BBC drama Babs puts a twist on the classic biopic format to tell the story of Dame Barbara Windsor. She may be a national icon who has been performing since her teens, but writer Tony Jordan chooses to introduce her to us at her most vulnerable: in 1993, when the parts have dried up, her second marriage has collapsed and she’s been sleeping on a dressing room floor.
As she fills the dead time between the matinee and evening performances of her latest play, Barbara takes us on a journey through fifty years of her life, talking to the ghost of her father in an empty theatre as we see her story in flashbacks.
But just how accurate is Babs – and what does it leave out?
The childhood of Babs Windsor, AKA Barbara Deeks
Nick Moran as John, Honor Kneafsey as Barbara and Leanne Best as Rose in the BBC drama Babs
Barbara Ann Deeks was born in Shoreditch in London’s East End in 1937. She was the only child of John Deeks, a fruit and vegetable seller and bus conductor, and his wife Rose, a dressmaker.
And while she may be a cockney East End icon, the family actually moved to north London when she was two. Her mother was a bit of a social climber and wanted the family to “better themselves”, and and she was brought up pronouncing her Fs and Ts – something she insisted Samantha Spiro and Jaime Winstone follow while they played her in Babs.
Her mother paid for her to have elocution lessons and she trained at the Aida Foster School in Golders Green, though – as in the BBC drama – Mrs Deeks was resistant at first. She reportedly told the talent scout who wanted to make Babs a star, “My Babs, go on stage? I’ll ‘ave you know she’s going to be a foreign language telephonist.”
Babs was a bright and academic child, but determined to act. At 13 she made her stage debut, followed by her West End debut two years later in the chorus of the musical Love From Judy which toured the country. It was in 1953 that she took the stage name Windsor, inspired by the Queen’s coronation.
Barbara Windsor at stage school in 1955
She dearly loved her parents (particularly her father) but the Deeks had a turbulent marriage, which ended in an acrimonious divorce – and tore a hole in Babs’ life. She was called to give evidence in court and testified to her father’s occasional drunkenness and violence, assuming that she would then be asked about her mother’s shortcomings too. She wasn’t. Mrs Deeks got sole custody, and her father walked straight past her in court, disappearing from her life for decades.
In the BBC drama, this moment takes place when Babs is a little kid; in real life, she was already 15.
Barbara Windsor the up-and-coming actress
Barbara’s first film role was in The Belles of St Trinian’s, released in 1954 when she was still a teenager. It was such a small part she was uncredited, but her career was off to a good start – and in the meantime she kept her part as a chorus girl in Love From Judy.
By 1960 she had bagged a bigger role, in Too Hot to Handle with Jayne Mansfield as Ponytail. More major parts followed, in the sitcoms The Rag Trade and Wild, Wild Woman, and in 1968’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Her stage career was also taking off. She joined Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East where she starred in Fings Ain’t Wot They Used to Be. Littlewood got her on board again for her film, Sparrers Can’t Sing (1963) and she won her first Bafta nomination for Best British Film Actress.
Barbara Windsor marries Ronnie Knight
Barbara and Ronnie after his release from Brixton Prison in 1980
Ronnie Knight and Barbara got together in the early sixties and married in 1964. He was a bit of a gangster and, as the ghost of Babs’ dad tells her in the TV drama, “bad news”. Soon after they met he was jailed for receiving stolen goods. He was later found guilty of being involved in the robbery of a Security Express van.
But his crimes were later revealed to be even more serious. While he was acquitted of the murder of the man who had stabbed his brother, much later in life he wrote a book confessing to hiring a hitman. Babs says she believed he was innocent when the police let him go, and was shocked to read years later that he was not: “I picked up his book in Waterstone’s and I just couldn’t believe it.”
During this time she had a one night stand with Reggie Kray – something that is only hinted at in Babs. As in the drama, their first meeting did take place backstage after a performance of Fings Ain’t What They Used to Be, when Reggie came behind the scenes with Ronnie and Charlie.
Ronnie and Babs divorced in 1985.
Page 2: read about the Carry On films and how Barbara Windsor became an EastEnders legend