Barbara Windsor, Beloved British TV and Film Star, Dies at 83
LONDON – Barbara Windsor, a star of the “Carry On” films and long-running BBC soap opera “EastEnders”, whose dirty staccato laugh and ability to embody the life of the working class brought her to the collective memory of Britain, died on December 10th in a nursing home here. She was 83 years old.
Her death was announced in a statement from her husband and sole immediate survivor, Scott Mitchell, who said the cause was Alzheimer’s disease.
As a sign of the impact Ms. Windsor has had on Britain’s cultural life over the past six decades, royal family members have been among those paying tribute on social media, as has Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who wrote on Twitter that Ms. Windsor was “Cheered the world up with her own British brand of harmless cheek and innocent scandals.”
Ms. Windsor also made an impact in the United States, if only briefly, when she appeared on Broadway in 1964 in “Oh! What a fine war, ”Joan Littlewood’s music hall-style show that used disrespectful World War I songs to mock the absurdity of conflict.
Some American theatergoers may have found Ms. Windsor’s Cockney accent difficult to understand – one of her earliest films, “Sparrow’s Can’t Sing,” which was subtitled at some screenings in New York – but she won a Tony Award for Best Performance nominated actress in a musical.
In 1970 she told a BBC interviewer that she really wanted to do a movie in Hollywood, preferably a comedy with Jack Lemmon. “That would be great, wouldn’t it?” She said. She did not achieve that particular ambition but was soon immortalized in British cinemas thanks to her roles in the quirky, allusive and hugely successful “Carry On” films.
She later became even better known for her role as the matriarchal landlady Peggy Mitchell in “EastEnders,” a character she repeatedly portrayed from 1994 to 2016. She stopped when her Alzheimer’s disease made it impossible to continue.
Ms. Windsor was born Barbara Ann Deeks on August 6, 1937 in Shoreditch, then part of the working class in East London. Her father, John, a bus driver, and mother, Rose, a seamstress, had a tumultuous marriage, and by age 15, Ms. Windsor had to testify about their disputes in a divorce negotiation.
As a child during World War II, she was evacuated to Blackpool, a seaside resort in northern England. There, in her 2001 autobiography, All About Me: My Extraordinary Life, she revealed that she first stayed with a family that tried to sexually abuse her before moving in with a friend whose mother sent them both to dance classes. The mother was so impressed with her talent that she wrote a letter to Ms. Windsor’s parents asking them to go to London to teach them. “She’s a real show,” reads the letter Ms. Windsor recalled in the 1970 BBC interview.
Back in London, Ms. Windsor was discovered by a talent agent trying to cast her in a pantomime, the particularly British form of theater popular at Christmas, but her school refused to give her time off. She eventually went to drama school, where teachers repeatedly tried – and failed – to get her to lose her accent.
Despite the promise Ms. Windsor made, her break didn’t come until 1960 when she traveled to East London to audition for a role in Ms. Littlewood’s theatrical workshop, a company whose works often brought the life and humor of the working class to the stage. The recognition she received for her work there soon led to appearances on television and then in film, where she was hailed for her hackneyed roles in the “Carry On” comedies.
In these films, the camera often focused on the short (4-foot-11) but buxom Ms. Windsor’s figure. She is probably best remembered for a scene in “Carry On Camping” (1969) where her bikini top flies off during an outdoor aerobics class (an assistant peeled the top off with a fishing line during filming). This clip has since been shown several times on British television.
Although Ms. Windsor succeeded on screen, her personal life was in trouble. She had connections with a number of famous men, including soccer player George Best and East London gangsters Reggie and Charlie Kray. In 1964 she married Ronnie Knight, another gangster who was tried in 1980 for ordering a killer to murder his brother’s killer (he was acquitted), and in 1983 she married £ 6 million (more than £ 17 million or so) had stolen $ 23 million in today’s money) from a security deposit and fled to Spain.
Her relationship with Mr. Knight caused a nervous breakdown, she told the BBC in a 1990 interview. This marriage and a subsequent marriage ended in divorce.
Her life picked up again in the 1990s after she starred as Peggy Mitchell in EastEnders, the popular sink soap opera, whose storylines often reflected social themes.
She quickly became one of the stars of the show, known for beating her co-stars when the plot called for a climatic moment and for storylines that could be far darker than anything you could find in a “carry on” – Movie would find. (In 2010, one of her character’s sons burned the pub down in the middle of a crack cocaine binge.)
In the 1990s, her figure had breast cancer twice and had a mastectomy. This act prompted hundreds of viewers to write to the BBC to thank them for how sensitive they were with the subject. In 2016, when she last appeared on the series, her character killed himself because her cancer had returned.
Whatever happened to Ms. Windsor on-screen or off-screen, she never lost the joy of performing.
“I don’t think negatively,” she told the BBC in 1990 when asked how she would look back on her life. “I’m going to single out all of the wonderful things that happened and how happy I was paid – paid! – for something that I absolutely adored. “