Tributes to Dame Barbara Windsor, who has died aged 83, have inevitably focused on the screen roles that made her an icon, from appearing in nine Carry On films to playing Peggy Mitchell in BBC soap EastEnders from 1994 to 2016. But she began her career in theatre, later combining her movie stardom with parts in comedies, musicals, dramas and panto.
She recalls her early days in theatre in her autobiography, All of Me: My Extraordinary Life. She made her stage debut at the age of 13 in the panto, Sleeping Beauty, at Golders Green Hippodrome in London and then her West End debut at 15 in the chorus of the musical, Love From Judy, which also toured the UK. Born Barbara Ann Deeks in Shoreditch in London’s East End in 1937, she trained at the Aida Foster School in nearby Golders Green, cheekily changing her stage name in 1953 to that of the newly crowned Elizabeth II. In 1957, she appeared alongside Amanda Barrie (later Coronation Street’s Alma) and drag artiste Danny La Rue in an adult panto, Aladdin, at Winston’s nightclub in London.
In 1959, director Joan Littlewood cast her as a jaunty sex worker in Lionel Bart’s new musical Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be for her pioneering collective Theatre Workshop at its base at Theatre Royal Stratford East in London. The show was a huge success and transferred to the West End in 1960 for a two-year run. Littlewood made a film adaptation of another Theatre Workshop hit, Sparrows Can’t Sing by Stephen Lewis, in 1963 and cast Windsor in the lead role of Maggie Gooding, for which she received a Bafta Award nomination for best British film actress.
Windsor worked with Theatre Workshop again as part of the cast of musical Oh! What a Lovely War when it went to Broadway in 1964, gaining a nomination for best-featured actress in a musical in the Tony Awards. She starred in another Lionel Bart musical, Twang!!, in 1965 although, after touring and arriving at London’s Shaftesbury Theatre, it proved to be a disastrous flop. Littlewood also inventively cast Windsor as Falstaff in a reading of Shakespeare’s Henry IV at the Edinburgh Festival in 1964 although sadly it did not lead to a full production.
Away from Theatre Workshop, Windsor starred alongside Danny La Rue in the musical, Come Spy With Me, which ran at London’s Whitehall Theatre from 1966 to 1967. She scored another success playing legendary music hall performer Marie Lloyd in the show, Sing a Rude Song, at Greenwich Theatre in 1970 and then in the West End.
She played Lucy Brown, one of the leading roles, in Tony Richardson’s production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera in the West End in 1972 alongside Vanessa Redgrave as Polly Peachum. She had previously played Lucy Lockit in The Beggar’s Opera – the source of Brecht’s adaptation – at the Connaught Theatre in Worthing in West Sussex in 1967. Other musical theatre work included the title role in Calamity Jane in a UK tour in 1979 and Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls in UK tours in 1988 and 1991.
After playing a series of confidently sexy blonds in the saucy Carry On films from 1964 to 1974, she appeared in a number of Carry On-themed revues with her co-stars as well as her own show, Carry On Barbara!, which toured the UK and internationally in 1975. She was part of the cast of Robin Hawdon’s saucy comedy The Mating Game which, from 1981 to 1984, played summer seasons in Blackpool and St Helier in Jersey as well as touring the UK. She also did Shakespeare, playing Maria in Twelfth Night at Chichester Festival Theatre in 1976 alongside Gordon Jackson and Michele Dotrice. Later stage work included the sex-obsessed landlady in Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane at the Lyric Hammersmith in London in 1981 – directed by her Carry On co-star and friend, Kenneth Williams – which she returned to for a UK tour in 1993.
Windsor also became a character in a stage drama about the team behind the Carry On films, Terry Johnson’s Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick, which premiered at London’s National Theatre in 1998. She was played by Samantha Spiro who not only went on to play her in the TV adaptation, Cor, Blimey!, in 2000 but also in Tony Jordan’s 2017 biopic, Babs, sharing the title role with Jaime Winstone and Windsor herself.
With her comedy and musical skills, Windsor was perfect for panto and appeared in 30 different pantomimes from her stage debut until 2010/11 when she starred in Dick Whittington at Bristol Hippodrome. Although best remembered for Carry On and EastEnders, she was a talented all-round entertainer who will be missed by many.
For details of Windsor’s extensive pantomime credits, visit its-behind-you.com