ATV Icon: Dame Barbara Windsor

ATV Icons returns with new curator Margaret Batey, our next star to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in this series is the legend that was Dame Barbara Windsor.

A real EastEnder, Barbara Ann Deeks (Windsor was a stage name she adopted early on in her career) was born in Shoreditch, London in 1937 to John and Rose Deeks.

Barbara’s father encouraged her early talent for performing; her mother – an East End snob – sought to suppress her Cockney accent by sending her to elocution lessons. The Deeks’ quarrelsome marriage ended in divorce during Barbara’s formative years and she lost touch with her father after speaking in her mother’s favour in court.

Barbara was thrice married to Ronnie Knight (1964-1985), Stephen Hollings (1986-1995) and Scott Mitchell (2000 until her death). Her marriage to Knight was the subject of much media scrutiny due to his fraternising with East London gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray. Knight, himself, was forced to go on the run in 1983 after taking part in a high-stakes robbery.

Barbara was left with crippling debts when her second marriage to Stephen Hollings ended in divorce. The pair had opened a pub together in the mid-80s, but the venture proved to be as unsuccessful as their marriage. It was third time lucky for the actress when she got hitched to her former driver Scott in 2000 but the romance was initially met with scepticism due to her being some 27 years his senior.

Barbara has spoken openly about her decision to terminate five pregnancies; three in her 20s, and the last at the age of 42. She noted in her 2001 autobiography All of Me that her parents’ split had put her off the idea of having children.

Barbara first glimpsed theatrical life after being evacuated to Blackpool where she attended a dance school, making her professional stage debut at the age of 13. It would be the first of many treading of the boards including a stint on Broadway. She appeared in her first film, The Belle’s of St Trinians, in 1954 but it was acclaimed theatre director Joan Littlewood who gave Barbara her first proper taste of stardom in the 1960s.

Barbara joined Littlewood’s workshop at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East and she went on to appear in hit stage musical Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be, and as ‘Maggie’ in Littlewoods’ 1963 film Sparrows Can’t Sing, which earnt her a nomination for Best British Film Actress at the BAFTAs.

However, Dame Barbara will most be remembered 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, as Peggy Mitchell in the BBC One soap EastEnders.

The Carry On films were largely based on innuendo and Seaside Postcard humour as stars including Kenneth Williams, Sid James and Hattie Jacques found themselves in farcical situations. The first of the films to feature Barbara was Carry On Spying in 1964; the last was Carry On Dick a decade later.

Despite appearing in less than a third of the Carry On films, her memorable turns as a sexpot would see her become indelibly linked with the franchise. Of particular notability is a scene from Carry On Camping that saw Barbara’s character lose her bra while taking part in an exercise class. During her Carry On career Barbara had a long-running affair with co-star Sid James, which ended just before his death in 1976. ITV later dramatised these events in a TV film, Cor Blimey! in 2000, which was based on Terry Johnson’s award-winning play Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick.

Barbara’s career had, by her own admission, hit a dry spell prior to the Beeb offering her an ‘opportunity to play her age’ as Peggy Mitchell. In 1994, she leapt at the chance to play the hard-nosed Peggy  – mum to the notorious Mitchell brothers. The character went on to be instated in The Queen Vic pub as its landlady. Barbara starred in the soap until 2010 with Peggy hollering her iconic catchphrase ‘Get Outta My Pub!’ at The Queen Vic’s punters for much of that time. A number of guest appearances followed before she left the show for good in 2016.

Peggy’s memorable storylines included a love triangle with Pat Evans (Pam St. Clement) and Frank Butcher (Mike Reid); a lengthy feud with Sharon Watts (Letitia Dean), being conned out of The Queen Vic by third husband Archie, and battling cancer on three separate occasions.

The character’s outspoken nature often offended her fellow Albert Square residents but one tirade in particular proved controversial when she attacked neighbour Mark Fowler for being HIV+. The scene led to Barbara receiving criticism from viewers who had bought into the on screen drama a little too much. Barbara’s close pal Danny La Rue once came to her defence by pointing out the distinction between actress and character.

The character’s last hurrah saw her return to the Square to see out her final days after being diagnosed with cancer for a third time. However, unbeknown to her family, Peggy took steps to end her life before cancer took hold of her body.

After leaving the soap Barbara made occasional acting appearances including as the Queen of Jackpot Joy bingo, voicing The Dormouse in Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass, and a cameos in a dramatization of her own life story Babs, which principally starred Jaime Winstone and Samantha Spiro.

Barbara was made a Dame in the 2016 New Years Honours list for services to charity and entertainment. In May 2018, her husband Scott made the decision with Barbara to go public with her Alzheimer’s diagnosis due to an exacerbation of symptoms. He revealed that the life-limiting illness was the reason for the definitive ending to her EastEnders character in 2016 and that she would henceforth be retiring from show business.

In a show of support, a number of her EastEnders co-stars ran the London marathon to raise money for Dementia Revolution in 2019. A few months before her death, Scott revealed that Barbara had been moved into a care home after her symptoms had become unmanageable at home.

Barbara Windsor, actor, born 6 August 1937, died 10 December 2020.

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