Barbara Windsor: a priceless and mischievous stage sensation

Fame is a funny thing. Barbara Windsor will obviously be remembered for the Carry On films and for playing Peggy Mitchell in EastEnders. But she was very much a theatre animal who made her stage debut at the age of 13 in Sleeping Beauty, became a pivotal member of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop and was playing in panto in her 70s. She even became a character in a play – Terry Johnson’s Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick – and one of my treasured memories is of the sound of Windsor’s hearty gurgle at seeing herself impersonated by Samantha Spiro on a National Theatre stage.

She had the priceless gift of being able to project a distinct, unique personality. That made her a natural for Littlewood, who was wary of what she called, in heavily inverted commas, “acting”. Like a lot of the young women at Theatre Workshop, Windsor was previously a performer at Winston’s nightclub in London. “They could all sing, dance, ad lib, change clothes in a matter of seconds,” wrote Littlewood, “and light up the scene.” Barbara Windsor went on lighting up the scene for the rest of her life.

Joan Littlewood with Barbara Windsor in 1964, leaving Heathrow airport for the US.
Joan Littlewood with Barbara Windsor in 1964, leaving Heathrow airport for the US. Photograph: PA

The story goes that when she turned up to audition at the Theatre Royal Stratford East she found herself chatting to an inquisitive charlady who turned out to be Joan herself sussing out the applicants’ personalities. Windsor was immediately cast in 1959 as a jaunty Soho sex worker in the Lionel Bart musical Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be, and, although the show now looks impossibly romantic, it was a huge hit at the time and had a long West End run.

With her musical skills and bubbling mischief, Windsor adapted perfectly to the Theatre Workshop style and in 1964 was asked to go to New York to join the cast of Oh! What a Lovely War. Before she did she took part in a reading of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, which the company had been invited to take to the Edinburgh festival. Following her principle of treating a reading as a shared discovery, Littlewood cast Windsor as Falstaff: an inspired idea that sadly was never seen in public.

Windsor’s last work for Littlewood was in the ill-fated Lionel Bart musical Twang!!, which quickly went thud. It is significant that the sharp-witted Windsor was quietly critical of Littlewood’s injunction to the dancers to do their own thing: she knew that chorus work requires discipline. But, post Twang!!, her own career flourished. She was sensational in a West End production of The Threepenny Opera playing Lucy Brown as a pint-sized termagant opposite the imposingly tall Vanessa Redgrave as Polly Peachum.

In 1970 she played the music-hall legend Marie Lloyd in Sing a Rude Song, first at Greenwich theatre and then in the West End. It was once said of Lloyd that she had a heart as big as Waterloo station and you felt the remark could equally well be applied to Windsor. In later years she also twice played the voracious landlady in Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane as well as being a regular in panto around the country. Her fame may have rested on film and TV work but her effervescence was essentially theatrical.