10 May 2012

The East End queen

MANY celebrities spend their whole lives trying to escape their past. Not Barbara Windsor. She is proud of her roots, in fact, she’s built a successful career on them, and has never lost touch with the places and people that helped make her a national treasure.

Born Barbara Ann Deeks, she describes her mother as ‘a Cockney snob’ who was determined that her only child should have a better start in life. Barbara said: “My grandfather worked in the docks and I was born in the East End, but my family worked hard to get out.

“We moved to Stoke Newington when I was three-and-a-half. There were eight of us in a house, 10 at one point. We didn’t have a bathroom or toilet, but we thought it was wonderful. Then we moved round the corner to a pre-fab in an estate and we could pick fruit from apple and pear trees.”

Although space was cramped, the best room was always kept free for Saturday night parties. Barbara’s family made their own entertainment. She said: “We didn’t have a TV or anything like that then, but most families had an upright piano. Everyone had to take a turn, it didn’t matter if you couldn’t sing, or were shy.”

When the Second World War broke out, Barbara’s family toughed it out through the Blitz. She was evacuated to Blackpool where the family she lived with sent her to dancing lessons with their daughter. After returning to London, Barbara started ballet and tap classes with Madame Behenna’s Juvenile Jollities at Stoke Newington Town Hall. The troupe put on talent shows, and it was at one of these that Barbara was spotted by a scout. She said: “I wasn’t the greatest singer or dancer, but I had a big personality.”

He told Barbara’s mother her daughter could have a career on the stage. Mrs Deeks had other ideas, replying ‘I couldn’t think of anything worse’ and informing him that Barbara was ‘going to be a foreign language telephonist’.

Barbara wouldn’t give up, and persuaded her mother to let her attend an audition. She explained: “Mum said I walked out on that stage Barbara Ann Deeks, and walked off Barbara Windsor. It was like someone waved a magic wand.”

Barbara got the highest marks in North London in her 11 plus exams, and won a place at Our Lady’s Convent in Stamford Hill. So when an agent wanted to cast Barbara in panto, she wasn’t allowed to quit school. Barbara said: “The next two years I undid all my good work academically. In the end, the Reverend Mother called my mum in and said she was going to release me because I was so dreadfully unhappy.”

Despite her reservations, Barbara’s mum agreed she could go to Aida Foster’s stage school in Golders Green. But her parents, a dressmaker and bus conductor, could only pay for one year. She said: “I wasn’t like the other girls, I was short and plump and they were all quite posh. I hated it, and I couldn’t get a foot in the door.”

After one line in panto, aged 14, she got her first break, joining the chorus line of 'Love From Judy' at the Saville Theatre in the West End. Barbara stayed in the show from 14 to 17, learning the trade.

The rest, as they say, is history. She moved from theatre to film, from her iconic roles in the Carry On movies, to her current status as a soap star and national treasure. But she still likes to visit Hackney.

She said: “Stoke Newington was in my life until I was about 22. I went back recently, my house isn’t there anymore, but the area hasn’t really changed at all. Clissold Park is wonderful. It was a favourite place of mine, I used to love the swings and zoo and concerts. I used to hang around outside the Spread Eagle pub on Newington Green, waiting for my granddad to come out and give me tuppence. They were very, very happy times.

“Hackney was always a multi-cultural place, I grew up with lots of Jewish families, and whenever I come back it’s good to see how everyone gets along.

“I love Hackney and the Olympics can only be good for the area. I remember the ‘48 Games, I was lucky enough to see the athletics, it was fabulous. It felt so important that the whole world was looking at us, and I’m sure the same will be true in 2012. It would be lovely to be at the opening ceremony, I’d be so proud, I’d be in tears.”

Curriculum vittae Barbara Windsor

1937 Born London Hospital, Whitechapel
1940 Moved to StokeNewington
1952 West End debut in 'Love From Judy'
1954 First film role in 'The Belles Of St Trinian’s'
1963 BAFTA nomination for best actress in 'Sparrows Can’t Sing'
1964 Appeared in first of nine Carry On films... 'Carry On Spying'
1965 Tony award nomination for best actress in 'Oh,What A Lovely War' on Broadway
1994 Landed role of Peggy Mitchell in EastEnders
1999 Best Actress at British Soap Awards
2000 MBE in Millennium Honours List

*This article first appeared in Hackney Today on 12 January 2009

Actress Barbara Windsor still loves visiting Hackney

Actress Barbara Windsor still loves visiting Hackney

Actress Barbara Windsor still loves visiting Hackney

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