Barbara WINDSOR (1937-)
THIS IS YOUR LIFE - Barbara Windsor, actress, was surprised by Michael Aspel on stage at the Theatre Royal, Windsor.
Barbara made her West End debut in 1952 in the chorus of the musical Love From Judy. She joined Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, coming to prominence in their stage production Fings Ain't Wot They Used to Be.
She is perhaps best known for her appearances in nine of the Carry On films, although she has always maintained a career in theatre, including celebrated performances in Tony Richardson’s The Threepenny Opera, Twelfth Night at the Chichester Festival Theatre and Entertaining Mr Sloane at the Lyric Hammersmith, directed by her friend Kenneth Williams.
“Darling, you can’t do my life – it’s so naughty!”
Barbara recalls her experience of This Is Your Life in her autobiography All Of Me, reproduced here with kind permission of the author...
I was taking my final bow at a music hall performance at the Theatre Royal in Windsor, on 16 September, when the master of ceremonies looked out at the audience of 1500 from the side of the stage and broke in: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the evening is far from over. Because I now ask you to welcome an extraordinary eclectic delineator of diverse delights with scintillating surprises. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Michael Aspel.’
I was standing in line with my six fellow performers, completely bewildered. I had no idea what he was talking about and I presumed they didn’t, either. The two-hour show was over, and there was no more to come. Well, there hadn’t been on the two previous nights, but tonight, unknown to me, Michael Aspel, tracked by a TV camera, had been smuggled through the front door as we took our bows and was now hiding in the wings. When the MC finished his flowery speech, Michael emerged, holding the famous Big Red Book. The audience applauded wildly. They were in for an unexpected treat: they were going to witness a celebrity being surprised for that magical TV experience, This Is Your Life. I stood there grinning and clapping along with everyone else – until Michael stopped a few feet from me and said: ‘Thank you, sir. May I congratulate you on your cornucopia of comedy and to add, if I may, that I am indeed here to say that tonight, Barbara Windsor, This Is Your Life.’
My grin vanished. My jaw dropped. All I was aware of was the applause rising to a crescendo and Michael looking at me, patiently waiting for me to say something. After a few seconds, I’d recovered enough to exclaim: ‘Darling, you can’t do my life. It’s so … naughty!’ But the cheers were so deafening that I don’t think he heard me. ‘I don’t know what to say,’ I began again. ‘Me speechless? I can’t believe this … It’s a joke.’ And then I repeated: ‘How can you do my life, Michael. There are so many naughty bits!’
‘I know the naughty bits, but they don’t,’ Michael said, turning to the audience.
Trying to get over the shock, I told him: ‘I know everyone says this, but I would like to say that I wish Mummy was here. She always said, “They haven’t done your life, Babs.”’
Michael took my arm. ‘Now, if you’ll come with me and slip into something less comfortable …’
Mild panic set in. ‘God, I don’t know what I’ve got here,’ I said. The audience’s cheers turned to laughter: they love it when a star has been caught unawares. My hand went to my chin as I tried to remember what clothes I had in my dressing room: I wanted to look my best when I went in front of the cameras. ‘What have I got here? I don’t know what I’ve got here.’ I kept repeating. And then Michael was gently leading me off the stage as I muttered, ‘I can’t believe this,’ to the continuing applause of the audience and the rest of the cast.
I was taken to a hotel a mile or so away, where I got the second huge surprise of the evening: waiting for me in a suite were two sets of clothes: dresses, underwear, tights, shoes, even wigs. There was only one person who could have arranged that: Stephen. And an hour or so later, when I arrived back at the Theatre Royal, one of the show’s researchers told me about everything he had done, with the help of my friend Graham Roberts. Stephen had even bought me an elegant, black two-piece costume he knew I wanted, and taken it to my dressmaker in Golders Green to have it altered to fit me.
Many cynics refer to the people who have appeared on This Is Your Life as victims. I prefer subjects. I considered it an honour and a privilege, and I was thrilled to be chosen. Quite honestly, I’d always felt that the shadow of notoriety Ronnie Knight had cast on my career had ruled me out of TV’s most endearing accolade. My joy must have been obvious to everyone as I walked in front of the cameras to the famous, nerve-tingling, This Is Your Life signature tune. It was one of those very rare times when I enjoyed making an entrance and wasn’t embarrassed to be sole centre of attention. I waved at Stephen’s family and friends and other familiar faces on either side of the stage; then, not too sure what to do next, I turned my back to the audience and wiggled mu bottom in a cheeky Carry On style.
‘Thank you for that,’ said Michael. ‘We all enjoyed that.’
I sat down, excited as a little girl on Christmas Day, and waited for my life, and some of the people who had featured in it, to be presented to the nation. I expected Stephen to be there, but when Michael Aspel opened the programme with a film clip of Stephen at the Plough, surrounded by our staff, I wasn’t sure, especially when the camera zoomed in on Stephen and he said: ‘You always said they’d never catch you, but I told you they would one day. It’s business as usual here, but everyone wants to say they hope you have a lovely evening.’ The camera picked up my gorgeous dog, and Stephen added: ‘Including Bonnie.’
But then Michael said: ‘He’s not really there, of course. He’s done the washing up and is here tonight. Your husband, Stephen.’ And there, walking towards me, immaculately groomed, with the broadest grin on his handsome face, was my old man. I jumped up and we hugged. ‘I love you,’ I said, squeezing him. ‘I love you. I love you.’
When we sat down, I told the audience how I’d panicked about my clothes, and how Stephen had arranged everything behind my back. ‘The Irish, the shoes, the dress, the tights – they’re all here!’ I said. ‘We look after our guests on this show,’ laughed Michael, but neither he nor the audience could have any idea how much it meant to me. From someone who had not shown me any affection for three years, it was a kind, loving gesture and I was deeply touched by it.
The show got off to a hilarious start when Michael innocently left me an opening to make a joke about Ronnie Knight. Referring to the headlines in which Stephen was cast as my toyboy lover, Michael asked if anyone, apart from the press, had shown any interest in the age gap. ‘No one,’ I said. ‘Apart from you know how. But I’d better not mention him.’ I waited for the laughter to die down, then giggled: ‘I suppose he’s coming on later, Michael. I bet he’s the surprise guest at the end.’
‘I like to live dangerously,’ replied Michael, ‘but not that dangerously.’ Everyone fell about.
I was thrilled by the pre-recorded massages from Jeannie Carson and June Whitfield, which brought back warm memories from Love From Judy, and from Joan Littlewood, speaking from France. That was a worrying moment, though, because Victor Spinetti had just told the story of how I’d stood up to her on his behalf in New York, and I’d broken in with: ‘Yeah, she could be a right cow!’ When Michael said: ‘And now we can go to Joan Littlewood at her home in France,’ my face fell.
‘Oh dear, did she hear me?’ I asked anxiously.
That got another laugh, but thankfully Joan did not hear Victor’s anecdote or my careless quip.
One remark that did go down well concerned three wonderful actors and friends who’d been my leading men over the years: Denis Quilley from Sing a Rude Song, Jack Smethurst from The Mating Game and, of course, old Nathan Detroit himself, Gareth Hunt.
‘Look at them all sitting there, grinning like fools,’ said Michael.
‘That’s because they’ve worked with me, dear,’ I giggled. ‘I make them all very happy in my shows, Michael!’
‘Well, the night is young,’ he grinned.
Everyone was laughing – including Stephen, I was happy to see.
My wonderful evening ended with a parade of some of my closet friends from the Water Rats and Lady Ratlings: Ronnie Hilton, John Inman, Anna Karen, Davy Kaye, Rose Marie, Toni Palmer, Jack Douglas, Bert Weedon and Paul and Debbie Daniels. And then Michael was holding out the Red Book and saying those time-honoured words, ‘Barbara Windsor – This is Your Life’ and suddenly everyone was smiling and clapping and converging on me from all sides. As we all moved towards the studio audience for the traditional end-of-show applause, I was aware that Stephen was not there. I looked around in the melee and spotted him standing on his own behind everyone, near Michael Aspel, who always retreats out of shot. Clutching the Big Red Book to my chest with my left hand, I turned and motioned to him to come through to me. He took my right hand and we moved to the front of the stage and drank in the acclaim.
In his biography of Barbara Windsor, the writer Nigel Cawthorne briefly mentions This Is Your Life...
Flabbergasted, she spluttered: “You can’t do my life. It’s so … naughty.”
The cheers were deafening. She needn’t have worried. Stephen had arranged everything, including a choice of outfits.
Once they got to the This Is Your Life studios [Bigredbook editor: Actually the programme was recorded at the Theatre Royal, Windsor], Barbara speculated that Ronnie Knight might be the surprise guest they brought on at the end. The morning after, Stephen left with barely a goodbye.
on the guest list...