Barbara Windsor Interview

From the Telegraph 17/10/02

Barbara Windsor has long been a favourite assignment for interviewers. She dutifully calls them "Darlin' ", and in her unmistakeable cackly voice will rustle up as many gamey sex, stardom and gangster tales as it takes to fill any available hole on a page. Then she'll give them a big kiss on the chops, and say "Gawd bless".

In return she gets a terrific press. She got one this week when it was announced that she is taking a year off from her role as Peggy Mitchell, the brassy pub landlady, in EastEnders. Good old Babs. Narrowly beaten by the Queen Mother two years ago to the title of Most Popular Woman in Britain, it isn't unreasonable to assume that she's now clear at Number One.

But should she be? Much of her life has been an unwholesome mess. Her three marriages - the current one to a man 26 years her junior - have been of eyebrow-raising strangeness. She has had a hundred lovers, five abortions and no children. No stranger to criminal company, she feeds, as much as anyone alive, the myth that her old pals the Kray twins were decent East End boys who kept the streets safe, and were nice to old ladies.

As an actress - notwithstanding her honest endeavours in EastEnders - Barbara's claim to stardom remains solidly rooted in the 10 (out of 29) high-camp, low-budget Carry On films she made in the 1960s and early 1970s.

On reflection, the Carry On series can be seen as the apogee of British comedy as it used to be in its days of relative innocence, and as the main foil for the scripts' numerous appalling double entendres, Barbara's contribution was immeasurable. ("Lovely pear," she says in Carry On Doctor (1968) to an ambulance man eating a piece of fruit. "I was," he replies, eyeballing her chest, "just about to say the same thing.")

For all this, "Bar" - as she is known in preference to Babs - retains a special place in many hearts. At 65, she is a last living link to the age of seaside postcard humour, the traditions of the music hall, and the days before sauciness was overrun by smut. The most famous piece of acting she ever did was 33 years ago, in Carry on Camping, when, during an outdoor keep-fit session, she inhales too deeply and catapults her bra into the lower stratosphere.

It speaks of the change in the cultural landscape since then that this piece of hokum was passed by the film censor only after careful consideration, and that its notoriety was enough to make Miss Windsor a household name.

She has been a national treasure ever since, although her career has known some thin years, and it took an out-of-the-blue offer from EastEnders eight years ago to bring her back into the big time. As a depiction of real life in the East End, the long-running TV soap couldn't be less convincing if its cast were entirely composed of Pearly Queens and whelk-scoffing, flat-capped costermongers playing the spoons, but it has been a cosy berth for Barbara.

As the boss of the Queen Vic, and mother of the "bruvvers", Grant and Phil, she has become one of the programme's established favourites. So why is she leaving now? The official reason is that she simply wants "to recharge my batteries", and will return to the show next year. Not everyone is convinced. Barbara has a bad back, and there are - as there were always bound to be - suggestions that not all is well with her marriage to 39-year-old ex-actor Scott Mitchell.

Men have always been a problem for her. Being made of tougher stuff, she hasn't inflicted upon us the kind of ear-splitting whinges we hear from Ulrika Jonsson, but the record speaks for itself. She lost her virginity to a flashy Arab she met in a London club, had flings with both the Krays - Ron and Reggie - and was married for more than 20 years to another gangster, Ronnie Knight. It wasn't an easy marriage, with their infidelities on both sides, but she broadly stuck by her man until Ronnie, having beaten the rap on a murder charge, had to flee to Spain after a 6 million security van robbery in 1983.

As a young actress she was devoured by Sid James, her grizzled, older and very married (as she was) Carry On co-star. "I thought," she says, "that if I let Sid once have his wicked way, he'd leave me alone." Big mistake. Huge. Not only did his infatuation grow, but she ended up falling in love with him.

She was born Barbara Anne Deeks, in the East End of London on August 6, 1937. Her mother was a dressmaker and her father - from whom she is estranged - a bus conductor. Mrs Deeks had caught the air of social betterment early, and led the family into the relative balm of Stoke Newington.

Connoisseurs of EastEnders know that, whatever grammatical manglings are in the script, Peggy Mitchell rarely, if ever, says "I ain't" or "She don't" or "They isn't". "I try to speak properly," says Barbara. "It's what my mother expected of me."

Aged five, Barbara was evacuated to Blackpool, where she stayed with a "posh, middle-class family" whose own daughter took dancing classes. Barbara went along, too. It was her first experience of performing, and by the time she returned to London she was already set on a career in show-business. Her mother - who had hoped for better things - ruefully signed her up with Madame Behenna and Her Juvenile Jollities Dancing Troupe.

As a teenager she starred in Joan Littlewood's landmark film Sparrows Can't Sing, which led her into West End club performances as a singer and dancer, and later into the Carry On milieu. "My mate Ronnie Fraser, God bless him, rang me up and said: 'Lollipop, come up and have a cocktail refreshment, a libation, at Pinewood', and Gerald Thomas and Peter Rogers, the director and producer of the Carry Ons, happened to be sitting there, and they were looking for a new girl."

The most she was ever paid for a Carry On was 4,000, with no repeat fees. The last one she made was Carry On Dick (1974) by which time the formula was more or less exhausted. A few lame follow-ups were attempted, but the tone had been coarsened, and years later when Barbara saw Carry On Emmannuelle on television, she wept at the awfulness of it.

She went out on the road for several years as a trouper, appearing in plays, pantomimes, Christmas specials; always making a reasonable living, but helplessly stuck with the caricature of the blonde, busty Carry On girl with the giggle and the wiggle. In the late 1980s, having finally been divorced from the errant Ronnie (who was now living it up on the Costa del Crime with a Barbara-lookalike girlfriend), she married Stephen Hollings, a Yorkshire chef who was 19 years younger than herself. If the age gap looked daunting, it was only because she couldn't have known who she would marry next.

With Stephen she briefly abandoned performing, to help run the pub-restaurant they bought in Buckinghamshire, but the business crashed - followed, soon afterwards, by the marriage. Hollings later wrote a book about their time together in which he described in none-too-appetising detail what Barbara looked like in bed without her clothes, wig and make-up. She has never forgiven him.

The East End is not a place she spends a lot of time these days. Home is "up West" with her latest husband, Scott Harvey, her former chauffeur, of whom she says: "This time, it will be forever." They wear matching gold rings inscribed "True Love", and Barbara says he leaves little notes around the house telling her how much he cares. But "forever" may be a relative term given that he is 26 years her junior, and the rumours that Barbara struggles to keep him happy were only bolstered by the news of her sudden sabbatical from EastEnders.

Will we see her back? We have to hope so, for Barbara Windsor comes from a proud tradition of British entertainment that today barely survives. Now, more than ever, the nation wants her to carry on.


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