Barbara Windsor

I interviewed the East End actress Barbara Windsor when I was writing about Joan Littlewood in 2013/14 during a sabbatical I took from Channel 4. This is a summary of the conversation:

Today I did an interview with Barbara Windsor who was one of the third generation of Joan Littlewood’s acting ensembles doing Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1959, before transferring to the West End, as well as Oh What a Lovely War on Broadway in 1965 (where Barbara was Tony-nominated). It was fascinating to hear how tricky Barbara found Joan’s loose, improvisational approach after a training in the West End where the script was the script and you did exactly what the director told you to do. But what emerged from the experience ultimately was the actress getting more in touch with her real self, after years of playing down her East End background. Joan really admired her work in EastEnders – and thought she was the only one with a decent Cockney accent. Barbara learnt from Joan during Fings at the Garrick when she was drifting into artifice and over-blown performance, too Judy Garland, not enough Bethnal Green, and carried that lesson forward for the rest of her career.

with Joan Littlewood in 1964

She told me a story about how she was first cast by Littlewood – something about getting mistaken for a cleaner in the theatre. I can’t quite recall it without digging out my notes.

I’ve just had a look online and found the anecdote. I got it the wrong way round – Barbara mistook Littlewood for a cleaner. Zoe Wanamaker seems to have played Littlewood in a 2017 BBC drama called Babs and she recounts that same story in her blog:

Despite mistaking Littlewood for a cleaner when arriving at a theatre in late 1950s London, the young Windsor dazzles the director with her raw talent. ‘Where have you been all my life?’ Littlewood wonders during the particularly memorable audition scene. Babs made clear that although Windsor didn’t always see eye to eye with her mentor, who favoured an unusual, experimental approach to rehearsing and staging plays, the director’s mixture of encouragement and tough love helped the starlet to shine.

with actor Murray Melvin (R) backing fundraising for the Joan Littlewood sculpture by Philip Jackson now in Theatre Square outside the Theatre Royal Stratford East

I met her in person one other time at Littlewood’s Theatre Royal Stratford East. She was in a foyer huddle with Gary Kemp (Spandau Ballet) at a performance of Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be  (I think, certainly one of the classic Theatre Workshop plays) around the same time.

The work she did with Joan Littlewood was probably the highlight of her career. Not that’s there’s anything wrong with a little Carry On…

Barbara & Sid James

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