Interview : Dame Barbara Windsor, Babs
Photo : A true icon, Dame Barbara Windsor | Credit : BBC/Sophie Mutevelian
Babs will tell the heart-warming story of Dame Barbara Windsor, the Cockney kid with a dazzling smile and talent to match. Preparing to perform in the theatre one cold evening in 1993, Babs takes us on a journey of all the people and events that have shaped her life and career: taking us through 50 years from 1943 to 1993, she contemplates her lonely childhood and WWII evacuation, her complicated relationship with her father, her doomed marriage to Ronnie Knight, capturing the attention of Joan Littlewood and becoming the blonde bombshell in the Carry On films. The finely-woven script merges theatre and film; the story unfolds, full of heart and heartbreak – with a touch of sauciness thrown in.
How did the idea for Babs come about?
Although I had been approached a couple of times in the past about my life story being done, it had always worried me as to how it would be portrayed. A couple of years ago the excellent Tony Jordan (who was the head script writer at EastEnders back in the Mitchells’ and Slaters’ days) asked if he could take Scott and me out to dinner with ex-EastEnders Executive Producer Lorraine Newman. Tony said he felt my life needed to be told and he wanted to look at it from a different angle, and not follow the biopic route that we are used to seeing on film and TV drama.
Tony then invited us to see an old filmed stage production of Peter O’Toole starring in Jeffery Bernard Is Unwell, where a man is locked in a pub all night and his life flashes before him. Tony said if I can do something along the lines of this, I think I can make something special. And then he said something that struck a chord with me: “I want to get behind the giggle and the wiggle”. And that sold it to me and I knew I would not trust anyone apart from Tony to write it. He was more interested in the events and relationships that shaped my life and the obvious preconceptions people have when they think of me.
Did you have much input in the script?
Yes, I had many meetings with Tony in his West End offices where I would sit on a sofa and he and I would chat about specific moments he had read about in my life – and let’s be honest darling, I’ve had quite a few. I guess looking back on it now, it was like going to therapy sessions!
Tony sat and listened and soaked up what he said afterwards was the essence of me, and that he was hearing the inner Barbara voice talking to him. Because I know him so well I allowed myself to talk freely and I can see that was a great help to him in his research and understanding of the real me. Once the first draft was done we would chat again and if anything was glaringly wrong – which was rarely, if not at all – we would discuss it. The main thing I tried to do was give Tony as much freedom and trust to write his story of me in an honest way.
Was there anything specific you wanted in the programme?
The main thing I wanted was for the story to be true and reflect what my life has been and what moulded me to be the lady I am today. I believe all our pasts shape who we are, and that can be for the better or worse, but we have to own it and be honest about who we are. There would be no point in me remembering an idyllic home life as a child with two parents who adored each other and pretend we were The Waltons, because my reality was that mummy and daddy were not right for each other and often it felt like a turbulent environment. That said, there could also be times of joy and they both taught me some invaluable lessons I have carried through my life.
“The main thing I wanted was for the story to be true and reflect what my life has been and what moulded me to be the lady I am today. I believe all our pasts shape who we are, and that can be for the better or worse, but we have to own it and be honest about who we are.”
How do you feel about Jaime Winston and Samantha Spiro portraying you? Were you part of the casting? Did you give them any tips or advice?
I was certainly kept in the loop regarding the casting and, yes, I was aware of who they were looking at for me and saw some audition tapes. It’s a strange feeling looking at someone who is supposedly being you – well think about it, it’s odd!
Sam I knew already as she had already played me on stage and TV before, first in Terry Johnson’s award-winning play at the National Theatre, called ‘Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle And Dick’ in 1998, which then became a TV drama called Cor Blimey in 2000. Sam won amazing reviews for it and is an accomplished actress who never stops working.
Of course I had met and knew Jaime a little over the years, and many years ago when she was around 15 years old, she sat behind me in a theatre with her dad, Ray, and she giggled and sounded like me. I turned around and joked, “you should play me one day” – life has a funny way of coming full circle. Jaime has done a fantastic job with the role and at times she is more me than I am. In fact, during filming, I received a photo and said to my husband, “I’ve been sent Jaime’s fan mail by mistake”.
“No Barbara, that is you,” he said! I was actually so confused seeing Sam and Jaime on set looking like me that I never recognised myself in the end. I know that sounds far-fetched but it actually happened. Both Sam and Jaime have done me immensely proud and I am so grateful for their talent and sensitivity in their approach.
As far as the rest of the casting is concerned, we had the great Jill Trevellick [casting director] who has done a superb job and certainly never needed my help.
As far as advice was concerned I just had chats with the ladies playing me and only if they asked me about anything. My only note to everyone about myself was to pronounce T’s and H’s in words. I did not want Foughts and Finks and Firty Frees. It is ‘thoughts’ and ‘thinks’ and ‘thirty three’ – even for us Cockneys! My parents drummed it into me. But I know that our Producer Jules Hussey left just one in the finished piece and that was just to playfully annoy me for being such a pain and talking about it so much!
How was it having Nick Moran playing your dad?
I’m so thrilled with what Nick has done. He is perfect. I knew it on day one at the read through. Nick is a true Londoner and fine actor and experienced writer and producer himself, and he gives a truthful and vulnerable performance of my dad. What I loved is he was prepared to go fairer in hair colour without a hesitation and wanted to make the character totally believable for me. At times I felt strange watching him and being around him as he had caught so many qualities of my daddy. I have been incredibly lucky having these actors involved.
Photo : Dame Barbara Windsor with Jaime Winstone, Babs in the new BBC drama | Credit : BBC/Sophie Mutevelian
“It has not always been easy and, like most people in life my own journey has been full of highs and lows. I have made mistakes and in equal measures had some great successes and a blessed life to look back on.”
Did you choose what years it covered?
No, that was totally Tony Jordan’s choice. He starts it at a time when things were very difficult for me in terms of my career and personal life. It was before I landed the role of Peggy Mitchell in EastEnders, my second marriage was at an end, I was on the verge of bankruptcy and I had just met Scott who was 26 years my junior. And that’s the point Tony starts it and takes us back to see how I ended up there. And I could not be more proud of what Tony and the BBC have done for me.
How did it feel when you first watched it back?
I could have seen early versions of the piece but I wanted to wait until I could see the finished version with all the music and credits in place. Scott and I watched it in a screening room in Soho with Tony and his wife Tracy, Lorraine Newman [executive producer] and Jules Hussey [producer]. It was a very emotional experience for me and I could hear Scott crying at times sitting next to me as well as laughing out loud at other parts. I managed to get through it without completely breaking down but at the end I stood up and walked out of the room and had a good cry. It was a lot to take in and relive.
Did it bring back any memories?
Of course – it brought back many memories, both happy and sad. My childhood and my parents’ divorce were particularly difficult and painful times for me, watching my relationship with them both, and different decisions and events that also happened. But it was also full of joyful moments and made me think what an incredibly lucky lady I have been to have lived such a life and met such incredible friends and various people.
Is there anything particular you want the viewers to take away from it?
Yes, I want them to see the real me and how I came through the ranks of our business and the events that made me who I am today. It has not always been easy and, like most people in life my own journey has been full of highs and lows. I have made mistakes and in equal measures had some great successes and a blessed life to look back on. But I am proud to say I have always been honest about who I am and what I have done – much to my own detriment at times, as some of those things have often been thrown back in my face. But that’s who I am and when I wrote my book All Of Me back in 2000, I thought well, that’s what I have to tell.
Babs airs on BBC One on Sunday 7th May 2017 at 8pm. You can catch up on BBC iPlayer.