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Memory Lane & lapses with Babs

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We all make howlers, so I have nothing but sympathy for my old friend Kate Kellaway on The Observer in attributing The Duchess of Malfi to Christopher Marlowe in yesterday's newspaper.

Although the error was hastily corrected in the online copy, it's astonishing that it survived the editing process in the first place to feature in the head-line to the article, which also gives the impression that Eve Best - for the piece was an interview with that wonderful actress - also did not know her Marlowe from her John Webster.

Which would be unthinkable in someone who, like Imogen Stubbs, took a first class degree in English at Oxford. (It's nicely coincidental, I think, that Lydia Wilson, who is so brilliant in 'Tis Pity She's A Whore at the Barbican in a role Eve Best herself once occupied, at the Young Vic opposite Jude Law, also took a first class degree in English - at Cambridge.)

My own catalogue of errors includes, most recently, attributing the first production of John Osborne's Inadmissible Evidence to Tony Richardson instead of to Anthony Page, and I still feel a cold chill down my back when I think of it. Richardson had of course directed Osborne's debut play Look Back In Anger. And Page had discovered the star of Inadmissible, Nicol Williamson, at the Dundee Rep and in effect brought him to London.

Naturally, there were plenty of people only too delighted, quite rightly, to inform me of the mistake within a few hours of it appearing.

One of them was Peter Rankin, a former colleague of Joan Littlewood at Stratford East who, in the same email correspondence, put me in touch with another stalwart of the Littlewood years, Kevin Palmer, who is now retired in his native Australia and who has written a charming (and only sometimes catty) book of reminiscences about his life in the theatre.

Its title, Boys' Home to Broadway, refers to a rocky childhood (he and his five siblings were placed in care when his father went to war and his mother died from pneumonia) transformed by a career in this country with the RSC, Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, West End producer Eddie Kulukundis and then on Broadway.

By the time he returned home, he'd worked as a stage manager, production manager, assistant director and finally Littlewood's appointed director of productions of Oh, What a Lovely War! subsequent to her 1962 premiere.

When the show went to Broadway in 1965, Kevin went with it as production manager. But he had another, affiliated, task on the show. Barbara Windsor, who hadn't been in the first London cast, but was a regular at Stratford East, had signed up for Broadway. At the time, she was married to the East End villain Ronnie Knight, close colleague of the Kray twins.

Ronnie had appointed Kevin as Babs' minder, as he didn't want his bubbly little blonde bombshell tearing round town and taking up with just the sort of riff raff (including jazz musicians) she spent some of her time with in London.

As chance would have it, on Friday morning, I was down at Stratford East being interviewed for a film being made for BBC4 about the life and work of Lionel Bart, composer of Oliver! and the notorious Twang!! (on which Bart lost all his money after producers and backers abandoned ship and he went ahead financing it himself - it closed after 43 performances at the Shaftesbury - and in which Babs starred as an all-purpose nymphomaniac called Delphina alongside Ronnie Corbett as Will Scarlet).
Miss Windsor turned up for her interview just after mine and I told her about Kevin's book. "He said that when you went to New York, he was your minder..." "Yeah," she gurgled, "but not for long!"

What an astonishing creature Barbara Windsor is. She is literally tireless, and seems to have the energy of somebody a third of her age. And she wears the same platinum blonde hairpieces to help create the full effect that she's patented for over fifty years.

She's exactly the same "off" as she is "on." On Friday she chirruped into the Theatre Royal, chatted to bar staff while sipping her latte, asking what was on, how was it going, telling them of her time here and how she the place made her career.

She then went inside the auditorium to do her interview. When I headed off back to the West End for lunch an hour later, she was still inside, still chirruping away about her great mate Lionel.

Anyway, when I've finished with Kevin's book, I've promised to send it on to her, as it's not available in this country. And my copy wouldn't be here had I not made a lapse in  print for which I've now paid with nothing but a good read and a lively morning on one of Kevin's old stomping grounds: I told him I was going there and he asked me to whisper a silent "thank you" to the place on his behalf. I did so, and felt strangely moved.


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