Having spent 16 years as one of TV’s most formidable matriarchs, Peggy Mitchell, in EastEnders, Barbara is one of the most recognisable and best loved personalities today, and will hold a place in many ‘gentleman-of-a-certain age’s heart, with her appearances in the classic Carry On series, and especially “that” scene in Carry On Camping. She was nominated for a BAFTA as Best British Film Actress in the 1963 film Sparrows Can’t Sing, and on stage has done everything from comedy to pantomime, Shakespeare to Broadway Musicals - receiving a coveted Tony Award nomination as Best Featured Actress in A Musical for the Broadway production of Oh! What A Lovely War
Deep in rehearsals, Barbara kindly spares a few minutes for Whatsonstage.com
You have appeared in many pantomimes over the years haven’t you?
“Yes, loads, since I was 13.”
Are you nervous about going back to live theatre after all this time?
“Oh yes, of course I am, but then I am always nervous about anything that I do. I know I look as though I don’t worry – you know “that’s okay, get out there and do it”, but with anything I tackle there’s always a lot of nerves, because I want to get it right. I know what’s at stake. But it’s not a ‘oh my god, I’m going to collapse’ kind of nerves, just excited nerves. Live theatre brings lots of excitement. This one in particular, because I will be celebrating 60 years in the business this Christmas Eve, so it’s extra special.
"I got my first job when I was 13 at the Golders Green Hippodrome in pantomime. I went to audition and got it, and because I was little - I was the littlest one in the line-up - so I was stuck on the end of the line, which I wasn’t very happy about! I was kind of right in the corner, in the wings, but fortunately this was where everyone made their entrance, so I got given the line ‘Oh, here comes the Baron sir’ so I was quite pleased with that, and it went from there really. And so this Christmas Eve will be 60 years to the day. And I thought how better than to celebrate in pantomime, my 60 years in the business, because I love it so.”
What appeals to you about panto?
“Well, I’m a big theatre lady, you see. People put me in one of two categories, EastEnders, which of course I’m thrilled about, and Carry On – but I did more theatre than anything else. And the thing about pantomime that I love is the kids. Today you can have all these new-fangled things like computers and computerised games, but there is nothing like sitting in a theatre and interacting with what’s going on, live on stage – you know 'Oh no you’re not, Oh yes you are!' sort of thing. Booing the villain, cheering the fairy, seeing the little white horses bring Cinderella on in her carriage, seeing me flying on (as Fairy Bowbells Barbara is flown across the stage on a winch!) is magical isn't it?. These days the kids are used to sitting in their front room seeing it all on the box aren’t they? It’s great to get them into live theatre.”
Do you think the modern audience has changed, are their expectations different?
“Well, yes. I’m a great traditionalist, and so as long as there’s fairies and villains then that fine for me. Let the comics have their fun, and do all the outrageous stuff, but there has to be a good story that goes through it. What you have to give them today is tradition, but with a bit of modern stuff as well. What we’ve done here is create a bit of underwater 3D, where the kids put on their glasses, and you really think you’re under the water - it’s really quite spectacular. So that’s what we’ve given them this year, which is very ‘of today’. You’ve got to give them something like that.”
We have lost so many of the great panto performers, do you think there are still people out there who can carry panto on?
“Well there were always the big stars, the comics of the day who made wonderful dames, like the great Arthur Askey, and Dickie Henderson who was always the Buttons character. You had lovely Cinderellas and principle boys, who were never big names, it was always the comics and the dames! The comics of today are different , and it’s a different kind of comedy now, which doesn’t get across the footlights so well. I don’t think we are breeding the type of comic anymore that wants or can do panto like we used to. Having said that, we’ve got a fantastic one – Andy Ford (playing Idle Jack) who I saw doing panto about 8 years ago and I always said if I ever did panto again I would want him, and we managed to get him! He absolutely is perfect and I love him. And our dame is Eric Potts (Diggory Compton in Coronation Street) who is great too.
“ There are still some great comics around – there’s people like Bradley (Walsh), and Bobby Davro - they’re still great. But it is all so different now. Years ago you would do a great long summer season and then go straight into panto, and the pantos were maybe 3 months maybe 4 months long too. So you did panto, had a holiday, and then went back into summer season again. But that doesn’t really happen now and the life is very different these days. They are still out there, these comics, but you have to look harder to find them.
What appealed to you about this panto in Bristol?
“Well, I came to Bristol to see Dick Whittington 10 years ago, and I saw Jim Davidson do it, and I just loved the theatre! It is one of Frank Matcham’s theatres (celebrated theatre architect of the late 19th / early 20th century) and there’s not many of those great theatres left, and I thought I would REALLY love to play this theatre. I also really wanted to do Dick Whittington, as the story, Dick comes from the west country and seeks his fortune in London, has a lot about London in it, which I love, and with the Olympics coming, it seemed the perfect time. It is only for four weeks too, which is absolutely perfect for me. It’s been 16 years since I’ve done it and I wanted to get my bearings – so everything was right.”
How do you feel about being part of the Carry On legacy? A good thing or a bad thing?
“It was bad for me at the time, when I hit my fifties, and they had started to sell them to television. Up until then I hadn’t really been known as the Carry On girl – I’d only done 8 of the films. ITV bought the ones I was in and showed them on television at a prime time, just before Corrie, then BBC did the same thing and they showed them continually, so that’s what people began to know me for. People thought only of that bubbly young character, and it became very hard for me to get roles playing my own age. Fortunately, I am a singer, so I toured the world with my act, and funnily enough because of the Carry Ons, I would get full houses which was great of course. But I really wanted to play my age, and that never came along until finally EastEnders!
“I was spotted by the casting director doing my act down at the Brick Lane Music Hall! She came in and said ‘I looked up and saw this woman that I’d known forever talking to the audience about her life, and singing, and I thought how vulnerable Barbara is!’ I’d always seemed this harsh little blonde bird to her, but she realised that I’m not that at all. And that’s what happened, and I got Peggy. I just never thought I’d ever get a chance with EastEnders, so I’m eternally grateful for how it worked out. “I always say that was part of two great national institutions Carry Ons and EastEnders, and I love them both. To walk down the street is great – I still get people shouting “Carry On” and doing the exercise thing, you know (from Camping) – that and “Get Out of My Pub!” of course!
I suppose you will be forever haunted by that scene in Carry On Camping?
“I’m quite proud of it, because it was ranked as of the most seen clips in comedy history. I think it came about 6th in the world!”
What's next after panto?
“I came out of EastEnders not thinking “I must do this, or I must do that” I just sort of came out and things are being offered to me left right and centre at the moment. Loads of things, some silly like the reality shows, like going out to the artic or down the Zambezi river, but there have been some very interesting things too. Some really nice jobs, but they’ve been watered down version of Peggy, which I won’t do. There are lots of things coming in for next year but I’m going to get through this pantomime, have a holiday, and then come home and assess it all. I didn’t come out to do loads of things, but I came out to work still, not to retire. To have more time with my husband and a bit more me time. (On EastEnders) we were working Saturday’s too in the end and that meant my Sundays were spent learning – so just to have more me time will be great.
How does it feel, being a national treasure?
“My Mother would be so proud to hear that – I just wish my Mum was here. She always used to say to me: ‘Don’t ever say you came from Bethnall Green, you’ll never get anywhere’, and even when I did become famous she said ‘You don’t act like a star at all. You stand on your doorstep talking to the milkman’ And I said, ‘But Mum that’s how I want to be’ She would be proud that in spite of all that and me staying exactly the same that I’m described a ‘national treasure’ .
“I was given the most wonderful award the other day. I went down to the East End to see a show full of these young people, celebrating the amazing things that they have done, and they gave me The Spirit of London award, and I just thought that was the most wonderful thing, because I love London so much.
We have got some treasures in this country haven’t we? I think June Brown is one! She is wonderful.
As for me being a national treasure? Well it’s lovely, thank you very much!
Dick Whittington starring Barbara Windsor runs at the Bristol Hippodrome from 11 December 2010 until 9 January 2011.