Barbara Windsor - the best of British

‘Hello, darling, how are you, love?’ 

I have known (and loved) Barbara Windsor for a long time.  I first saw her on stage in the early 1960s.  We first met in the early 1970s.  We had good friends in common, notably Kenneth Williams and Danny La Rue.  In 1989 we appeared together in pantomime, in Cinderella: she was the Fairy Godmother, I was Baron Hardup. 

I have been thinking of her this week, of course, because her husband, Scott Mitchell, has shared the news that Barbara is suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease.  It was first diagnosed in 2014.  Scott says, ‘Since her 80th birthday last August, a definite continual confusion has set in, so it's becoming a lot more difficult for us to hide… 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.

Barbara has always been a great talker – as funny, sparky, and intelligent as you can imagine.  She has long been a national treasure, too.  She really is ‘the best of British’.   A few years ago, when she first became a member of the Order of the British Empire, I recorded a long conversation with her.  It was soon after she married her lovely husband, Scott.  She was about to publish her autobiography - full of torrid tales of her estrangement from her father, her marriage to Ronnie Knight, once Britain’s ‘most wanted man’, her affairs, her abortions, her triumphs and her heartache - but when we met up for lunch that day we talked instead about being English.  I told her how when I had interviewed the Duke of Devonshire he had conjured up for me his A to Z of Englishness [see the BLOG for 2 April 2018].  ‘I’ll have a go at that,’ said Bar, with a throaty giggle.  ‘He gave you upper-class.  I’ll give you working-class.’   The Duke gave me the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Lawn Tennis and Oxford marmalade.  Barbara gave me the East End, Arsenal and spotted dick.

In 2015, Barbara became a Dame – and certainly there’s no one quite like her.  In my book, she’s the best.  This is her A to Z of what’s best about England and the English. 


‘A is for Andersen Shelter.  I was born Barbara Ann Deeks in the East End of London on 6 August 1937, an only child, the daughter of a dressmaker and a bus conductor who didn’t get on none too well.  By 1940 we’d moved upmarket to Stoke Newington and when I think of the war I think of the Andersen Shelter in the garden, hiding in there with my cousins, watching them have their first cigarette.  “Cor,” I thought, “this is living.”


‘If it wasn’t for Blackpool I wouldn’t be Barbara Windsor, I wouldn’t be on the stage.  My mum sent me to Blackpool as an evacuee when I was five.  I ended up with quite a posh family, middle class, and they wrote to my mum saying, “We send our Mary to dancing school, shall we send Barbara too?”  I came back to London a year later with a thick Lancashire accent and a note saying I was a good little dancer.  There was a magic about Blackpool in the old days: the theatres, lights, arcades, funfair.  It was special and very English.


‘C is for the Carry Ons, of course.  No other country could make films like that!  All the English types are there: the fat lady, the lech, the poofter, the bouncy blonde.  The Carry Ons showed us how to laugh at ourselves.  There was something comforting about them too.  Whatever your problems, whatever was going wrong with the world, watching a Carry On you’d feel cocooned, cosy, completely safe.  I was in just nine out of the twenty-nine.  The most I got paid was £ 4,000, usually it was £ 2,500 a picture, with no repeat fees or anything.  I moan about the money, but it paid the rent.


‘D is for Danny La Rue.  I know he was born in Ireland, but to me he’s the best kind of English entertainer.  He’s got style, class, real star quality.  He’s a grafter.  And he introduced me to Noel Coward - and you can’t get more English than that.


‘E has to be for East Enders, the real ones and the TV soap.   I only spent two and a half years in the East End as a child, but I remember Angela Street where we lived.  A hop, skip, jump and two little runs and I was across it.  I can smell the Mansion polish on the doorstep, and when they tell you that they left the door on the latch and no child was ever left alone, it’s true.   I watched EastEnders for ten years before I joined the cast.   I love it, but I don’t know how like the real East End it is.  We don’t have any Bangladeshis on the show and these days it’s the ethnic groups who are down there making things happen.  The storylines are a bit grim, but the audiences seem to like the drama.  It’s encouraging to find that someone else’s life is worse than your own.


‘F is for football in general - I support Arsenal - and Sir Stanley Matthews in particular.   He was a real English gentleman, so polite, so modest.  He just went out there and did it.


‘G is for gardens, not so much the grand, formal English gardens, as the pocket handkerchief gardens that I remember as a child, with hollyhocks and sunflowers in them, and mum chatting to our neighbour across the garden wall.


‘H is for Hawtrey, Charles, my favourite performer in all the Carry Ons.  He was so skilful.  His timing was immaculate.  I loved him in the Will Hay films as the typical English schoolboy with glasses.  He was a little pasty-faced Englishman of a certain type.  He lived in Deal, smoked Weights, and drank too much.  He was great.


‘I is for ITMA with Tommy Handley, Dick Barton - Special Agent, Round the Horne and all those classic radio shows from the 1940s and 1950s.  Is there anything more English than Kenneth Horne playing it absolutely straight while Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick are camping it up as Julian and Sandy?


‘J is for jam roly-poly, bread and butter pudding, bread pudding and spotted dick.  I loved school dinners.  Meat, potatoes and greens, what more could a girl ask for?  Other kids didn’t like their greens, but I loved mine.  I loved everything about being at Church Street School.  I felt I belonged.       


‘K is for Kenny Williams, my special friend.  I can picture him now, in that overcoat of his, wearing his brown brogues, unmistakeably English, with a self-taught command of the language that was simply fantastic.  If I didn’t know a word, I never used a dictionary.  I just gave Kenny a call.


‘L is for Marie Lloyd, the last of the great music hall stars who died in 1952.  She sang “My old man followed the van.”  My grandad used to sit me on his knee and tell me all about Marie.  She was small, five foot, with protruding teeth.   As a little girl I used to stick my tongue behind my teeth, trying to push them forward so I could look like her.  She was the real working class star, the Madonna of her age. 


‘M is for Matron.  I’ve met people in the health service who don’t really approve of the way I played the busty, bubbly nurse in films like Carry On Doctor, but sometimes I think it wouldn’t be a bad thing if the hospitals were still being run by Matrons like Hattie Jacques.


‘The News of the World was the great English working-class paper.  Of course, in the old days the revelations were all about vicars and scoutmasters.  It didn’t touch showbusiness.  They’ve written about me now and again.  As a rule, it’s best not to complain.  Like Kenny Williams’ stories, there’s usually a grain of truth in it somewhere. 


‘O is for the Order of the British Empire.  I became a member of it this year.  Can you believe it?   When I went to pick up my medal, this wonderful old policeman at the gate said, “This is the best thing that’s happened since Charlie Chaplin came here.”   I’m in a business I love with a passion.  When I feel low, I walk down the street and people call out, “Carry on, Bar”.  To have an MBE as well is amazing.  I said to the Queen, “This is the cherry on top of the cake.”  She laughed, bless her.


‘P is for the English postman.   When I left home and moved to Stanmore, my mother, who always wanted us to better ourselves, said she couldn’t bear the way I’d stand on the doorstep in my dressing gown talking to the postman or the milkman, but I love them.  They keep you on the ground. They work hard, long hours.  They’re the best of British.


‘Q is for the Queen Vic, the pub in EastEnders.  There are still traditional pubs like it and you can’t beat ‘em.  When I joined the show, I felt I was floundering, but when they put me behind the bar at the Queen Vic, I knew I’d be all right.  I felt completely at home.  When I had a real pub, with my second husband, I was useless.  I kept dropping the glasses.


‘R is for royalty.  I love the Queen Mum, I love Prince Charles - and, of course, I’m one of the family.  When I started out in the business Deeks was not a good stage name.  Aida Foster, who ran the theatre school I went to, said you’ve got to change it, either to Ellis, my mum’s maiden name, or to Windsor, my Auntie Dolly’s name.  It was Coronation Year so that settled it.


‘S is for Shakespeare.  When I took my 11 plus I achieved the highest mark in North London.  My parents were thrilled and I went to Our Lady’s Convent in Stamford Hill.  My mum wanted me to become a foreign language telephonist and go to college.  I wanted to go on the stage.  I took part in a charity concert at Stoke Newington Town Hall, doing a tap dance, singing “On the Sunny Side of the Street”.   An agent spotted me and I was offered a part in the pantomime at Wimbledon, but Reverend Mother wouldn’t give me time off school.  I rebelled.  I became the worst-behaved girl in the school.   As a punishment I was given one of Puck’s speeches from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to learn overnight.  I had to perform it next day at Assembly.  I did it faultlessly.  Years later, when I played Maria in Twelfth Night at Chichester, I had real difficulty with the text until Bill Fraser, who was playing Sir Toby, said to me, “Don’t treat it like Shakespeare.”  It was just a little note, but it worked.


‘T has to be for Terry-Thomas, the quintessential English actor.  I loved him - and Margaret Rutherford and Joyce Grenfell.  Where have all the wonderful character actors like them disappeared to?


‘U is for Uncle Alf, my godfather.  He had a tailor’s business and when I earned my first wages, he said to me, “Bar, never get into debt, and pay your taxes.”  When I was a child, we listened to our elders.  It’s a bit different now, isn’t it?


‘V has got be for the English virtues: a sense of humour, a sense of fair play, a feeling for the underdog, a way of rallying around in a crisis.  You can’t beat it. 


‘This is the one choice that the Duke of Devonshire and I have in common.  Winston Churchill was my hero, the greatest Englishman of the twentieth century.


‘Do you remember the X-rated films in the 1950s?   There wasn’t sex in the cinema in those days.  An X-rated film meant it was horror.  At Warner’s Leicester Square, I got in to see House of Wax.  They said, “How old are you?”  I was fifteen, so I lied about my age.  I wish I hadn’t.  I was terrified.


‘Y is for Young Men, young Englishmen, of course.  When I married my second husband, Stephen, he was twenty years younger than me and I think that’s when the British Press started using the expression “toy boy”.   Scott, who I married in April, is the son of an schoolfriend of mine from the Convent.   Yes, I had an affair with Sid James and he was South African, and I’ve been out with Americans and all sorts, but I could only marry an English bloke.  Englishmen don’t make a fuss. 


‘Z is for Alfredo Zomparelli, “Italian Tony”, who killed my first brother-in-law, David Knight, and was murdered himself in the Golden Goose Arcade in Soho.  I know he wasn’t English, but we had to get the gangsters in somewhere, didn’t we?  People expect it.  I only met the Kray twins because they came round to my dressing room one night after a show.   I went out with their elder brother, Charlie, a few times.  He was everything I found attractive in a man: gentle, giggly, happy-go-lucky.  But they were hardly romantic dates because, for some reason, Charlie always had a mate in tow - Limehouse Willy or Big Scotch Pat.   I don’t suppose the Duke of Devonshire had any gangsters on his list, but, let’s face it, they’re part of England too. 

Gyles Brandreth