Barbara Windsor, who has died at the age of 83, had a long reign. She changed her surname from Deeks around the time of Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953 and withdrew from public gaze on leaving the Queen Vic for the last time in 2016. In between times, ‘Babs’ became a national treasure, although she is bound to be remembered for the wrong reasons, as there was much more to her than that pinging green bikini in Carry On Camping (1969).
As part of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, Windsor had announced herself in Lionel Bart’s Cockney musical, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be (1959), and she went on to earn a Tony nomination for the Broadway transfer of Oh, What a Lovely War! (1965). Littlewood had urged her to drop out of the Carry Ons, and Windsor took 2 wilderness decades to emerge from their shadow. The talent was always there, but too few had the gumption to know how to use it. Wisely, she steered clear of softcore romps in the 1970s and made periodic returns to the stage. But Windsor finally got to show what she could do in EastEnders, where she demonstrated that she had been showbiz royalty all along.
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Sparrows Can’t Sing (1963)
Director: Joan Littlewood
Easily the most liberated work of 1960s social realism, this transfer of Stephen Lewis’s stage play not only afforded theatre pioneer Joan Littlewood her debut as a film director, but it also earned Barbara Windsor a BAFTA nomination for best actress. Caught between Charlie (James Booth), the sailor husband who had abandoned her for 2 years, and Bert (George Sewell), the bus driver who had given her baby a home, Maggie Gooding can turn on a sixpence between being blowsy and vulnerable. But she’s as authentic as the locations and lingo, the latter of which necessitated subtitles when the picture was released Stateside.
Crooks in Cloisters (1964)
Director: Jeremy Summers
From her bit part debut in The Belles of St Trinian’s (1954), Windsor’s bubbly blonde persona had made her a ready fit for screen comedy. In Jeremy Summers’ Cornish caper, she’s cast as Bikini, the girlfriend of criminal mastermind Little Walter (Ronald Fraser), who dons a cowl to cook for his gang when they lay low in an abandoned monastery after a train robbery. Having held her own against such practised farceurs as Bernard Cribbins and Wilfrid Brambell, Windsor got her big break when Fraser invited her to lunch at Pinewood and her high-heeled tottering was noticed by Carry On producer Peter Rogers.
Carry On Spying (1964)
Director: Gerald Thomas
At 27, Windsor slotted into the Carry On gang as trainee agent Daphne Honeybutt, who is given the codename ‘Brown Cow’ when she is dispatched to Vienna to recover a chemical formula that has been stolen by STENCH. Despite riffing on the burgeoning James Bond franchise, the film was shot in monochrome to reinforce the parodic connection with Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). Although this is less reliant on smutty innuendo than later entries, Windsor still has to strip off for a belly dancing routine, although she also displays the gift for physical shtick that would be further exploited in Carry On Camping and Carry On Girls (1973).
It Couldn’t Happen Here (1987)
Director: Jack Bond
It’s 3 for the price of one in Jack Bond’s collaboration with the Pet Shop Boys. Windsor is first seen as a seaside landlady forcing her guests to say grace before favourite boarder Chris Lowe tips a platter of bacon and eggs over her head. To the accompaniment of ‘It’s a Sin’, she also crops up in a French maid’s outfit in ‘Nights in the Harem’, a saucy short flipping on a handcranked What the Butler Saw machine on the promenade. Finally, she gets to lip-sync to Dusty Springfield while conducting a telephone conversation as Neil Tennant’s hair-netted mother via ‘What Have I Done to Deserve This?’ Inspired stuff.
Windsor did more television than cinema, notably taking 2 different characters in The Rag Trade (1961-63) and playing key roles in the various small-screen Carry On spin-offs. However, her crowning glory was the 1,668-episode run as Peggy Mitchell, the landlady of the Queen Vic on Albert Square, who had to deal with the added burden of being the mother of trouble magnets Phil (Steve McFadden) and Grant (Ross Kemp). A resistance to famous faces had prevented Windsor from joining the cast earlier. But the role fitted her like a glove, and she followed a 1999 best actress win with a lifetime honour at the 2009 British Soap Awards.