Barbara Windsor: Body of evidence

 Monday March 15, 1999
The Guardian


Barbara WindsorShe's singing again. She's on top-selling underwear for lads and ladettes. Her life is cross between a Carry On and Joe Orton Monday March 15, 1999 The Guardian 'They've had an absolute field day with my body this year,' said Barbara Windsor, 61, in pique. 'I'm on cups, saucers, plates. I'm on men's jockey shorts. I'm the top-selling underwear in Ann Summers. That was Valentine's Day. You know the three hearts?' She flicked both hands dismissively at her bosom and lap. 'A Tribute to Babs, it was. And the nurse's uniform. There are Christmas cards with the nurse's uniform and birthday cards with the nurse's uniform and the three hearts. My birthday last year, everybody sent me that. Gilly Taylforth, bless her, she sent one. "Bet you ain't see this," she said. "Ooh Gilly, do you not know, darlin' ".' And she raised her powdered eyelids - mauve and black like butterflies' wings - to the ceiling with the ironically weary air of one who has been around the block a few times, and doesn't care who knows it.

Windsor has never made a penny from the Carry On merchandise - or the videos, the repeats, the repackaged compilations (none of the actors were on a percentage). 'No nothing, nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing,' she said with a rare touch of bitterness. But other benefits have been reaped from her tiny, sexy stature - four foot ten in her stockinged feet. 'You know I've won all these awards for my bits and pieces,' she continued camply, stroking the fringe of the mink blonde beehive wig. 'I've had one for my feet - I only take size one and a half, tiny little feet, look - and one for my eyes. And I was the first Bottom of the Year award in 1976, and I got one for my boobs and last week I got one for my hands. I always look after my nails.

That's because of Peggy [her character on EastEnders], she's always pulling the pints. I get a lot of letters about my nails.' Windsor had taken over a London hotel room to promote You've Got a Friend, her new album of pop standards. She's only had the place for the afternoon, but it looks as if she's been living there all year. There's a tray scattered with abandoned snacks - chips with tomato ketchup in a silver dish. When I come in, she orders more: 'Ooh, I'd love a cup of tea. Get us some nice cream cakes. Lovely, darlin', lovely.' And there are piles of posh carrier bags (into one of which she dives, bum waggling, when a mobile phone goes off, squeaking, 'Is this not camp or is this not camp?'), and clothes piled on sofas, a foxy fur coat and, slung over the arm of a chair, a flesh-coloured Lejaby bra. Size: 34D. 'I'm not a great cleavage lady,' she continued. 'But I've always been really lucky. They've always been pert. When I take my clothes off, it's like "God, Windsor." But I'm not precious about them. If I was Peggy [suffering from breast cancer and traumatised by the prospect of a mastectomy] I'd have it off immediately. But it's funny. I often do that' - she cupped her hands under her breasts and gave them a hoist - 'and get them ready. But it's for the pictures really. I don't say no to anybody. I've had one today who's had me in all different positions.' And she gave a naughty neigh through her nostrils.

Barbara Windsor, née Barbara-Ann Deeks (she changed her name at the time of the Coronation), has been a pro for almost 50 years, ever since she tottered out of her Stoke Newington convent into the West End at 15. She's been a professional cabaret artist (alongside Victor Spinetti 'in the days when clubs were clubs'), a musical star (in Lionel Bart's Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be), a comedy actress (eight Carry Ons, long years in panto), a singer (from appearances in Ronnie Scott's 40 years ago to 'singing my little heart out' on the album) and, since she landed the part of Peggy Mitchell in 1995, a soap star.

But most of all she's a professional sex symbol. A walking, talking English seaside postcard. As notorious - 'that's the right word, darlin' ' - for her love life offscreen (the 20 year marriage to gangster Ronnie Knight; the affairs with Charlie Kray, Sid James; the married men, the toyboys) as she is for her pinging bra strap.

'I know. I know,' she said in her girly, croaky voice, all posh Os and dropped ends. 'But I'm a nice lady. I'm a real good bird to be with. I do make a fuss of the men in my life. I run around men like a tit in a trance. I know feminists say, "Why do this, Windsor?" but I've always been my own woman. I've always paid my own way. And men either dig me and say, "Phwoaar, isn't she lovely, I couldn't half give her one", or they say, "Nah, there's nothing in her". There's never that middle. It's like me and my world. It's always been a cross between a Carry On and Joe Orton.' There's a lot to be confused about in meeting Windsor. She calls herself 'little lady' and peppers her anecdotes with references to 'Mummy' (now dead). She gets lost in a reverie remembering the 1950s - performing at El Toro's in the Finchley Road - when men, gangsters and barrow boys alike would send messages backstage, purr alongside her in smart cars as she walked up the street (which is how Ronnie first approached her) and she'd get 'engaged' within three weeks. 'Not like now with all that bloody Aids and crap.'

She had a real giggle remembering all her fiancés (Bing Crosby's son, Gary; a sweet stall-holder from Leather Lane; this jazz musician or that) and looked lost when remembering the bad robbery, just after Ronnie's trial for murder (he was acquitted), when all those engagement rings got stolen.

'And I had a beautiful, beautiful present from Sid James, a heart in jet with diamonds. And I had a charm which Frank Sinatra's jeweller gave me when I was on Broadway. He said, "Frank said have this". And there was this beautiful thing Danny La Rue bought me, this little antique cross. But it all went. All they left me was a set of bloody worry beads, the bastards. And a pair of my drawers laid out on the bed.

Ugh.' Then she cheered. 'Oh, I did get engaged to somebody else. Before, no, it would have been after, Gary Crosby. A singer called Cliff Lawrence. But I never got a ring.' Kenneth Williams also would have taken her up the aisle. 'He said, "Do you think if you ever left Ronnie Knight you could marry me?" I said, "Kenny, what a lovely thing to say. Why's that?" And he said, "You're the only woman I know who cleans her teeth after lunch. Mind you," he said, "there'd be no sex." I said, "Bugger you, then".' And she threw back her head and gave another filthy laugh.

She can be quite grand - she called Terry Johnson's Carry On drama, Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle And Dick, 'my play' and says of a forthcoming Variety Club lunch in her honour, 'All this adoration, all these accolades'. But if one minute she's the little lady, the next she's the ladette. She sits with her elbows on her knees, her legs apart, a tough boy stance. She calls her bosses at the BBC her 'guv'nors'. And she's got quite a tongue on her. 'Fuckin' great, innit?' she squawks into her mobile phone. 'I've got this journalist here, made me tell her about all the bleedin' geezers I've been engaged to. I've got the queer from Gay News next.'

She calls Ronnie Knight's autobiography, in which he claimed she'd dress as Dick Whittington or Cinderella in the bedroom 'a load of friggin' lies.' Her second ex-husband, Stephen Hollings (an actor 20 years her junior), and her estranged father (a former bus conductor), have also sold stories about her. She just wishes they'd told her first. 'You know, tell me. Bloody warn me.'

These days she's dating Robert Dunn, 50, a restaurateur, but she says she feels like 'a single lady. I feel it's all in my court'. She lives in a mews house in Marylebone, which suits her much better than the burgled houses in Hendon and Stanmore of the past. She loves her neighbours - 'I've got a lovely war hero opposite. I've got me eye specialist on the left, there's a prostitute down the end of the road.' The night before we met she'd gone round the corner for fish and chips with Dale Winton. 'He said, "Oooh Barrrr, they've got fish cakes." I said, "Have bloody cod and chips darlin' ".' And when she takes the piss out of his preciousness, you wonder whether she might not be making a comment about herself too. Health and beauty-wise she still feels pretty good. She had a hysterectomy a few years back and later a 'tiny, tiny stroke', but apart from some asthma and 'tummy' problems ('I can't drink champagne now') she feels as well as she ever has. Particularly since her new gynaecologist gave her this hormonal jelly to rub into her upper arms. She's never had cosmetic surgery, but 'I'm not saying I might not if the time comes'. At the moment, on EastEnders, she's happy playing a woman her own age. 'I love what they do, the appalling lighting. And that manky wig - I love all that.'

With five abortions behind her, Windsor has never wanted children. 'Someone said, "Is it because your father rejected you?" and I say, "Yeah, of course it is. I don't need to go to a bleedin' counsellor for that".' She once remarked that Steve McFadden and Ross Kemp, her boys on the soap, were the sons she never had. Is that true? 'In a way,' she said soulfully. Before adding: 'Nah. I don't want 'em to be my sons, because I fancy them both rotten.'