British Actress Dame Barbara Windsor was 83 when she succumbed to Alzheimer’s at a London care home. Dame Barbara is best remembered as the star of nine of the 31 Carry On films – and it’s hard to think of the series of saucy comedies without her.
You might have also seen her in The Rag Trade sit-com, the film Sparrows Can’t Sing (1963) and the BBC’s long running soap EastEnders. But it was on stage where her talent and effervescence marked her out for stardom.
After a stint at the Aida Foster School in London’s Golders Green, Windsor joined Joan Littlewood’s company at the Theatre Royal in Stratford, east London, appearing in productions of Oh! What A Lovely War and Fings Ain’t Wot They Used To Be.
At four foot ten and half inches tall with a bawdy laugh and impressive cleavage, ‘Babs’, a native of London’s East End, was a terrific and apparently fearless performer – although as she once cautioned: “I am not like my image. Everyone thinks I just bounce in, but I study and everything has to be just right.”
Take that memorable bra scene in Carry on Camping (1969), filmed in chilly February and March. Windsor was dressed in a bikini for an exercise class. A fling of the arms and… Twang! The bra straps cannot stand the strain. The bra jets off and lands on Kenneth Williams’ face, in his role as the gym instructor. The bra was attached to a fishing rod. On take one the props man pulled. The bra did not come loose and Babs was dragged over and through the mud. “Get her up and mop her down. Let’s go for another take”, Windsor heard as she struggled to her feet.
She married three times, including to small-time criminal Ronnie Knight, and she also dated hymned villains Charlie Kray and his brother Reggie, her Carry On co-star Sid James, Maurice Gibb of the Bee Gees and the footballer George Best, of whom she said: “There was this vision, this absolute vision. He was so beautiful. He came over to me in the bar and I said, ‘Look, don’t waste your time with me, darling. You’ve got all these lovely ladies after you’. And he said, ‘Well, when do I ever get to talk to somebody like you?’ Well, that did it. That was it. A magic moment.”
The following words are from All Of Me: My Extraordinary Life (2001) by Barbara Windsor:
“I was 16 going on 10 when I stepped into a witness box for the first time. My father, John Deeks, was a happy-go-lucky Cockney back from the war with a smile and a whistle but little ambition. He was keen to make the best of everything but my mother Rose was quick to find fault. For years I had tried to play peacekeeper, but now our little life in East London was over.
“Can someone find a box for Barbara Ann to stand on?” the divorce court judge said, seeing that I was so tiny. I thought Daddy would laugh, but his eyes were full of hate.
“Did you ever see your father hit your mother?” they asked. I had to tell the truth. “Yes,” I said.
I was thinking they would ask next about Mummy, and what she had done to Daddy.
But there were no questions about her. The next I knew, Mummy was telling me: “Well, Babs, Daddy and I are no longer together. You’ve been awarded to me.”
Just then, I heard Daddy’s shoes on the concrete floor, his face scarlet with fury. He didn’t say a word. He just rushed past like a gust of wind without even a glance.
It had been different just eight years before. I was seven in 1945 when we were told the war was over, but spring turned to summer, autumn to winter, and still Daddy wasn’t home. Other kids said he’d been killed.
Yet one week before Christmas, I was playing hopscotch outside our prefab when I heard those shoes coming down our road. I just knew it was Daddy. I ran out, leaped into his arms and hugged and kissed him.
He had been in Egypt with the 8th Army, one of the last regiments to return. I’d idolised him when he’d left in 1943, and idolised him still. We had the same raucous laugh and Mummy hated it.
By Christmas 1953 I knew there was a split coming when Daddy admitted to me: “I can’t stand your mother.”
It was shortly after that I had found myself testifying – for the first of what would be several times in my life.
Until that day Daddy had always made me feel safe. But then in the blinking of an eye he left me feeling insecure, a feeling that would dominate the years to follow.
During the war, Mum had resisted sending me away from London until my friend Margaret was hit by flying shrapnel and killed.
The next thing I knew was leaving Euston for Blackpool, aged six, with a number pinned to my coat and a warning from Mummy: “Don’t go off with any strange men.”
There was something wrong with the couple who took me in. First they insisted I undressed in front of them.
Then, when I went to bed, the man came into my room and tried to touch me. I said: “Mummy said I mustn’t be left on my own with a man.”
After that I used to push furniture against the door, and when he tried to get in I’d scream. Most nights I’d cry myself to sleep. I was saved when the authorities discovered the couple were really brother and sister, breaking the law by claiming money for looking after me. The last I saw of them was when they were taken away by the police in a Black Maria.
Luckily Florence North, the mother of a Blackpool schoolfriend, took me in and sent me to the local Norbreck Dancing School.
I wasn’t particularly keen but once I started I took to dancing and singing, Auntie Florence told Mummy, “like a duck to water”. Once back in London, I began weekly classes at Madame Behenna’s. Being able to both sing and dance, I became something of a star turn. I never suffered from stagefright: confidence oozed out of me.
By 20 I found myself star of a nightly revue at London club Winston’s. One night an influential former actor, Peter Noble, told me: “I’m producing a film and I’m going to write you into it.”
Thrilled, I went to Shepperton Studios but my joy turned to fear when he pushed me against some scenery and ran his hands all over me. As an innocent little virgin I didn’t know how to handle it. I just kept saying: “Please, don’t do this to me.”
Finally he pulled away, laughing. Two weeks later I filmed my line: “Can I have a cherry red lipstick?”
Speaking of cherries, it was not that long after that I lost mine. A very handsome, Arab-looking young man used to come to the revue every night to gaze at me.
One weekend he insisted on throwing a lavish party for the cast at his home. Whether it was arranged so he could get closer to me I don’t know, but I got plastered and ended up in bed with him. I have a hazy recollection of travelling home in the early hours aware I was no longer a virgin. My friend Georgia said: “Thank God for that. You were gagging for it.”
After I’d discovered the joys of sex, I became a right little goer. There were men round me like bees round a honeypot, and I took advantage of that and went bananas. And because I was still so naïve, I never bothered with any contraception.
An unwanted pregnancy and a painful abortion followed.
It was my co-star in the last, Ronnie Fraser, who changed my life for ever when he invited me to a dinner, where I met Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas, the Carry On bosses, who just so happened that day to be on the lookout for a busty blonde…
Dame Barbara Windsor (nee Barbara Ann Deeks): August 6, 1937 (Shoreditch, London) – December 10, 2020.
Would you like to support Flashbak?
Please consider making a donation to our site. We don't want to rely on ads to bring you the best of visual culture. You can also support us by signing up to our Mailing List. And you can also follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. For great art and culture delivered to your door, visit our shop.