Dame Barbara Windsor has been living with Alzheimer’s for the past four years it’s been announced.
Dame Barbara is best known for her role as Peggy Mitchell in BBC One saga EastEnders and an earlier big-screen career including nine Carry On… movies.
The 80-year-old had kept the diagnosis private for the past four years however in a tabloid interview published today her husband Scott Mitchell – in response to a recent worsening of symptoms – has revealed details on the much-loved performer’s condition.
“Firstly, I hope speaking out will help other families dealing with loved ones who have this cruel disease. Secondly, I want the public to know because they are naturally very drawn to Barbara and she loves talking to them. So rather than me living in fear she might get confused or upset, they’ll know that if her behaviour seems strange, it’s due to Alzheimer’s and accept it for what it is.” – Scott Mitchell speaking to The Sun, in an unpaid interview
Sir Cliff Richard and Dame Barbara Windsor in a sketch from Cliff’s ATV series in the sixties.
Born in London in 1937 as Barbara Ann Deeks (Barbara changed her surname during the coronation year), the only child of a bus conductor and a dressmaker, she first glimpsed theatrical life after being evacuated to Blackpool and attending a dancing school. Professional stage appearances began at the age of 13 and she made her first film appearance in 1954 in The Belle’s of St. Trinians.
Acclaimed theatrical director Joan Littlewood became an early mentor after Barbara joined the Joan Littlewood Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. During this time, she came to prominence in Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be, a hit stage musical about London’s underworld, and as Maggie in Littlewoods’ 1963 film Sparrows Can’t Sing, achieving a BAFTA nomination for Best British Film Actress.
However, she is principally known for her portrayals of a ‘good time girl’ in nine Carry On films before starring in the ATV television version of the big screen funnies and in more recent times a 14-year stint in EastEnders as Peggy Mitchell.
Barbara Windsor at a photocall to raise awareness for the St Pauls Church Garden Fundraiser Appeal, Covent Garden, 2012
Barbara took over the part of Peggy in 1994 following a short-lived earlier portrayal by Jo Warne. She continued in the role as a regular until 2010 with a two year break in the early noughties due to exhaustion. Numerous guest appearances followed before the Mitchell matriarch and long-time landlady was written out of the show for good in 2016.
Memorable storylines to feature the character include a love triangle with Pat Evans (Pam St. Clement) and Frank Butcher (Mike Reid); a feud with Sharon Watts (Letitia Dean), who riled Peggy by cheating on her son Grant with his brother Phil (Steve McFadden) and losing her beloved Queen Vic thanks to devious Archie Mitchell (Larry Lamb).
Peggy’s outspoken nature often offended fellow Albert Square residents but her tirades about Mark Fowler’s HIV+ status led to Barbara receiving criticism and close friend Danny La Rue coming to her defence. However, Peggy’s most notable storyline was perhaps her breast cancer diagnosis in 1996 with the disease recurring in 1999, leading to her having a mastectomy. The emotional scenes saw Barbara pick up an award for Best Actress at the British Soap Awards.
Barbara with the late Sid James in a scene from Carry On Dick.
Single episodes in 2013 and 2014 saw Peggy visit her son Phil in hospital after he was involved in a car crash, pay her last respects to ‘frenemy’ Pat, and in the lap of luxury in Portugal order her niece Ronnie (Samantha Womack) to prevent Phil and Sharon’s wedding from going ahead.
She was seen again during EastEnders’ 30th anniversary live week in 2015, returning to Walford to tick Dot (June Brown) off over Phil’s stint behind bars for attempted murder with Dot’s son Nick (John Altman) the real culprit. Peggy took her own life in 2016 after she was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer that had spread to her bones and brain.
The diagnosis of Alzheimer’s in 2014 is now noted by the newspaper for the reason Barbara decided to have an on-screen death for Peggy two years ago, however, signs all were not well date back to 2009. Still fully working on EastEnders, at that point, the actress started to find learning her scripts more and more difficult. She quit the beeb serial less than a year after the issues began, however, has made occasional interview and acting appearances since; including as the Queen of Jackpot Joy bingo, voicing The Dormouse in Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass and last May in her own life story Babs, where she made several appearances in the drama as herself.
Grant (Ross Kemp), Peggy (Barbara Windsor) and Phil (Steve McFadden) during Babs’ final EastEnders stint in 2016.
“EastEnders has been wonderful to me and it’s no secret that it changed my life all of those years ago. I’ll be so sad to leave Peggy behind; she’s such a wonderful character to play. I have had the pleasure of working with a marvellous cast and crew and have made many lasting good friends. To have had the honour of showing the Queen around the set is something that will stay with me forever.” – Dame Barbara speaking in October 2009, when she announced her departure from EastEnders
Husband Scott Mitchell revealed in the newspaper interview that he has decided to speak now, with the illness worsening for his celebrity wife, so that the news was released ‘on their terms’. He noted ‘I can’t protect her any longer’ and that in showbiz circles gossip had already been active. Barbara was made a Dame in 2016 for her contributions to charity and entertainment. Charity roles include as an ambassador for Age UK and as the face of the Royal British Legion’s annual poppy appeal, however Scott says that she will now be taking a step back from everything.
“We have decided she should now retire from charity work as well as acting. So many journalists have said that Barbara has always been a good sport. She’s been the subject of many scandalous stories, dusted herself off and got on with it. She accepted it was part of her job and theirs too. So I would like to hope that the press will now show her the same respect she’s shown them over the years. She deserves that.” – Scott Mitchell speaking to The Sun