The two actors who play a young Barbara Windsor in the BBC’s biopic Babs tell Libby Purves what it was like to tell the life story of the screen legend.
Jaime Winstone: “Barbara Windsor was a sex symbol, but did it with innocence and grace”
I knew the Carry On films and EastEnders but didn’t know Barbara had a really good theatre background! It was tempting to read her story, but I was playing her in a time where she was naive about the industry. So I sat down with her and started to fill in those gaps, and she really opened up. I found it really heart-breaking, that little girl being sent away… Finding theatre and dance and building her confidence.
And she’s still so quick… She’s 80 in August and she’s got a razor-sharp sense of humour.
It’s easy to play into this iconic character as a sort of pin-up, Carry On Barbara. But she’s a real, amazing woman: so strong.
Women in showbiz in that period were looked at as though you couldn’t be the lead; you had to be the sexy little blonde and show a bit of leg, “Oh, right, a nurse’s outfit”. She was a sex symbol but did it with innocence and grace, and she’s so brave.
I loved doing the Carry On scene! And there’s one moment where I’m sitting in the café with her and [first husband] Ronnie Knight and I look across to my older self — real Barbara! — that was very emotional.
You don’t often get moments when you’re playing a real person and act in a scene with her. I could call her at any time, and she would guide me through things and make me laugh, so I felt safe.
To be honest, the singing was hard, when I had to rehearse with her and work on songs… I’ve never done much singing before in front of people, so to belt it out on stage for the scene of her first audition!
She really guided me through that and unlocked something. I overcame a thing I’d been scared of for quite a while. She’s just amazing, completely amazing.
Samantha Spiro: “She’s every woman’s best friend”
I’d played her before in the play Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick [National Theatre, 1998], which became the ITV film Cor, Blimey! . Actually, people used to call me Babs at drama school — my background is East End, it’s in my DNA. So I’d loved getting into it last time round, and when I heard they wanted a middle-aged woman to play her at 50, it had my name on it!
I read the script and loved it: this was a point in her life when things weren’t going well, end-of-the-pier, a second marriage had left her nearly bankrupt. It’s a wonderful challenge to play her at that moment, and in conversations with the father, like a ghost of Christmas past, because that relationship was one of the really great regrets in her life.
There’s a melancholy there. But the extraordinary thing is that she is loved by so many generations: my children know about her, my parents’ generation adore her, she’s fancied by men and liked, but she’s every woman’s best friend who’ll cheer you up. You want to hang out with her. She’s never adopted any airs and graces.
On set she remembers everybody’s name, she’s got time for every runner, every person at the stage door. She was round quite a bit while we were filming, and extremely positive. It was an honour to play her, trying not to overdo the impersonation, just understand how it was in that hard time.
When she’d seen it, it was a great relief when her husband Scott texted — he does the texting in that relationship! — and he said she was overwhelmed and thrilled.