People overuse the words national treasure, but Barbara Windsor really was a national treasure. She was an icon, who then became a legend, and she truly was glamour personified. If you said the name Babs to anybody, they would know who you were talking about, and that infectious laugh was instantly recognisable.
I grew up watching her on screen in the likes of the Carry On films, so getting to work with her on EastEnders was such a privilege. We had met before I joined the show through the actor Michael Cashman, who had met his partner through Barbara. In the showbiz world of London, everybody knew her – she would always be at Joe Allen’s restaurant in the West End with Danny La Rue, or with her agent, and everybody would stop and stare when she walked in. She always looked so glamorous in her heels – for someone who has only 4ft 10in, she was a real tour de force.
Barbara loved gossip, but she never had a bad word to say about anyone. We had so many funny moments together; at a party once, she and June Brown, Dot in EastEnders, got locked in a toilet, and we had to break the door down. They were like two naughty little girls. She lit up a room. When she first joined EastEnders, Barbara was absolutely terrified – she said, “I don’t know if I can do this.” She was very well known, but she hadn’t done TV for a long time. I think her confidence had been a bit knocked.
I said, “Barbara, you’ll be absolutely brilliant.” I left the show for a year, and when I came back, my God, had she found her feet. She was the queen of the Vic, the matriarch of the show. She could do the straight stuff and the emotional stuff. She had the nation in tears with storylines like Peggy’s breast cancer. The actors loved her, and she became a bit of an agony aunt to the cast, particularly for the younger ones who came in – she took them under her wing, though she wouldn’t hesitate to tell them off, gently, if they hadn’t learned their lines.
People often forget what a talented actor she really was, with a huge body of work – this is a woman who worked with Joan Littlewood, who was nominated for a Bafta, who was on Broadway, who worked with Tony Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave. She had an amazing career. She was obviously very good at comedy, but she was a brilliant straight actor, too.
It was so brave of Barbara and her husband, Scott, to come out and tell everybody that she was ill, and that she had Alzheimer’s. She raised a lot of awareness and a lot of funds but it must have been so difficult. It’s the most terrible disease, and for an actor to admit it is so tough – acting is all about remembering our lines and performing. If that’s taken away from us, our livelihood is gone.
Barbara was, for me, a working-class hero, who came from humble beginnings like myself, and who was such an inspirational figure, to women in particular. She leaves a hole that no one else can replace. Gladly, there are so many performances we can revisit, including a lovely biopic that Tony Jordan made – that Barbara herself appears in – to remember how wonderful and unique she was.
• As told to Hannah J Davies