A good bird: remembering Barbara Windsor

A very British icon of both the normal and extraordinary, Dame Barbara Windsor was always in control of her own image.

31 December 2020

By Hannah Mackay

Sight and Sound
Barbara Windsor

“She was a good bird.” Such is the obituary Barbara Windsor requested for herself while appearing on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories ten years ago.

Like everything about her, it is deceptively simple, another way of saying – there’s nothing to me, I’m just like you, what you see is what you get. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Windsor was extraordinary and deeply unusual – a one-off who came to embody British popular culture in the twentieth century like nobody else. When she took part in the BBC’s flagship Desert Island Discs in 1990, she chose as her luxury item a Union Jack, which she promised to wave, alone on the beach, while listening to Land of Hope and Glory.

Over a career that spanned more than 70 years, beginning as one of Madame Behenna’s Juvenile Jollities and ending with her iconic departure from Albert Square as the doof doof kicked in, Windsor remained firmly in control of her brand. She understood intuitively that her appeal was based on a potent mixture of her normalcy (“You could always find a barmaid who looked like me”) coupled with her extraordinariness – “I think I’m a living legend and an icon,” she declared modestly – and she harnessed the power of that combination to achieve a unique national status.

The producer of the Carry On franchise, Peter Rogers, described her as “a body, a bosom and a joke”, but that is of course what she wanted you to think. (Rogers, by the way, used to pay the women less than the men and Fenella Fielding recalled having to provide her own costume jewellery.)

In reality Windsor was much more than a body, a bosom and a joke, although perhaps she was that too. “I played at being sexy,” she said. In other words, she was a woman in charge of her own image.

Barbara Windsor

Windsor’s formidable talent for self-branding started early: with the selection of a name. Born Barbara Ann Deeks in Shoreditch in East London in 1937 – her father was a bus driver, her mother a dressmaker – her first significant career decision came in 1953, when she decided to choose a stage name.

Windsor and Ellis were the two family names that made her shortlist, but since Ruth Ellis “had just got hung” and it was also the Coronation year, she wisely chose to co-opt the name of the royal house instead (itself a sort of stage name, the real name being Saxe-Coburg and Gotha – so maybe everyone is just playing at being English). It’s an interesting counter-factual to imagine whether Windsor would have segued so naturally into national treasure territory if she hadn’t chosen a name that effectively demanded it.

Barbara Windsor

After an uncredited appearance as a schoolgirl in The Belles of St Trinian’s (1954), Windsor became a nightclub singer in the West End, with Danny La Rue. She was a regular performer at Ronnie Scott’s. In his 1998 memoir, Black Night, notorious gangster Ronnie Knight described a typical evening at the club: “Noel Coward tinkling on the ivories for all he was worth… that Russian bloke, Nureyev, poncing about… Roger Moore drawing the birds like flies to a cowpat.”

Knight paints a seductive picture, and Windsor was so taken with this world that she ended up marrying him in 1964. On their honeymoon, they were accompanied by her Carry On co-star Kenneth Williams, who also brought with him his mother and sister.  

The marriage was to last 21 years and featured a murder trial for Knight. “He was lovely,” said Windsor of Knight on Desert Island Discs, even though he was married to someone else and remained so for the first four years of their relationship. Throughout her life she remained firm friends with Reggie Kray, who was “what the papers call a gangster” (he died while serving a life sentence for murder).

“Is it quite a relief that you’re now in a circle of people who don’t go round murdering everyone?” asked Morgan in 2010. Windsor gave her characteristic giggle in response.  She based Peggy Mitchell, her character in EastEnders on the Kray’s mother, Violet.

Barbara Windsor as Peggy Mitchell in EastEnders (2016)

Windsor headed back to the East End in 1959 for what would become possibly the most enriching period of her career – her collaboration with radical theatre director Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop. When Littlewood offered her a role in Fings Ain’t What They Used to Be – words by Frank Norman, music by Lionel Bart – she was initially skeptical. The show was to be staged at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, and like many East-Enders, now she’d got out, she didn’t fancy going back: “I don’t want to go to Stratford East, who wants to go there, Darling?” she apparently said to Littlewood on first meeting.

But Littlewood was to be one of the few creatives in Windsor’s career who saw beyond the simplistic promise of sexuality that she seemed to offer. People saw her as “all tits and bum”, said Littlewood, and that was undoubtedly the bind she found herself in throughout her career. Her extraordinary physique – 4 feet 10 inches, with huge, iconic, juggernaut bosoms, always the first thing anybody mentions – was both the key to her early success and the thing that shackled her to a type forever. “I would’ve done anything to get rid of those bosoms,” she confided on her 80th birthday.

Barbara Windsor as Maggie in Sparrows Can’t Sing (1963)

Their work together gave Windsor not just success but credibility. After Fings transferred to the West End it won the Evening Standard Award for Best Play, and their subsequent collaboration, the 1963 film Sparrows Can’t Sing, earned Windsor a BAFTA nomination. Littlewood had hopes that the film would offer them a transatlantic breakthrough and, in preparation for its US release, the name was changed from its cockney-phonetic original, Sparrers Can’t Sing, to widen its appeal to an American audience.

Sadly this wasn’t enough and the New York Times wrote that, “this isn’t a picture for anyone with a logical mind or an ear for language. The gabble of cockney spoken here is as incomprehensible as the reasoning of those who speak it.”

Windsor was to remain a very English phenomenon. For better or worse, the work with which she will forever be associated are the Carry On films – ubiquitous at home yet never as big a success abroad. It is hard to describe their tone or their appeal. One might say that they aspire to depict a hyper-sexualised world of physical indulgence, but in reality they deal in frustration, impotency and disappointment. Nobody ever actually has sex in a Carry On film, but they talk about it all the time. Sex becomes not so much an act as an endlessly iterated punchline.

Bernard Cribbins as Harold Crump and Barbara Windsor as Daphne Honeybutt in Carry on Spying (1964)

But Windsor won out in the end because she was in control of the joke. The journalist Caroline O’Donoghue has a theory called ‘the mist’: “What happens is a person gets famous and a mist develops. And the mist is between them and their audience… the longer the person is famous, the thicker the mist becomes. But some people… have a laser-pointed hologram they shine through the mist. And that’s the character they project in the world.”

Barbara Windsor lived happily in the mist behind the character she projected in the world. A mess of contradictions, undeniably talented but with a strange and mercurial body of work that is hard to summarise, Windsor is nonetheless one of the few national figures who can speak across the barriers of a deeply divided country.

Now that she’s gone to “that great Carry on in the sky” (in her words), we will mourn her as one of the few figures who we all allowed to represent us – an inverted James Bond, perhaps, spinning the national myth to make us feel better about ourselves. And right now we must take our consolations where we can.

  • Barbara Windsor, born Barbara Ann Deeks, 6 August 1937–10 December 2020.

Further reading

The departed: the filmmakers we lost in 2020

Our roll call of film figures who passed away in 2020, compiled by Bob Mastrangelo, with links to individual obituaries.

By Bob Mastrangelo

The departed: the filmmakers we lost in 2020