Talking Pictures

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Barbara Windsor

Posted by keith1942 on April 23, 2012

We had the pleasure of hearing ‘Babs’ in a Festival ScreenTalk with Neil Young. She is clearly a professional, demonstrated by her entrance which both presented her irrepressible character and also engaged with enthusiastic audience. The actual interview partly covered biographical territory, including her theatre and film career, and the latter-day EastEnders television soap. There was a particular focus on the 1964 film Sparrers Can’t Sing (1963) which was screened after the interview.

She was born in Shoreditch in 1937: her father was a costermonger, her mother was a dressmaker. She was a wartime evacuee to Blackpool where she first attended a dance school. Her mother in particular wanted the family to move out of and up from the East End. The young Barbara had elocution lessons at school. This and the dance skills led to juvenile stage appearances in pantomime. She became a professional in the 1950s but it was the new approaches of the 1960s that gave her the biggest breaks. Whilst working in the West End she received an audition with Joan Littlewood. He memories of Littlewood evoked a cranky character, not always easy to work with. [It seems she used F… word or similar as a frequent adjective and adverb]. However, Littlewood’s theatre productions were outstanding and Windsor starred in Fings Ain’t What They Used to Be, Oh What a Lovely War and Sparrers Can’t Sing both in the UK and in the USA on Broadway.

By then Barbara had appeared in small parts in six films, includin The Belles of St Trinians (1954). However, Sparrers Can’t Sing achieved a major impact, with a BAFTA nomination in the UK and a successful run in New York. The latter screenings had printed glossaries provided for the audience explaining the Cockney slang in the film.

Her other famous screen appearances are in the Carry On series, in which she appeared in nine films. In the interview Barbara was extremely witty about the some of the travails of the production work. Despite their success the producers [led by Peter Rogers] kept the cast and crew on an extremely tight budget. In the early 1960s the leading male players were getting £5,000 a film: and predictably the leading women players less, £2,000. One of her most famous scenes is in Carry on Camping (1969) where she loses her bra during an exercise scene. Barbara recalled the extreme contortions of the various takes to avoid the sight of an actual female breast in the more censorious climate of the 1960s. She also recalled that the exteriors for this film [as for most other Carry Ons] were filmed in a field behind the studio rather than on location. In a delightful parallel with the 1960s art film director Michael Antonioni, the field’s worn grass was painted screen.

Barbara Windsor also appeared in films by a number of other talented directors. She had a dance sequence in Ken Russell’s The Boyfriend. Russell’s earlier The Devils was in production at Pinewood at the same time as Carry on Camping: an evocative contrast of the British film industry of the period. Barbara’s professional approach, which she stressed in the interview, gave her the nickname of ‘one-take Barbara’. However, working with Russell led to her having to perform 34 takes for the scene in his film: which says more about Russell than Windsor.

It is clear that Barbara Windsor was typecast from early in her career. This was in part due to her infectious and seemingly spontaneous character, but is also clear that one attribute, her substantial bosom, led to her being stereotyped. One wonders if the mediums in which she worked did not objectify women in the way they do that she might have developed in other ways. Whilst Sparrers Can’t Sing. is stereotypically comic at times there are also serious passages and convincing personal relations. The Littlewood years suggests a possibly different direction, as does her stage appearance in Tony Richardson’s production of The Threepenny Opera. Prompted, she chose Theatre as the most favoured aspect of her career. Her other film work includes Carol’s Reeds fine A Kid for Two Farthings (1955): and she has performed on stage in Shakespeare. But her persona is now defined by the years with Carry On and subsequently her years in the EastEnders pub.

The Festival is screening her first film with Peter Rogers [and one of my favourites] Carry on Spying (1964) and \a typical example of British crime comedy of the period, Crooks in the Cloister (1964).

Barbara Windsor was also presented with the Festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award.


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