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Cockney heroine Dame Barbara endeared herself to the nation

With her irresistible chuckling laugh and signature crop of bright blonde hair, Dame Barbara Windsor was as much as a part of the nation’s landscape as Big Ben and tea and biscuits.

One of Britain’s favourite entertainment stars, cockney heroine Dame Barbara first become famous for her appearances as a buxom blonde in the Carry On films.

Successfully crossing the generational divide, she later became just as revered for her role as Peggy Mitchell, the Queen Vic’s battle-axe landlady in EastEnders who was known for yelling at rogue drinkers to “get outta my pub!”.

Sid James and Barbara Windsor in 1963 (EMPICS UK/PA)

She was born Barbara Ann Deeks on August 6 1937 in Shoreditch in east London to father John, a barrow boy, and her dressmaker mother Rose.

From an early age Dame Barbara was sent to elocution lessons by her mother, who she once described as a “snobby East-Ender”.

At 15, her parents divorced and she was required to give evidence in court, but her testimony caused her father to abandon her. The pair never properly resolved their feud.

She later said that the moment “haunted” her for years, because she was a “daddy’s girl” and she had not been able to share his side of the story.

Dame Barbara’s first film appearance came in 1954’s The Belles Of St Trinians, but it was not until her appearances in the Carry On films that she rose to national prominence.

The star’s debut in the comedy series saw her star alongside Bernard Cribbins in Carry On Spying in 1964.

She appeared in nine of the 31 Carry On films, but was mostly associated with Carry On Camping and the memorable and risque scene in which her bikini top springs off during an exercise routine.

Barbara Windsor

Barbara Windsor in Carry On Camping (REX/Shutterstock)

With her blonde hair and infectious giggle, the 4ft 10ins star instantly became popular with audiences, before her final appearance in 1974’s Carry On Dick.

She later said that she was typecast after appearing in the films.

“Years after it ended, no-one would give me a part where I played my age,” she told the Daily Express in 2007.

“People would get tunnel vision and only see the Carry On films.”

Other roles over the years included a small part in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, opposite Dick Van Dyke, Ken Russell’s The Boy Friend and On The Fiddle with Sean Connery.

As well as her screen career, Dame Barbara was known for treading the boards, having made her stage debut at the age of 13, before going on to land her first West End role in the chorus of Love From Judy in 1952.

She also starred on Broadway in a production of Oh, What A Lovely War!, for which she was nominated for a Tony Award.

Years later, fame came knocking again for Dame Barbara when she made her debut as Peggy Mitchell in EastEnders in 1994, starring alongside Ross Kemp and Steve McFadden as her fictional sons Grant and Phil, and Mike Reid as on-screen husband Frank Butcher.

Barbara Windsor

Barbara Windsor in EastEnders

A beloved member of the cast, she was at the heart of many of the soap’s most famous storylines.

Peggy’s storylines saw her instigate a hate campaign against HIV positive Mark Fowler, played by Todd Carty. She started an affair with Frank Butcher, engaged in cat-fights with his ex-wife Pat, escaped two failed marriages, and lost and regained ownership of the Queen Vic pub countless times.

When her character contracted breast cancer, she wrote many letters of advice to viewers who contacted her about their own struggles with the disease.

In 2003, Dame Barbara suffered an attack of the Epstein-Barr virus which forced her to take a break from EastEnders from 2003 to 2005. She returned briefly for two episodes in 2004.

In 2009, Dame Barbara announced she would be leaving the soap for good in order to spend more time with her third husband Scott Mitchell, who she married in 2000 and who was 25 years her junior.

The following year her character exited the soap after a fire at her pub.

She popped up on handful of occasions over the years before reprising the role for a final time in 2016, where it was announced that Peggy would be killed off after losing her battle with breast cancer.

Her final scenes aired in May 2016 in an emotional episode that left viewers weeping.

EastEnders

Dame Barbara Windsor in EastEnders

Her performances as Peggy earned her numerous awards including best actress at the 1999 British Soap Awards and best exit at the 2016 Inside Soap Awards.

But her most prestigious accolade came in 2016, when she was made a Dame in for her services to charity and entertainment from The Queen.

At the time, she said: “I am so very honoured, proud and extremely humbled by this honour.

“I feel so lucky to live in a country I love, a job I have always adored which has allowed me to be in a position where I am able to help others.

“For a girl from the East End born into a working-class family and an evacuee during World War Two, this is truly like a dream. I am so happy and blessed to say it’s real.”

Barbara Windsor

Dame Barbara Windsor and husband Scott Mitchell upon being made a Dame in 2016

As well as her EastEnders role dominating her later years, in 2010 she voiced Mallymkun the Dormouse in Tim Burton’s live action adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland and in 2016’s Alice Through The Looking Glass.

In 2017, the BBC aired a biopic film called Babs, charting her rise to fame, penned by EastEnders scriptwriter Tony Jordan and starring Jaime Winstone and Samantha Spiro as younger versions of the star.

She said watching it back and reliving the biggest moments in her life was a “very emotional experience for me”.

“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,” she added.

Much of what was shown in the film focused on her showbiz career, which had been dogged by heartache – from her strained relationship with her father to her relationship woes.

Babs

Dame Barbara Windsor (centre) with Samantha Spiro (left) and Jaime Winstone in Babs

While happily married to former actor and recruitment consultant Mr Mitchell in her later years, the actress had a more turbulent personal life before settling down with him.

She married Ronnie Knight, an associate of the notorious criminals Ronald and Reginald Kray, in 1964, but during their marriage, Dame Barbara had a well-publicised affair with her Carry On co-star Sid James.

She divorced Knight 21 years after they married when he fled to Spain, wanted by police in connection with the £6 million Security Express robbery in 1983.

In 1986 she married chef Stephen Hollings, 20 years her junior. They opened a pub together in Amersham in Buckinghamshire, but divorced after nine years.

Barbara Windsor and Ronnie Knight

Barbara Windsor and Ronnie Knight in 1980

She married Mr Mitchell in 2000, after first meeting him in 1992.

Dame Barbara never had children and spoke openly about having had five abortions, but in 2017 she said that she did not regret not becoming a mother.

“I consider myself to be a warm and lovely person but I never had any maternal feelings,” she told The Sun in 2017.

In May 2018, Mr Mitchell revealed in an interview that Dame Barbara had been living with Alzheimer’s after being diagnosed in April 2014.

In August 2020 Mr Mitchell revealed that Dame Barbara had been moved to a care home as she struggled with her advancing dementia.

A heartbroken Mr Mitchell said the former EastEnders star left the couple’s home in mid-July.

Speaking to The Sun, he said: “I feel I’m on an emotional rollercoaster. I walk around, trying to keep busy, then burst into tears. It feels like a bereavement.

“It’s always been my biggest fear, that one day I would have to take her somewhere and she’d be thinking, ‘Why would he do this to me?’

“That fear has become a reality. It’s something I never wanted.”

Mr Mitchell, Dame Barbara’s husband of 20 years, said she had moved to a care home in London and he had decorated her room to make it as welcoming as possible.

The actress and Mr Mitchell campaigned throughout her illness to raise awareness, and in 2019 they visited Downing Street for a meeting about dementia – during which she showed off her cheeky side by asking Prime Minister Boris Johnson for a kiss.

Dame Barbara delivered a letter signed by 100,000 people to Mr Johnson pleading for better care for fellow sufferers.

Mr Johnson held the ailing actress’ hand as they sat in the garden, discussing the limitations of dementia care in the UK.

At the end of their afternoon chat, Dame Barbara turned to the Conservative leader and asked: “Can I have a kiss?”.

Among those supporting her since her diagnosis was her close friend and former EastEnders co-star Ross Kemp.

Kemp, who played Grant Mitchell on Albert Square for more than 25 years alongside Dame Barbara as his on-screen mother, went on to make an ITV programme called Living With Dementia.

In the programme, which aired in June 2020, Kemp, 56, explained that her illness was the reason he decided to explore the disease on screen.

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