THOUGH it was reported that she had left EastEnders due to illness, Barbara Windsor had already planned a year-long break from her role as the feisty landlady Peggy Mitchell before she was hit with a debilitating virus. She wanted a break, to get back into theatre, she says.
“I hadn’t done any theatre for about nine years. Then I did the Royal Command (Performance) with Paul O’Grady and Cilla Black and I kind of got that whole feel of the razzmatazz again. So I thought it would be nice to do that. And also not be on a rollercoaster.”
She means EastEnders, in which she’s played Peggy Mitchell for the past nine years.
“I don’t like saying EastEnders is hard work because working in a National Health hospital -— that’s hard work. But it is like you’re on a rollercoaster. A typical day for me would be I’d get up about six, be in about 7.15am and on the set at 8.30am, all the way through to 6.30 at night. You come home and by the time you’ve had a kiss and cuddle with the old man and you make a couple of phone calls, have something to eat and you’re starting to learn your lines again.
“So I thought I thought I’d leave for a year and come back refreshed. But of course I lost the whole year with the accident and this terrible virus.”
The accident — in which she was knocked unconscious after the taxi she was travelling in hit another vehicle — was a year ago this month.
“I was going out to see Ross (Kemp) who plays Grant. I was going to have dinner with him and his wife. I learned something new that day. I have never put the seat belt on in the black taxi before. When it bumped into one of those notorious white vans I went flying.”
She was taken to hospital and after a scan given the all-clear. But four weeks later she became ill.
“They think that the accident brought on the Epstein-Barr virus. We all have these viruses laying dormant in us, don’t we? So they think the accident brought it out.”
The old trooper had already planned to leave in May 2003, which was just two months away, so Babs decided to keep going until then.
“They had a wonderful story line about why Peggy was leaving for a year. She felt unwanted, she had no purpose there, Phil was happy with Kate and the pub was going well with Alfie and Kat. Grant kept writing to her and so she was going away to see him. There was a great big build-up to it and then I had the taxi accident.”
In the last few weeks of filming before the illness forced her to leave the make-up team struggled to make her look well. Including wig changes.
“They said I didn’t look well. I didn’t feel it.”
Epstein-Barr affects the nervous system and there is no cure but to rest. It left Babs housebound for eight months.
“I was very ill. It just buggers your whole immune system. It made me weepy. You don’t know what to do. I’m a big reader but my concentration just went so I watched a lot of daytime telly.”
As if you hadn’t suffered enough.
“No — I do think it’s good.”
What? Des & Mel?
“Yes, it’s a good little show. They’ve asked me to be on it several times but I’m not prepared to do all that yet. In fact this is really the first interview I’ve done.”
The producers at EastEnders had written her return for May this year and then...
“I fell down the stairs and broke my ankle in two places. It’s been a stupid year. So we decided to leave it because I literally haven’t had my year off.”
Only now is she starting to get back to normal.
“The work I’ve just started doing I call public work. I re-opened a bingo hall last week because I love to meet people. I did a guest spot on Generation Game. An advert with Mike Reid (EastEnders’ Frank Butcher). It’s very easy work. I don’t want to get on a rollercoaster.”
Is she really not going back?
“I will go back but not at the moment. They’ve been terrific t— hey just said leave it for a while.”
So, by the end of the year?
“Oh yes, definitely by then.”
Her illness meant scrapping her planned headline role in Cinderella at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal which she says, unsurprisingly, she regrets. And why?
“I love Nottingham. We have a great love affair. I’ve had great successes in panto there. When I did a panto with Keith Harris (Aladdin, 1992) we were in the Guinness Book of Records for the longest-running panto. I did Calamity Jane there as well. I remember riding through the streets in a great big wagon. So when I was leaving EastEnders and I was offered pantomime, I was offered every single theatre and I said no I want to go to Nottingham.”
She lives in West London with her husband of four years. Dale Winton and Denise Van Outen are neighbours.
“I live right by Harley Street, which is handy when you’re getting older.”
Though one for hanging out with The Krays at their lavish gatherings during the 60s, she opts out of the party circuit these days.
“It isn’t like it was. Now all the photographers are there. You’ve got to be so careful. Even going shopping you get papped all the time.”
One assumes “papped” means shot by the paparazzi.
“I was brought up to respect the Press. That’s not to say I haven’t made mistakes.”
Marrying known criminal Ronnie Knight gave her a good helping of bad Press.
“I suppose it’s the only thing I resented Ronnie for because up until then I was what we call a working actor. My private life had never got into the papers and then when he got into trouble I became what we call breakfast fodder. And I didn’t like that. Then that all went sour.”
The marriage lasted 21 years during which, it was later revealed, she had an affair with Carry On co-star Sid James.
“I cared deeply for him. I didn’t at first, he was just my leading man and I used to push him off.”
So how has she survived when all the other key Carry On players died young?
“Sid always had a dodgy ticker. And he was quite a stressy character because of his gambling and his drinking. Kenny (Williams) was a very stressy person as well, though I could never believe that he committed suicide because he was such a great friend and I can’t believe he’d do that and wouldn’t pick up the phone to you. Charlie (Hawtrey) was an old man anyway. Dear Bernie (Bresslaw) going like he did (in 1993 before a performance of Taming of the Shrew). They’re all tragedies but we’re left with a wonderful legacy.”
And when was the last time she watched a Carry On?
“Oh darling, I try not to, but the thing is at the end of the day they’re always on aren’t they?”
Would she do another one? Say if she had a gun to her head and the option was either that or a reality TV show?
“I think I’ll have a go at the reality. I wouldn’t think of doing another Carry On film because I was lucky to be part of the halcyon years. It would damage the legacy.”