“Sitting there you look quite normal,” Sid James once told her. “So how come when you get up on stage you have these enormous knockers?” “It’s called acting, Sid,” she replied, without looking up from her book. Her trick was to guard the British against the fear of sex by relentlessly sending it up.
Despite her saucy image, Barbara Windsor was coy by the standards of later disrobings. When she finally went topless for the first time in Carry On Camping (1969) – her bra flew off during physical jerks and hit Kenneth Williams in the face – she insisted that the field be cleared for the scene.
It was 1972 before she appeared completely nude – and then only for a split second, when Sid James came upon her in a shower in Carry On Abroad. She refused to star in Carry On Emmanuel (1976) when asked to do a longer nude scene.
Although Barbara Windsor and her infectious giggle became indelibly associated with the Carry On series, she appeared in only nine of the 31 films, beginning with Carry On Spying (1964) and ending with Carry On Dick (1974); as each one was six weeks in the making they occupied only 54 weeks of her life.
She professed impatience with the technical side of filming and insisted that she preferred the theatre. But it sometimes seemed that her chief ambition was to be a gangster’s moll.
Barbara Windsor insisted on the gentlemanly qualities of the Kray family, had an affair with Charlie, and visited Reggie in prison. At some stage in the early 1960s she married Ronnie Knight, a friend of the Kray twins. Kenneth Williams accompanied them on honeymoon, together with his mother and sister.
One of her lovers was Sid James, who became obsessed with her. “I drifted into an affair with Sid for the sake of a quiet life,” she explained. It seemed that he would cry when she was not amenable, while she was miserable when she was. Sid James died in 1976.
Barbara Windsor’s marriage began to collapse in 1980, after Knight was acquitted of murdering Tony Zomparelli, who had stabbed his younger brother to death in a Soho brawl in 1970. She seemed to be close to a nervous breakdown, collapsing on stage and still desperately insisting that there was no split even when Knight went off to Spain with another woman, Susan Haylock.
She remained in touch with Knight, and in 1994 supposedly helped to talk him into giving himself up. The next year he was sentenced to seven years for his part in the Security Express robbery.
By 1994 the actress herself was in trouble, having run up debts after putting large sums of money into The Plough at Amersham, which was run by her second husband. Her career was faltering, and she was reduced to a series of appearances in provincial theatres.
When she landed the role of Peggy Mitchell, the interfering but well-meaning landlady of The Queen Victoria in EastEnders, it was, as she said, “the difference between having a roof over my head and being out in the street”. Her presence also gave a tremendous fillip to the ratings, which went up by five million on the evening of her first appearance in November 1994.
She played Peggy for 16 years, leaving the soap in 2010, with only occasional re-appearances before her final scenes as the character was killed off with cancer in 2016.
An only child, Barbara Windsor was born Barbara Anne Deeks on August 6, 1937. Her father John Deeks was a costermonger, and her mother Rose (née Ellis) a seamstress with social ambitions for her daughter. When Barbara was three the family moved to Stoke Newington; she was briefly evacuated to Blackpool.
She was a bright girl, who achieved the highest marks in North London in her 11-plus. At Our Lady’s Convent, Stamford Hill, she excelled in French and Spanish, inspiring her mother with the hope that she might become a multilingual telephonist.
But young Barbara was early drawn towards showbusiness and for a time trained at the Aida Foster stage school in Golders Green. Her parents separated when she was 14, and she got a part in a show called Love from Judy, as one of eight orphans.
She spent two and a half years on the road, with all the instability that entailed, and by the age of 21 had had three abortions.
In 1954, having taken the stage name Windsor following the Coronation, she was briefly glimpsed on the big screen in The Belles of St Trinian’s – though not briefly enough for her mother. “When I think of all the piecework I’ve done to pay for you to get rid of that awful voice …,” Mrs Deeks moaned.
In the theatre Barbara Windsor’s breakthrough came in Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’be (Stratford East, 1960), directed by Joan Littlewood. Her rendering of Where Do Little Birds Go? brought the house down.
Joan Littlewood thought Barbara Windsor had immense potential – “she hated me doing the same old bosomy thing” – and in 1962 cast her in her relentlessly Cockney film, Sparrows Can’t Sing, as Maggie, who has left her husband and moved in with a bus driver. The next year Barbara Windsor was in another film, Crooks in Cloisters, while on the small screen she had a part in the series The Rag Trade (from 1961).
She published a candid memoir, Barbara: Laughter and Tears of a Cockney Sparrow, in 1990, followed in 2000 by All of Me: An Extraordinary Life. In 2017 her story was the subject of a BBC One drama, Babs, by the longstanding EastEnders scriptwriter Tony Jordan, with Jaime Winstone and Samantha Spiro playing the Cockney star at different stages.
Barbara Windsor was appointed MBE in 2000, promoted in 2016 to DBE for services to charity and entertainment. She won a number of industry accolades, including Best Actress in the 1999 National Soap Awards.
Her second husband Stephen Hollings was replaced in her life by Scott Mitchell, an actor whose parents had been friends of hers. “I can honestly say that I’ve never been this satisfied or happy in a relationship,” Barbara Windsor announced in 1997.
Mitchell was 25 years younger than she was and when they married in 2000 many predicted that the relationship would not last. In fact, Mitchell proved to be a stalwart companion who supported Barbara Windsor with patience and good humour in her final years, which were blighted by the dementia which was diagnosed in 2014. In recent years the couple talked in interviews about its effects and campaigned for improvements to the care system.
The Telegraph, London