BBC drama Babs puts a twist on the classic biopic format to tell the story of Dame Barbara Windsor – she may have been a national icon who performed 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 50 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
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 she was brought up pronouncing her Fs and Ts – something she insisted Samantha Spiro and Jaime Winstone follow when 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.
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 that 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 (played by Zoë Wanamaker in the drama) 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
Ronnie Knight and Barbara got together in the early ’60s and married in 1964. 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, telling The Observer, “I picked up his book in Waterstone’s and I just couldn’t believe it.”
Ronnie and Babs divorced in 1985.
Starring in the Carry On films
The Carry On movies made Babs a household name. Starting with Carry On Spying in 1964, she played a “good time girl” in nine Carry On films. The movies were risqué and suggestive, and while they paid the bills, they were in many ways a trap: Babs struggled for years to be taken seriously again.
In the ’70s she had an affair with her co-star Sid James while still married to Ronnie.
Did she really have an abortion?
Yes – five, though we only see her have one in the drama after a co-star recommends a doctor to sort out her unwanted pregnancy with jailbird Ronnie’s kid.
In her 2001 autobiography she wrote about her abortions, the first three of which took place before the age of 21 and the last when she was 42.
Barbara Windsor takes the stage
Barbara’s relationship with Joan Littlewood kept on giving. She starred on Broadway in the theatre director’s production of Oh, What a Lovely War! which earned her a 1965 Tony Award nomination.
She also appeared in the flop Twang! and the musical Come Spy With Me. She has starred alongside Vanessa Redgrave in The Threepenny Opera, and in 1975 had a world tour of her own show Carry On Barbara!. Her stage career continued well into the 1980s.
A second failed marriage
In the TV drama we know Barbara is going through her second divorce, but we don’t actually get to know anything about her second husband, the restauranteur Stephen Hollings.
The two married in 1986 and divorced in 1995, though they had separated a few years before. The Buckinghamshire pub and restaurant Barbara and her husband bought together was a major failure and left her with debts of “like a million” – explaining why she is broke and sleeping in a dressing room in the BBC drama.
A third happy marriage
In the drama we do meet Scott Mitchell, who she went on to marry in 2000. Alongside Babs, he was closely involved in the TV drama.
Becoming an EastEnders legend
When we meet Barbara in Babs, she’s down on her luck and thinking back over her life to see where she went wrong. But the role that would define the latter part of her career and introduce her to a whole new generation was just around the corner.
EastEnders began in 1985, but it wasn’t until 1994 that Barbara got the part of Peggy Mitchell (who had previously been played by Jo Warne in 1991). She became the soap’s matriarch and a pillar of Albert Square, though after she came down with the Epstein-Barr virus in 2003 her appearances became less frequent. Despite her tiny stature, she will be remembered for her impressive bellow “Get out of my pub!”.
Barbara retired in 2009 to spend more time with her husband, though she popped back for special episodes.
In 2016 Peggy made her final return to Walford, where her character – diagnosed with terminal cancer – decided to take her own life.
In the same year, Windsor was made a Dame; this biopic, Babs, marked her 80th birthday in August 2017.
Barbara Windsor’s Alzheimers struggles
When this TV movie first came out in 2017, what we didn’t know was that Barbara Windsor had already been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She received the diagnosis in April 2014, but opted not to make the news public.
In May 2018, however, Windsor’s husband Scott publicly revealed her condition.
In January 2019, Scott opened up about the moments when she no longer recognised him any more.
However, he told ITV, “There are still incredible glimpses of Barbara, we went to see a Pantomime a couple of weeks ago, and when we’re in the theatre, she comes alive especially when she talks to the public.”
In mid-July 2020, Windsor was moved to a care home after her advancing dementia worsened during lockdown. Her husband announced that she had passed away on 10th December, 2020.
Babs first aired in 2017, and is repeated tonight (Friday, 11th December 2020) at 7:35pm on BBC One. Check out what else is on with our TV Guide.