A Date With Barbara Windsor
Cheeky, chirpy, buxom and blonde, Barbara Windsor thrilled generations of schoolboys in the Carry On films, and now dominates our television screens as the landlady of the Queen Vic in EastEnders. But, asks Lewis Jones, will the public's love-affair with Babs endure the release of her new record?
First Published in The Telegraph 19th March 1999
Barbara Windsor. If there were a declension of celluloid blonde sexpots of the Fifties and Sixties, it might go: Marilyn, Jayne, Barbara; Monroe, Mansfield, Windsor. A honey goddess; the female equivalent of a B-52; and the survivor, a saucy nurse who turns into a pub landlady.
Soap operas may not be the most realistic programmes on television but in their perennial imitation of the quotidian they do achieve a kind of reality, offering their viewers a vicarious community, a virtual life. We may laugh at the simple-mindedness of the many viewers who completely identify the soap characters with their actors - the ones who write to Barbara Windsor to congratulate Peggy Mitchell on her forthcoming nuptials, and to tell her to give that Grant a piece of her mind - but they do have a point. Soap acting is in a sense closer than any other to the ideal of the Method, in that the actors, over the years, seem to become the characters they play. So, as a fan of EastEnders, my fantasy interview with Barbara Windsor would be conducted over a pint of wallop at the Vic, with the Bruvvers scowling at me and Frank suggesting I sling my hook.
Second best would have been to visit her at home, but she wasn't having it, so we end up meeting at the Langham Hotel in the West End of London. Miss Windsor is obviously a bit wary, because she turns up with a minder, a big chap called Simon, but she soon decides that I'm no threat and sends Simon on his way. 'It's safe to leave me with you, isn't it darling? You're so sweet, such a nice gentle soul.' And later on she takes me back to her place, a pretty little mews house round the corner, where we hold hands and exchange a few kisses. Which makes it seem like a proper date.
She's tiny (4ft 10in), with size-one feet and green eyes. She's wearing a dogtooth trouser suit, a blue blouse, little black boots and a slightly preposterous wig ('My own hair's quite pretty'), and she talks a blue streak. 'You ask whatever you like, darling,' she says, but over the next three hours I manage no more than half a dozen questions. Her anecdotes unfold in great loops, with frequent asides and digressions ('Sorry, I'm taking you round the houses'), and her voice ranges from a near-whisper (especially when swearing, so as not to offend our fellow guests in the Langham's Palm Court) to a fairly brassy imperial.
Barbara Windsor seems awfully sweet, a nice gentle soul, loyal, generous - and vulnerable, of course. And, though it may sound shameful, it comes as rather a disappointment. She can't really be these things, can she? I mean, she used to be so naughty. She was the original tits-out-for-the-lads girl. 'Once I discovered sex,' she confides in her memoirs, Barbara: The Laughter and Tears of a Cockney Sparrow (Arrow, now out of print), 'I assumed you just did it. Nobody told me otherwise!' She worked in Soho clubs, slept with Arabs, musicians, gangsters. 'I first met the Kray brothers backstage at the Garrick. They were ever so polite and gentlemanly.' She had a fling with Charlie Kray ('the handsomest of the brothers') while officially going out with an associate of theirs, Ronnie Knight, whom she later married. In her teens and early twenties she had four abortions. She must be tough as old boots, mustn't she? How did that tarty little number metamorphose into this gracious Cockney Queen Mum? I think it's something to do with London geography, with the two poles of her life, the East End and the West End.
You can hear this polarity in her accent, which varies from theatrical posh to gorblimey Cockney. 'People say, "Oh, you've got a Cockney accent." I don't have a Cockney accent, actually. I have a London accent. All this "ain't". My family didn't swear, and they spoke with a nice Cockney accent. My mother would say, "No, we don't want no finks and foughts and firtyfrees, thank you very much, Barbara." And Peggy I don't play very Cockney. If I've got a script, and Peggy says, "No, I ain't doing that," I always change it to "I'm not doing that." I think Mummy would have liked that.'
Born in the East End she was, little Barbara-Ann Deeks (after Barbara-Ann Scott, star of the ice rink), on 6 August 1937, only child of a Jack the Lad docker and Mummy, a genteel seamstress who hated Shoreditch and slaved at piecework in the sweatshops of the West End to give her daughter elocution lessons. And Mrs Deeks used to say that when her daughter went through that stage door at the Wimbledon Theatre, aged 14, to make her professional debut in pantomime with the Eleanor Beam Babes, she was Barbara-Ann Deeks, and when she come out again she was Barbara Windsor - which wasn't quite true, because she didn't change her name until Coronation Year; what her mother meant was that she came out a different person. After that she was strictly West End, dear, treading the boards up and down Shaftesbury Avenue, performing in revue and cabaret in the Soho clubs, singing in Ronnie Scott's Jazz Band.
'I used to work in a nightclub called Winston's, opposite Churchill's, which was the big nightclub. In those days there was masses of nightclubs. There was the Astor, there was the Celebrity, there was the Edmondo Ross Club, there were sooo many clubs. Keeler and Rice-Davies were hostesses. We were the show. Fenella Fielding was with me. She hated it, loathed it. And the punters said, "We like that little saucy girl." So the guv'nor said, "That's what we'll go for, little saucy girls." And all these wonderful stars would come in. Like Victor Mature, who was ooold, and Diana Dors, and Darryl Zanuck. One night all of the villains from south of the Thames would come, then another night all the villains from north of the Thames. It was a wonderful wonderful time.'
A waitress appears at this point, bringing coffee and toast ('Thank you, dear, thank you ever so much'), but she provides us with only one knife, so we have to summon her back. 'It's like a Carry On film! It is, isn't it darling?' She recalls the milestones of her career, the anecdotes looping their way around the big breaks. She's told most of the stories before, of course, and they have grown smooth like old pennies. Telling them again, she tends to elide and trail off, swooping on glittering details, then going round the houses a few times more before arriving triumphantly home at her punchline.
Barbara became a West Ender, but the East End wouldn't let go. There was Ronnie, for a start: Ronnie Knight, her husband for 20 years. She used to lay out his clothes, and put in his curlers and blow-dry his hair for him, and she stood by him when the Old Bill persecuted him so unreasonably: 'Poor Ronnie had only been out of prison a few months when he was accused of being involved in an armed robbery at Lots Road Power Station.' And then there was Joan Littlewood, the radical theatre director who in 1959 cast her in Lionel Bart's musical production of Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be, Frank Norman's play about Soho lowlife. She didn't fancy it at all, because it was at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East - 'My mother worked hard all her life to get us out of the East End. West End now, dear' - but Littlewood thought she was 'a funny little bird'. The character she was auditioning for was an Irish prostitute, which is an accent she doesn't do. Littlewood asked her to do a Cockney tart instead. 'So I walked up and down, saying, "Short time mister? Five bob a wank. Ten bob a plate" - they called it a plate in those days, it wasn't oral - "Ten bob a plate. Thirty bob full card trick." It was very cheap in those days.' She sang and danced and turned cartwheels, and she got the part.
Windsor describes herself as 'old school', very keen on proper stage discipline - she was a graduate, after all, not only of the Madame Behenna and Her Juvenile Jollities troupe at Stoke Newington, but also of Aida Foster's dramatic academy in Golders Green, and a stage veteran by the time she was 20 - and she found Littlewood's anarchic approach unnerving. 'I don't like this way of working,' Windsor told her. 'I'm West End. So Joan says, "If you don't like it, f- off."' The production was a smash hit, and established Windsor as a serious performer.
She went on to star in Littlewood's film Sparrows Can't Sing, a sort of Cockney Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, which was another huge hit, and took her for the first time to America, flying first-class to New York: 'I summoned a very prissy-looking BOAC stewardess. "'Ere, it's bleedin' 'ot in 'ere. Open a few windows will you."' For all her West End airs, it was the East End that made her a star - as it continues to today.
But Windsor the Serious Artist was obscured for many years by the Joke Breasts character she played in eight of the Carry On films. At least once in each of these films, Sid James, her leading man and lover, would cackle and leer and deliver the words, 'I can think of two very good reasons,' as well as other lines too dire to recall. Kenneth Williams said she had 'a chest like a confectionery counter'. It was an emblematic chest, a figurehead for the series, a chest from McGill's seaside postcards. Like McGill, the Carry On films expressed a peculiarly English attitude to sex - innocent smut that plays Grandma's Footsteps with its subject, furtively creeping up on it, then freezing and corpsing when it comes face to face.
So how did she become involved in the Carry Ons? 'My mate, Ronnie Fraser, God bless him, may he rest in peace, he rang me up and said, "Lollipop, come and have a cocktail refreshment, a libation, at Pinewood." And Gerald Thomas and Peter Rogers, the producer and director of the Carry Ons, happened to be sitting there, and they were looking for a new girl . . .'
On her first day in Carry On Spying she asked her old mate Bernard Cribbins if there was anyone she should beware of in the cast. 'Oh yeah,' said Cribbins. 'Mr Kenny Williams. He doesn't like anybody new on the show.' It turned out that her first scene was with Williams, of whom she was much in awe ('a huge fan'). Williams, playing a spy, was wearing an absurd false beard, and when Windsor fluffed her first line he flared his nostrils and said, 'Oh duckie, do get it right.' She knew he hated Fenella Fielding, so she said to him, ''Ere you, don't you have a go at me with Fenella Fielding's minge hair round yer chops. I won't stand for it.' And Williams said, 'Oww! Ain't she lovely?'
It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship. Windsor is just about the only friend to escape unscathed in Williams' vitriolic diaries, and he liked her so much that he went on honeymoon with her, along with his mother and sister, when she married Ronnie Knight: 'Well, you've been having it off with this chap for ever, you can hardly call it an 'oneymoon.' In her house off Harley Street there's a bronze bust of Williams, nostrils agape, eyes popping, mouth turned down and a turban on his head, in character for Carry On Up the Khyber, and another of Sid James. 'I cared deeply for him,' she says of James. 'I didn't at first, he was just my leading man, who liked me, and I used to push him off and push him off and push him off, but it was inevitable, because that's the way I'm made, that I'd make him happy. I thought we'd just do it, and that would be an end of it, but it wasn't to be.'
Their affair, sympathetically portrayed last year at the National Theatre in Terry Johnson's play Cleo, Camping, Emmannuelle and Dick - to which she was script consultant, and which she recently presented with an Olivier Award - eventually became so fraught that she felt obliged to cut him off completely, and she bitterly regrets that they were not talking at the time of his death. Was he a very funny man? 'For the public. Then he'd come right back into himself. Sid was an old-fashioned charmer, opening doors and all the rest of it, making you feel like a lady.'
Were the Carry Ons killed by the permissive society? 'I think they killed themselves. If they'd kept like that, there's a huge audience that still wants all that tittle-tittle, who take no notice of all that sexual liberation . . . Dozy lot. They went with it. They went with the tide.' The last one she and Sid appeared in was Carry On Dick (1974) and she thought the three after that were 'dirty, not nice - like bad Confessions films.' She saw Carry On Emmannuelle (1978) on television recently, and it was so awful it made her cry. When the title was revived about five years ago, with Carry On Columbus, she was invited to appear in it, but thought the script was so dreadful that she 'went out and got rat-arsed'.
The EastEnders role came at a good time. 'I was doing one tour after another. Did you see Best of British, that documentary they did on me? They go, "She was reduced to doing summer shows and pantomime." Those shows were wonderful. I did Entertaining Mr Sloane, which Joe [Orton] always wanted me to do . . . ' Still, she was rather on her uppers. She went to see her agent, who told her she'd been turned down for What's My Line. 'He said, "June Whitfield's got it." And I said, through gritted teeth, "Oh, how wonderful! Mm. She's got Absolutely Fabulous, she's got an OBE . . ." I'm a huge fan of hers, huge fan, love the lady. But I needed to be wanted. And he said, "How would you like to be in EastEnders?"'
So the West End lady went back East again, and again found fame and fortune - after a fairly wonky start. 'I watched an omnibus edition of the show, watched what the actors were doing. I thought, "Oh my God, they don't do anything!" And my actor boyfriend at the time said, "Don't forget what Joan Littlewood said - sit on your hands. This is sitting-on-your-hands acting."'
She's just been given an award by the Manchester Evening News for Best Actress in a British Soap, which she's particularly thrilled by because it comes from Coronation Street land. It's in plastic, and sits on her sideboard. But Peggy is not her whole life. 'EastEnders is, in the nicest sort of way, like being in a lovely sweet factory,' she says. 'You get all these lovely lines to say, and all these wonderful people to work with, but it is relentless, and I like to do other things as well, to keep the old' - she gives her bonce a tap, which makes her wig slide about - 'to keep that going, not just be Peggy.'
Barbara Windsor is making an album, singing old standards - Cole Porter, Burt Bacharach, that sort of thing. 'I've always sung. I've sung with bands, I've sung in music hall. But when I was 60 - I had my 60th birthday two years ago - suddenly, towards the end, someone said, "Come on, Barbara, get up and sing 'You Made Me Love You'." So I got up and sang it, and I did it, you know, quite well. And one of my guests was the lovely Eric Hall. He's a wonderful Jewish football manager, but he's also involved in music. I know him just as an old friend from Stamford 'ill, we've grown up together. And one of his guests was somebody from Telstar, so that's how the album came about. And I said, "Ooh, I'll get sent up, because everybody in the soap wants to make a single or an album, and here's this sad old ageing sex symbol . . ."'
Each song takes about three and a half hours to record, and she's doing two this afternoon. She's going to sing 'My Foolish Heart', 'If You Love Me, Really Love Me', 'Little Things Mean a Lot'. 'D'you know that song?' She croons a bar or two. 'Lovely song And I do pray a lot, so I wanted to do "Say a Little Prayer", but then of course Miss Aretha Franklin, you hear the way she sings it and you think, "Oh dear!"'
Her house has just been decorated, in bright clean neutral colours, so it doesn't give much away. Besides the Manchester award, there's one for Television Personality of 1998. There are the busts of Sid James and Kenneth Williams, a portrait in oils of Barbara and some old photographs of her family. There are also six Valentine cards: 'Not bad, but I know for a fact that one of them's from the milkman.' She lives alone. 'I've got a boyfriend, Robert, who's a kind of special boyfriend, but I don't want ever to get married again, or live with anybody. My ex-partner Scott and I are real good friends. He's terrific. I've had a few boyfriends recently, quite a few, but I've got this special one, which is Robert. Unfortunately I don't see him at the moment, because of these storylines of Peggy's [notably the one about her mastectomy - the Windsor Breasts shaping the nation's consciousness again], and making this album. He understands.'
Is Barbara Windsor a feminist? 'Well, I've worked since I was 13, and I've always paid my own way. But I do think they're cutting their nose to spite their face . . . Actually I feel sorry for a lot of the geezers today. I think we're cutting the balls off the geezers a little bit, you know what I mean. Let's still be feminine. Be feminist, but keep that word feminine in.'
Windsor is on excellent terms with all her ex-boyfriends, but does not speak to either of her husbands (her second was Stephen Hollings, a publican some decades her junior), which pains her. She becomes a bit tearful. 'Don't write these things, don't write untruths, it's just not right. Don't tell lies.' I assure her I wouldn't dream of it. 'Not you, darling,' she says, holding my hand. 'I didn't mean you. No, no, no.' She's talking about her husbands. 'Don't say these things, Stephen. I never got into the bedroom with you and dressed up as Dick Whittington or in black leather, or thigh boots, and got up every morning and serviced you at least four times. I didn't do that . . . I'm a good lady.'