When young actress Barbara Windsor met her Carry On castmates, it was the start of a decade of hit comedy movies for the bubbly star, who went on to become a public icon. Starring in nine Carry On films between 1964 and 1974, she personified the cheeky and chatty blonde bombshell that the British public loved.
Prior to joining the legendary comedy cast at the age of 27, she had enjoyed some success as a serious actress, after making her acting debut on stage at the age of 13. She also made an uncredited film debut as a wayward schoolgirl in the 1954 film, The Belles of St Trinian’s.
Born in London in 1937, she was more famous as a theatrical actress before joining the Carry On team; starring in the Cockney musical comedy, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be, with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop in the West End.
First meeting with Carry On cast
Landing a role in the 1964 film, Carry On Spying, playing special agent Daphne Honeybutt, was Windsor’s passport to fame. She met Carry On regulars Charles Hawtrey, Bernard Cribbins and Jim Dale and established her onscreen persona as the rather dim, scantily-clad blonde, who was loved by all.
Next, she appeared in Carry On Doctor in 1967 as Nurse Sandra May, when her co-stars included Sid James, Frankie Howerd, Hattie Jacques, Bernard Bresslaw, Kenneth Williams, Joan Sims and Peter Butterworth, who were all stalwarts of the franchise.
In today’s politically correct age, many people might fail to understand the appeal of the old movies, with their “nudge nudge, wink wink” humour, plenty of double entendres and peculiarly British humour that would have been at home on a saucy seaside postcard.
However, theatre, cinema and TV were a different world in the 1960s and ’70s, when the Carry On Films enjoyed their heyday. Fans praised it as good, harmless, “naughty but nice” fun.
Famous comic scenes
Windsor became an integral part of the cast and reportedly got on well with her fellow actors, quickly becoming a popular cast member. She had some of the most memorable scenes in Carry On history – such as her legendary comic scene in the 1969 film, Carry On Camping, when she played a young lady from Chayste Place finishing school.
The action was set at the Paradise Campsite, which was nothing like its name implied, where the other campers included plumber Sid Boggle (Sid James) and his workmate Bernie Lugg (Bernard Bresslaw).
They mistakenly thought they were staying at a nudist camp, but their disappointment was somewhat countered by the appearance of the young bikini-clad ladies doing a morning workout in front of their tent.
As their tutor Dr Soaper (Kenneth Williams) tells the girls to exercise more enthusiastically, shouting, “Let’s see those chests come out!”, Windsor’s character, Babs, unintentionally takes this literally. She flings her arms back with such gusto that her bikini top flies off, hitting the horrified Dr Soaper in the face!
In Carry On Doctor, her character, Nurse May, demonstrates how to make an entrance as she wiggles her way across the hospital car park, through the corridors and on to the wards, to the delight of the male patients.
The franchise even gave historical drama the Carry On touch, with Sid James starring in a fictional account of the life of Henry VIII in Carry On Henry in 1971, alongside Windsor as his love interest, a courtier named Bettina. As the king tries to seduce Bettina, she is clever enough to fend off his advances by leaving him sitting with his eyes closed, holding a pair of marrows, after she pretends to undress in his chamber.
Fears of being type-cast
The Carry Ons continued for 34 years, with 31 films being released between 1958 and 1992, the majority by the Rank Organisation. During that time, the cast found themselves in every possible situation, from police stations and hospitals to cheap foreign package holidays, taxi firms and even the ancient Egyptian court of Cleopatra.
During her later Carry On films, Windsor had a three-year romantic relationship with James, which began in 1973. She reportedly said she wasn’t interested in him at first, as he was 24 years her senior, but their relationship continued until just before his death in 1976, when Windsor ended it.
James had told Windsor she would “always be the Carry On girl” because the bubbly blonde character was so well-known and loved. At the time, Windsor laughed at the thought she might be type-cast in her later career. However, in some ways, he was right.
Even when she successfully auditioned for the role of gritty Queen Vic pub landlady Peggy Mitchell in EastEnders more than 30 years later, this led to a compilation of old Carry On Films appearing on television. Windsor said in an interview she wondered if her image would hold her back, fearing she would forever be perceived as a “girl with a giggle and a wiggle”.
Despite Windsor’s promising career as a serious actress in her youth, not to mention her dramatic role as Peggy Mitchell in more than 1,600 episodes of EastEnders, she will always be remembered for her role as the bubbly blonde bombshell.
Supporting cancer charities
As Peggy Mitchell, she had some hard-hitting storylines, including one where Peggy’s character fought breast cancer. Windsor suggested the storyline to the scriptwriters, as she wanted to publicise the cause. She was gratified to see many fans wearing the famous pink ribbon, signifying their support of breast cancer charities, at signings of her autobiography.
The star was awarded the title ‘Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire’ in the New Year’s Honours list of 2016 for her services to charity and entertainment. She died in December 2020, aged 83, following a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, paid tribute, describing the iconic star as “a true national treasure”.
First impressions count and first meetings with new work colleagues can lead to lasting relationships and a successful career.