Dame Barbara Windsor, who has died aged 83, became the nation’s favourite pin-up, the bubbly blonde who packed a lot of personality into her 4ft 10in frame.
Her journey from saucy minx in the Carry On films to the matriarch of the Queen Vic in EastEnders made her a national treasure.
Windsor’s teenage life was troubled. She was rejected by her father, something that drove her into a string of stormy personal relationships.
But she went on to be a consummate actress who carved out a successful career on both stage and screen.
Barbara Ann Deeks was born in Shoreditch, east London, on 6 August 1937, the daughter of a fruit and veg street seller and a dressmaker.
Her mother, Rose, had great ambitions for her, paying for elocution lessons in an attempt to lose her cockney accent and move her up the social ladder. Windsor later said her mother’s family felt she had married beneath her.
A bright child, she sailed though her 11-plus examination. Her mother wanted her to go to university but she persuaded her otherwise by her performance in a school show.
Rose spent her savings on a place for Barbara at the Ada Foster School in Golders Green. The teachers took their turn in trying to iron out her cockney accent but all failed. Barbara made her stage debut at the age of 13.
image captionBarbara trained at the Aida Foster School for drama and dance and made her West End debut in 1952
Her father, John, walked out when she was 15 and her mother forced her to give evidence at the divorce hearing, something she never forgot.
The unhappiness of her home life drove her to seek solace in a string of casual relationships, which led to her having three abortions by the time she was 21.
She had changed her name to Windsor when she appeared in her first film in 1954, as one of the schoolgirls in The Belles of St Trinian’s.
Her big break came when she joined Joan Littlewood’s company at the Theatre Royal in Stratford, east London, appearing in the musical Fings Ain’t Wot They Used to Be.
Her role as Maggie Gooding in Littlewood’s 1963 film Sparrers Can’t Sing gained her a Bafta nomination.
There were also early roles in TV sitcoms including the BBC’s The Rag Trade, which ran for two years from 1961.
image captionWindsor (r) with the cast of The Rag Trade in 1962
East End social life saw showbusiness intermingling with local gang culture and Windsor became friends with the Krays and their entourage.
She dated Charlie Kray for six months – “the most perfect gentleman I have ever known” – and also had a brief relationship with his brother Reggie.
image captionWith husband Ronnie Knight (L) and Reggie Kray
In 1964, she married a small-time criminal, Ronnie Knight, beginning a sometimes stormy union that would last more than 20 years.
In the same year, she was cast in Carry On Spying, the ninth film in the successful franchise and the last to be shot in black and white.
Her saucy laugh and flirtatious behaviour were perfect for the seaside postcard innuendo on which the success of the films was based.
image captionBarbara Windsor as a nurse in Carry On Doctor (1967). Between 1964 and 1974, Barbara Windsor starred in fewer 10 of the 30 Carry On films – but it is difficult to imagine them without her.
But she was adamant that beneath the on-screen character was a serious actress.
“I am not like my image,” she once said. “Everyone thinks I just bounce in, but I study and everything has to be just right.”
Although she appeared in only a third of the Carry On series, they defined her career and later made it difficult to escape the inevitable typecasting.
Arguably her most memorable appearance was in Carry On Camping, when her bra flew off during some strenuous physical jerks.
The scene had to be shot three times, with the garment being removed by the deft use of a fishing rod in the hands of an off-screen assistant. The exposure of flesh was strongly suggested but never actually revealed on film.
image captionBarbara had a 10-year affair with Carry On co-star, Sid James
During her Carry On career she had a 10-year affair with co-star Sid James, which ended just before the actor’s death in 1976. It was later portrayed in the ITV drama ‘Cor Blimey!’, on which Barbara acted as an advisor.
The affair was probably quiet dangerous for James, given Ronnie Knight’s criminal connections. At first, Barbara fended him off but decided it might be best just to sleep with him so he could get it out of his system. The idea didn’t work and his infatuation continued.
“I cared deeply for him,” she recalled. “I didn’t at first, he was just my leading man and I used to push him off. But he was an old-fashioned charmer, opening doors and all the rest of it, making you feel like a lady. So our relationship was inevitable.”
In between the Carry On films she continued her stage career, receiving a Tony Award nomination for the Broadway production of Oh! What A Lovely War.
She also starred as the music hall performer Marie Lloyd in the biopic Sing a Rude Song, a role she reprised in the BBC series The Good Old Days.
In the mid-1970s she toured with her own show, Carry On Barbara, and appeared as Maria in Twelfth Night at Chichester.
image captionA royal visit to the Queen Vic
But, as she reached her 40s, the image of the bubbly blonde with the sexy wiggle was hampering her ability to get work.
“I found myself in the doldrums in the early 90s. I was too old to play the dolly bird any longer and I looked too young to play a woman of my real age.”
She did get the part of the raunchy landlady in a stage production of Joe Orton’s black comedy Entertaining Mr Sloane, which was directed by her Carry On co-star Kenneth Williams.
Her marriage to Ronnie was coming to an end, after he fled to Spain following his involvement in a multi-million-pound robbery from a security company.
Her career received a major boost in 1994 when she was chosen to play brassy landlady Peggy Mitchell in the BBC soap EastEnders.
Ironically she had spent some of the previous few years pulling pints in a pub in Buckinghamshire that she owned with her second husband, Stephen Hollings.
image captionIn 1994, Dame Barbara was introduced to Albert Square as the fierce matriarch and landlady of the Queen Vic pub. Peggy Mitchell was mother to thuggish brothers Phil (right) and Grant.
She admitted she had found the idea of EastEnders daunting, joining what was an already well-established drama.
“I was as scared starting on EastEnders as I was when I first stepped on to the Carry On set,” she later recalled. “I had to prove myself in a different world.”
She based the character of Peggy on Violet Kray, the matriarch of the gang family she had known so well in her youth.
On set she found herself acting as a mother figure to many of the soap’s young actors, some of whom had no formal training in drama.
And at the age of 70, she told one interviewer that she still got a thrill from being wolf-whistled in the street – and made sure she put an extra wiggle in her walk when it happened.
image captionA royal visit to the Queen Vic
She was forced out of the soap for two years after contracting the debilitating Epstein-Barr virus at the end of 2002, which left her bedridden.
There was a brief return in 2004, but she was not well enough to resume the role full-time until the following year.
Shortly after picking up a Lifetime Achievement Award at the British Soap Awards, she announced she was quitting EastEnders to spend more time with her third husband, Scott Mitchell.
“I’ll be so sad to leave Peggy behind,” she said at the time. “She’s such a wonderful character to play.”
There was also a problem that she withheld from her fans. She had begun finding it hard to learn her lines and she kept repeating certain sentences and stories.
After a series of mental agility tests and a brain scan, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2014. “I’m so sorry”, she mouthed to her husband.
Two years later she filmed her final scenes as Peggy Mitchell. Eastenders were reluctant to kill off such an iconic character but she rang the producers to insist.
image captionDuring her time in Albert Square, Peggy Mitchell was married twice, saw the Queen Vic burned to the ground and battled breast cancer before taking an overdose of pills. In 2009, she was presented with a lifetime achievement award at the British Soap awards.
Her husband, Scott went to see them to make sure they understood this really was the end. “Look into my eyes,” he said. “She is not coming back.”
On set they had an autocue ready but she did not need it. Peggy Mitchell, terminally ill with breast cancer, took a lethal overdose of pills and died in her sleep.
In the 2016 New Year’s Honours Barbara was created a Dame for her services to charity and entertainment. But soon afterwards those dramatic final scenes in Walford, Barbara’s Alzheimer’s became more difficult to hide.
By the time she turned 80 in August 2017, a continual confusion had set in. She became more and more housebound, upset at having to keeping her secret from the fans who flocked to her whenever she set foot outside.
In May 2018, she made the decision to go public with her condition and was still well enough to feel overwhelmed by the warmth of the public reaction.
Dame Barbara may have retreated from public gaze but around her friends and family took on the role of campaigning and fundraising for dementia care in her honour.
Adam Woodyatt and Jake Wood were among several EastEnders stars who ran the London Marathon in 2019 in a team called Barbara’s Revolutionaries.
“It means so much to me to see some of my closest friends coming together to support this cause,” Dame Barbara said.
“I know it will mean a lot to everyone else living with dementia.”
Later that year Dame Barbara put her name to an open letter with her husband calling on the prime minister for a “long-term funding solution to end the social care crisis”. It coincided with the couple’s appointment as ambassadors for the Alzheimer’s Society.
In July 2020, Dame Barbara’s husband had to make the difficult decision to move her into a care home as her condition deteriorated during the coronavirus lockdown.
Both on and off-screen Dame Barbara will be remembered as the “sex-pot with a heart of gold, navigating a complicated and sometimes tumultuous private life”.
She enjoyed her successes, faced life’s challenges bravely and found happiness in her final marriage to Scott.
She was a formidable character actress with a place in British hearts for more than half a century. And like many of the characters she played, Barbara Windsor was sometimes down, but never out.