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An East End legend: How 4ft 10in ‘Babs’ towered over British showbusiness for more than 60 years

An East End legend from her days with the Krays to ordering enemies to ‘Get outta my pub’ – 4ft 10in ‘Babs’ towered over British showbusiness for more than 60 years. 

The 83-year-old cockney heroine Dame Barbara Windsor died on Thursday evening at a London care home after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease six years ago.

With her irresistible chuckling laugh and signature crop of bright blonde hair, she became one the nation’s stars 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 in EastEnders as the Queen Victoria landlady who often yelled at rogue drinkers ‘get outta my pub.’ 

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 Windsor as pub landlord Peggy Mitchell dishes out a slap in the Queen Victoria to Frank Butcher (Mike Reid) as Pat Evans (Pam St Clement) stands close by in EastEnders. Peggy’s sharp tongue was not the only weapon in her arsenal – she also liked to give her enemies a good slap when she got really riled. Several characters were on the receiving end over the years. In 2000, Peggy discovered husband Frank was having an affair with his ex-wife Pat and was planning to run away with her. Peggy humiliated the couple in front of everyone in the Queen Vic by reading out a letter detailing their plan to flee. ‘One thing I’ve learned since I’ve been married to Mr Butcher is never underestimate his capacity to make a cock-up of things,’ she cried before slapping them both

Barbara Windsor and her husband Ronnie Knight with gangster Reggie Kray (right) and his wife Frances Shea (left) at the El Morocco nightclub, owned by the Kray Twins in Soho, London, 30th April 1965

Barbara Windsor and her husband Ronnie Knight with gangster Reggie Kray (right) and his wife Frances Shea (left) at the El Morocco nightclub, owned by the Kray Twins in Soho, London, 30th April 1965

Actress Barbara Windsor pouring champagne for her husband Ronnie Knight as her mother Rose looks on after the first night of Sing a Rude Song at the Garrick Theatre in 1970

Actress Barbara Windsor pouring champagne for her husband Ronnie Knight as her mother Rose looks on after the first night of Sing a Rude Song at the Garrick Theatre in 1970

Pictured in Carry On Camping in 1969

Dane Barbara on Eastenders

Pictured in Carry On Camping in 1969 (left) and on Eastenders (right). Dame Barbara had enjoyed a glittering career in showbusiness and was also well known for her portrayal of the ‘good time girl’ in the Carry On series between 1964 and 1974

Dame Barbara starring in Carry on Again Doctor with Jim Dale and Hattie Jacques

Dame Barbara starring in Carry on Again Doctor with Jim Dale and Hattie Jacques 

Barbara (pictured as a child) was born in Shoreditch to a fruit and veg cart seller and a dressmaker

Barbara (pictured as a child) was born in Shoreditch to a fruit and veg cart seller and a dressmaker

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.

PEGGY MITCHELL’S ICONIC EASTENDERS ROLE

Breast cancer battle

The pint-sized publican battled breast cancer in 1996 and then again in 1999, when she decided to have a mastectomy.

Hundreds of viewers wrote to the BBC praising Dame Barbara and EastEnders for the way the difficult subject was tackled.

Slaps

Peggy’s sharp tongue was not the only weapon in her arsenal – she also liked to give her enemies a good slap when she got really riled.

Several characters were on the receiving end over the years.

In 2000, Peggy discovered husband Frank Butcher (Mike Reid) was having an affair with his ex-wife Pat (Pam St Clement) and was planning to run away with her.

Peggy humiliated the couple in front of everyone in the Queen Vic by reading out a letter detailing their plan to flee.

‘One thing I’ve learned since I’ve been married to Mr Butcher is never underestimate his capacity to make a cock-up of things,’ she cried before slapping them both.

The baseball bat

Peggy had high hopes for a fun family Christmas after finding out about Frank and Pat but her plans went awry.

Alone in the pub, she took out her frustration on the fixtures and fittings, smashing it all up with a baseball bat.

Peggy vs Chrissie

One of Peggy’s finest moments took place after her daughter Sam was framed for the murder of Den Watts (Leslie Grantham) by his wife Chrissie (Tracy-Ann Oberman).

When Peggy discovered the truth, she stormed to the graveside and screamed: ‘Chrissie Watts! Murderer!’

She then lunged at Chrissie and pushed her into her husband’s grave.

‘Tell Den you’re sorry! Tell Den!’ Peggy screeched.

Boris Johnson visits Walford

In 2009, Peggy went to speak to the Mayor of London about litter and when he did not turn up vowed she would ‘give him a piece of my mind’ if she ever saw him.

But soon afterwards Johnson wandered into the Vic and Peggy quickly changed her tune.

Appearing a little star-struck, she gushed: ‘I do so admire a man who devotes his life to serving society. I nearly went into politics myself, you know.’

The fire

In 2010, a crack-crazed Phil (Steve McFadden) torched the Queen Vic.

Peggy escaped but was devastated.

The blaze led her to take stock of her life and she decided to leave Albert Square.

‘Go on, I’ll be fine. Go on, darling, go back inside,’ she urged Phil, as she walked away.

Peggy’s death

In 2016, Peggy took an overdose after breaking the news to son Grant (Ross Kemp) that her cancer had returned and taken a ‘proper grip’ on her.

In a poignant final scene, after smelling cigarette smoke throughout the episode, Peggy hallucinated the return of her former love rival-turned-friend Pat Butcher (Pam St Clement), puffing away in thick pink lipstick and with ‘earrings rattling like Marley’s bleeding chains’.

Speaking to her friend, who passed away in the soap in 2012, Peggy said: ‘I’m being eaten alive and it hurts and I can’t wait.’

She added: ‘I will go as I have lived: straight back, head high, like a queen.’  

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

One of Dame Barbara's most famous scenes was in 1969's Carry On Camping, when her bikini top flew off in the middle of an exercise class

Dame Barbara in Aladdin aged 20

One of Dame Barbara’s most famous scenes was in 1969’s Carry On Camping, when her bikini top flew off in the middle of an exercise class (left). Right: Dame Barbara in Aladdin aged 20

The Dame (pictured in Carry On Abroad) was also a self-proclaimed 'Tory and fervent nationalist' and once declared that anyone who didn't wear a poppy for Remembrance Day should 'sod off'

The Dame (pictured in Carry On Abroad) was also a self-proclaimed ‘Tory and fervent nationalist’ and once declared that anyone who didn’t wear a poppy for Remembrance Day should ‘sod off’

An East End legend: How 4ft 10in 'Babs' towered over British showbusiness for more than 60 years

The Queen visited Elstree Studios – where EastEnders is filmed – in 2001. There she met Dame Windsor who played Peggy Mitchell

Dame Barbara played Peggy Mitchell (pictured) on the soap from 1994 until she left for good in 2016

Dame Barbara played Peggy Mitchell (pictured) on the soap from 1994 until she left for good in 2016

Windsor as Daphne Honeybutt in Carry On Spying in 1964

Posing for a risque New Year Year shoot in 1969

Windsor as Daphne Honeybutt in Carry On Spying in 1964 (right), and posing for a risque New Year Year shoot in 1969 (left)

British actress Barbara Windsor poses with her insignia as she poses for a photograph with her husband Scott Mitchell, after being appointed a Dame Commander of the order of the British Empire (DBE) in March 2016

British actress Barbara Windsor poses with her insignia as she poses for a photograph with her husband Scott Mitchell, after being appointed a Dame Commander of the order of the British Empire (DBE) in March 2016

Peggy Mitchell, played by Barbara Windsor, in her most famous role. She captured the hearts of the nation with her performance as the landlady of the Queen Victoria pub and mother of Grant and Phil Mitchell (played by Ross Kemp and Steve McFadden)

Peggy Mitchell, played by Barbara Windsor, in her most famous role. She captured the hearts of the nation with her performance as the landlady of the Queen Victoria pub and mother of Grant and Phil Mitchell (played by Ross Kemp and Steve McFadden) 

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.

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.

Dame Barbara Windsor attends a Service of Thanksgiving for the Life and Work of comedian Ronnie Corbett at Westminster Abbey on June 7, 2017 in London

Dame Barbara in Carry on Girls in 1973

Dame Barbara Windsor (pictured left) attends a Service of Thanksgiving for the Life and Work of comedian Ronnie Corbett at Westminster Abbey on June 7, 2017 in London. Pictured right she appears in Carry on Girls in 1973

The EastEnders star with David Walliams and his mother. In 2016, Barbara won the Outstanding Contribution Award at the TV Choice Awards, and Best Exit at the Inside Soap Awards, for her portrayal of Peggy's death.

The EastEnders star with David Walliams and his mother. In 2016, Barbara won the Outstanding Contribution Award at the TV Choice Awards, and Best Exit at the Inside Soap Awards, for her portrayal of Peggy’s death.

Outside of the showbiz world she was made a Dame (pictured) in the Years Honours List in 2016 for her services to charity and entertainment

Outside of the showbiz world she was made a Dame (pictured) in the Years Honours List in 2016 for her services to charity and entertainment

Both Dame Barbara and her husband campaigned to raise awareness of Alzheimer's following her diagnosis. In 2019, she delivered a letter to Boris Johnson (pictured meeting the PM) pleading for better dementia provisions for sufferers

Both Dame Barbara and her husband campaigned to raise awareness of Alzheimer’s following her diagnosis. In 2019, she delivered a letter to Boris Johnson (pictured meeting the PM) pleading for better dementia provisions for sufferers

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.

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.

The actress in 'Carry on Dick' in 1974. Outside of the showbiz world She was a fervent campaigner for the NHS and for many years was the face of the annual British legion appeal and an ambassador for Age UK

The actress in ‘Carry on Dick’ in 1974. Outside of the showbiz world She was a fervent campaigner for the NHS and for many years was the face of the annual British legion appeal and an ambassador for Age UK

Dame Barbara first married Ronnie Knight, an associate of the Kray Twins, in 1964. While married to Knight she had a well-publicised affair with Sid James (pictured together) who first met her in 1964 at the London Palladium

Dame Barbara first married Ronnie Knight, an associate of the Kray Twins, in 1964. While married to Knight she had a well-publicised affair with Sid James (pictured together) who first met her in 1964 at the London Palladium

Barbara's husband Scott Mitchell revealed how his wife began to cry in the neurologist's office when they were given the bad news in April 2014

Barbara’s husband Scott Mitchell revealed how his wife began to cry in the neurologist’s office when they were given the bad news in April 2014

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

Dame Barbara Windsor, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease in 2014. But her husband Scott Mitchell only revealed she was battling the illness in May 2018

Dame Barbara Windsor, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 2014. But her husband Scott Mitchell only revealed she was battling the illness in May 2018

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.

Barbara Windsor poses and smiles for the camera with Anthony McPartlin and Declan Donnelly at the Bafta Awards in London in 2000

Barbara Windsor poses and smiles for the camera with Anthony McPartlin and Declan Donnelly at the Bafta Awards in London in 2000

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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