I’m deviating from my usual timetable of reviews to sneak in this extra one-off programme which aired this Sunday on BBC1. On paper this was a dream for me. From a small child I’ve loved Dame Barbara Windsor. One of my greatest childhood treats would be to watch a “Carry On” film even when I was only getting a small proportion of the jokes. Even now, if I’m feeling a bit off colour an hour and a half spent in the company of Sid James, Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques, Joan Sims and Dame Babs herself is always a worthwhile remedy. (By the way, before you ask, “Camping” is my favourite with its so memorable Babs bikini-busting scene- perhaps one of the most iconic moments in British film!).
Carry On Camping – Look out for the string!
There wasn’t a great deal of “Carry On” in Babs, just the much anecdoted first meeting with “difficult” Kenneth Williams on “Spying” which forged a life-long friendship and a fleeting nod towards “Doctor”. Sid James, an important person in Babs’ life was just a laugh in the background (it can’t be easy to cast an actor to play Sid James). This 90 minute production focused on Windsor’s pre-Carry On days. The whole Sid James thing having been covered before in the excellent, revelatory stage play “Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle And Dick” which was adapted for television as “Cor Blimey!” (2000).
Cor Blimey! It’s Babs!
This was quite a theatrical piece written by top television writer and ex-Eastenders head man Tony Jordan and focused very much on ghosts. Using a pre-Peggy Mitchell Babs, sleeping on pier-end dressing room floors between shows as the central character she reflected on and observed various Babs’ and her past, most prominently the relationship with her father.
The narrative moved back and forwards chronologically. It was a fascinating structure but it did slow things down considerably and that is why it will not, despite its appealing subject matter, be getting the full five stars. .
Samantha Spiro – Born To Be Babs
Certainly it was five star in terms of performance. Samantha Spiro as the 90’s Babs was magnificent. She’s been equally magnificent in the same role before. Her performance in “Cor Blimey!” was so spot on that when the real Windsor takes over at the end it took a second or two to register. Every time I’ve seen Samantha Spiro since I think of that portrayal. Likewise here, Dame Babs was on hand, playing herself with just the odd aside and comment as she observed some of her life’s proceedings and, grand old trouper that she is, getting our eyes moist with an in-the-spotlight rendition of “Sunny Side Of The Street”, very much a significant song for the Windsor career and used quite heavily throughout. This moment could have been as cheesy as anything, but as was stressed in the early part of the proceedings Barbara always had a certain something and aged 79 she still has it.
A pair of Babs’ – Samantha Spiro and Jaime Winstone promoting the show
The Barbara of the Swinging Sixties was played very well by Jaime Winstone who’d got the giggle and the wiggle down to a tee, but was always strong in conveying a more vulnerable Babs behind the (formidable) front. This section focused on her relationship with bad boy husband Ronnie Knight, a man who made those in her working life distinctly nervous and whose appeal to Babs never really got across here. Barbara’s early theatrical career and the support given to her by Joan Littlewood at The Theatre Workshop (played by Zoe Wanamaker) was also very well handled.
Perhaps the most affecting Babs ghost on display was the determined pre-teen, turning cartwheels in auditions much to her mother’s chagrin and having to give evidence against her beloved father in court proceedings. Played by twelve year old Honor Kneafsey (so good in BBC1 Series “Our Zoo”) who painfully brought home each snub received by the man she idolised whilst taking on board that “the show must go on”
The young Babs, happy with both parents
So, wonderful performances and a good feel of the time but really I think there’s a series load of material in the extremely readable Windsor autobiography “All Of Me” so Jordan had to be selective when putting this together. If it had flowed a little better, I would have no compunction in awarding five stars as it is it was very memorable Sunday night viewing.
In checking the odd fact for this review a few minutes ago I’ve discovered that there has been what the Daily Mail likes to regard as a “ TV Storm” about this and that is was “Slammed by viewers”. Not having seen any other reviews and not (thankfully) reading the Daily Mail I knew nothing of this whilst writing the above. I’ve just taken a little look and it seems like the structure and flow which I aired reservations about caused people to find it unwatchable and not know what was going on, although with usual tabloid overstatement there seemed to be a considerable number of viewers and reviewers who praised the production. So, a mixed reaction but it was great to see a true British National Treasure getting ninety minutes of primetime on a Sunday evening.
Dame Barbara Windsor
“Babs” was shown on Sunday 7th May and is currently available on the BBC I-Player. The DVD will be released on the 15th May