and his wife Frances Shea (left) at the El Morocco nightclub, owned by the Kray Twins in Soho, London, April 30, 1965
It was released in 1963 and Babs was complimented on her performance by none other than Paul Newman.
The success of Bart’s Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be, which transferred to the West End for a long run in 1960, was followed, five years later, by the disaster of the Robin Hood epic, Twang!!
‘We’ve done our best. It’s not our fault the show’s a mess,’ Babs yelled defiantly at the departing, booing audience.
She was playing Delphina, a ‘Cockney nymphomaniac’ according to a surviving programme note. As she explained to me much later: ‘Lionel was out of his skull on drugs, pinning new lyrics on the scenery and giving Joan and the rest of us rewrites that made little sense. Ronnie Corbett went to the toilet. When he came back his big song had been cut.’
Babs was rescued by the Carry On franchise in which, stripped to her corsets or naked in the bath covered with soap bubbles, she played schoolgirl minxes, courtesans and provocative nurses with names including Daphne Honeybutt, Goldie Locks, Hope Springs and Lady Bristol.
The actress in ‘Carry on Dick’ in 1974. Outside of the showbiz world she was a fervent campaigner for the NHS and for many years was the face of the annual British legion appeal and an ambassador for Age UK
The innuendo-laden dialogue was a peach, such as: ‘I’ve never had it.’ ‘What?’ ‘A White Christmas.’ Wiggling along the ward in Carry On Doctor in 1967, Babs sent the patients’ blood pressure rocketing. Even Frankie Howerd’s thermometer exploded.
In Carry On Camping, filmed two years later in a freezing muddy meadow at Pinewood, her bra flew off and hit Kenneth Williams full in the face. ‘I don’t think Miss Windsor’s right nipple is going to corrupt the nation,’ commented the censor in the enlightened 1960s.
Sid James’s famous leer, ‘Cor blimey!’ however, barely concealed his genuine and suffocating passion. Twenty-four years Babs’s senior, and married, his pestering was lecherous and creepy. ‘It was terrible. It was hell,’ Babs admitted after his death.
He showered her with expensive, unwanted gifts, trinkets, flowers — he groomed her into having sex in a hotel room. ‘I just wanted to get it over with,’ she said, innocently hoping Sid would then go away.
When Babs attempted to reject him, Sid wept and made jealous scenes, threatening that if she didn’t comply, ‘I’ll be dead within a year’.
He never did get over her. He started drinking whisky heavily and died on stage in Sunderland in April 1976.
It wasn’t until 1985, when she discovered that Ronnie Knight was on the Costas with a floozie, that Babs divorced him.
His successor, Stephen Hollings, a chef, doesn’t sound as if he was vastly better.
Actress Barbara Windsor pouring champagne for her husband Ronnie Knight as her mother Rose looks on after the first night of Sing a Rude Song at the Garrick Theatre in 1970
Babs lost £922,000 in a pub venture of his in Amersham, Bucks, as she was the signatory and guarantor for mortgages and overdrafts. To try to pay off the crippling debts she made many cameo appearances — Dad’s Army, Saucy Nancy in Worzel Gummidge, a Ken Russell film, Shakespeare in Chichester, and a sex-mad landlady in Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane.
There were lots of pantomimes up and down the country, with Keith Harris and Orville, Cannon and Ball, John Inman and Gyles Brandreth, with whom she collaborated on The Book Of Boobs — not what you’re thinking: it was a compendium of funny misprints.
I spent a week with Babs myself, in 2010, when she made what was to be her final stage appearance, in the lavish Dick Whittington in Bristol.
She was generous with the drinks backstage. ‘Proper champagne from me. I’m not like Cilla.’
In her hotel suite was a foot spa and boxes of salt and vinegar crisps. She told me that printing and posting her Christmas cards cost approximately £5,000 each year. It was important to her that she could splash out like this — she was terrified that she’d end up in poverty like Joan Sims and Charles Hawtrey, who couldn’t afford the stamps to reply to fan mail.
Hollings, whom Babs divorced in 1995, thanked his wife for her loyalty, grit and dedication by telling the Press about her ‘saggy boobs, straggly clumps of grey hair and no eyelashes’.
Barbara Windsor poses and smiles for the camera with Anthony McPartlin and Declan Donnelly at the Bafta Awards in London in 2000
It was in this exhausted yet indefatigable fashion that, between 1994 and 2016, with a few years off in the middle, she played the role of Peggy Mitchell in EastEnders — for which she won the 1999 British Soap Award for Best Actress. At last Babs was cast as a woman closer to her own real age. The domineering landlady of the Queen Vic, mother of the thuggish Grant and Phil, was also a portrait of her mother — and of her own Cockney relatives, though in the documentary Who Do You Think You Are? it was revealed that Babs’s ancestors actually came from Ireland and Suffolk, and there were links with the artist John Constable.
It was a career of immense heights, culminating in 2016 with her being made, as a vociferous Tory supporter, a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. When, at her investiture, Babs asked the Queen if she watched EastEnders, she received the diplomatic answer: ‘It comes on at the wrong time for me.’
Of course, there were many corresponding lows, such as dealing with Gareth Hunt’s exploding haemorrhoids in Southampton, fighting with Bernard Bresslaw over billing in Blackpool, and switching on the Christmas lights in rainy Milton Keynes.
For his part, John Deeks, in addition to whatever other resentments he harboured, never forgave his daughter for changing her stage name to Windsor.
Tragic news: Dame Barbara, best known for her roles in EastEnders and the Carry On films passed away on Thursday, her husband Scott Mitchell confirmed (pictured in 2015)
When Babs, desperate for a reconciliation, tracked him down in later life and gave him some presents, he flung them on the floor. Her mother, Rose, also remained unappeased. ‘Oh Babs, I wish I’d never taken you away from the convent,’ she said. Her ambition was that Babs should have become a foreign language telephonist.
Charles Hawtrey was another one immune to Babs’s magic. He refused to put his arm around her for a Press photograph at the Dorchester, reeling away and crying: ‘No thank you. Find me a gentleman instead!’ But for most of us, Dame Barbara Windsor was, and will remain, a life force. She always rose above adversity. She was bold. Despite the cruelty of Alzheimer’s, she was never frail. Even after being diagnosed and no longer able to perform, she channelled her energy into charity work, visiting Boris Johnson at Number 10 on behalf of the Alzheimer’s Society.
The Prime Minister was just one of many to pay tribute to her, saying: ‘She cheered the world up with her own British brand of harmless sauciness and innocent scandal.’
But the most succinct comment came from comedian Matt Lucas: ‘The whole country is mourning today.’
Roger Lewis is the author of The Man Who Was Private Widdle, the acclaimed biography of Charles Hawtrey.