I was ten years old when Erma Bombeck died. A humourist and newspaper columnist, her gumption and wit resonated with a generation of American women who were redefining just what that identity was. I distinctly remember my great aunt Pat reading it in the newspaper and telling my grandmother “Erma Bombeck died” with a sadness I had until then seen reserved for bad news about close family members. I didn’t understand it.
I do today.
Dame Barbara Windsor was an actress, not a writer, but like Bombeck spoke to a generation of women—this time on the other side of the Atlantic—who were demanding equality and redefining on their own terms what being a British woman meant. From her work on the London and New York stage to the Carry On films, Babs played women who were plucky, tough and yes, sexy, but also wise and deep and full of humanity. Some roles were lighter fare, but there were a great many meatier parts, too, and she imbued all of them with a richness and fulness that was utterly captivating.
I know Dame Barbara best for her work on EastEnders. As a young boy growing up in Dayton, Ohio, I used to watch her on a staticky box tv in the small bedroom I shared with my brother. As the indomitable Peggy Mitchell, I was hooked by her big hair, bigger personality, and the sheer delight she had in camping it up. I saw in her a woman not so unlike my own grandmother—big blonde hair, big brass neck, and a big, beating heart. Unlike my grandmother, who even now as far as I am aware has never made an enemy, Peggy was not afraid to slap someone silly, especially her frienemy-before-frienemy-was-a-term, Pat Butcher.
To be sure, Barbara Windsor was a star before she ever stepped behind the bar of the Queen Victoria Public House. It is arguably EastEnders, though, that made her an icon. A fiercely protective matriarch of an unruly clan of gangsters and thugs, Peggy Mitchell is one of the greatest—if not the greatest—character in soap history. Whether getting drunk with Pat in an ice cream van or slapping her silly after she slept with her husband, her hilarious antics and hopeless attempts at corralling her unruly brood captivated the nation for years.
Part of her appeal, and what made her such a compelling figure on Albert Square, is that she was never inauthentic. Born in Shoreditch and raised in Stoke Newington, Barbara never ran away from her roots. She was unashamedly working-class. Brash and bubbly and occasionally bawdy (she once told Larry Lamb “we’re all the same size lying down” and asked Boris Johnson for a kiss), she was friends with the Kray twins and married a man decades her junior. Sod what anyone thought, from where I stand she always seemed to live life on her own terms, right up until the end.
I say “from where I stand” because I never met Barbara, never interviewed her or even bumped into her—though I wish so much that I had. I, like millions of others, knew her only from the stage and screen. As such, I’m not sure I have much more to add to the beautiful tributes being written about her, from Suzanne Moore and Duncan Lindsay and countless others who are sharing memories of this proper East End legend.
Still, I felt compelled to offer my own small tribute, if only because Peggy Mitchell, and therefore Barbara Windsor, was such an important part of my life for such a very long time. I don’t mind telling you I sobbed like a child when, in 2016, EastEnders killed off Peggy. Part of this was because we were losing an iconic character, but part of it was because Dame Barbara had asked that the character be killed off, knowing she would not be able to return. Her Alzheimer’s was advancing, and in the years between then and now it took its ghastly toll by all accounts. Yet this tough old bird kept going as long as she could, campaigning for Alzheimer’s charities and lobbying the government for more funding for research and care.
I don’t have a clever ending, in part because it doesn’t seem like there is any ending fit for Barbara Windsor. This surely wasn’t it. Instead, I’ll simply leave you with one of my favourite scenes of Babs in EastEnders, and part by saying simply there will never be another Barbara Windsor. Now get outta my pub.