Jaime Winstone reveals that several years ago she had a rather unconventional audition for the lead role of Dame Barbara Windsor in Babs, Tony Jordan’s engaging new biopic for BBC1 about the much-loved actress with the world’s most distinctive laugh.
Winstone recollects that, “I met Barbara when I was 15 years old. I was sitting behind her at an event and I did an impression of her laugh – she turned round and said ‘You should play me’. It’s funny how it works out!”
Sixteen years later, Windsor’s advice has become reality. 31-year-old Winstone has been cast as the actress as a young woman – Samantha Spiro, who previously played Windsor in the 1998 stage play, Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick, and in the 2000 television film, Cor Blimey!, takes the role of the actress in her later years.
The script by Jordan, for many years the lead writer on EastEnders, zooms in on Windsor as she is readying herself to perform at an end-of-the-pier theatre on a freezing evening in 1993. It is just before she became a TV fixture as Peggy Mitchell, the indomitable landlady of the Queen Vic, and her career is at a low ebb.
In contemplative mood, the actress looks back on all the events and characters that have had a formative influence on her life. She guides us through the last 50 years, reflecting on her lonely childhood and evacuation during the Second World War, her troubled relationship with her father, her failed marriages, her work with the ground-breaking theatre director Joan Littlewood and finding fame as the “blonde bombshell” of the Carry On films. It is a lively, eye-catching tapestry, woven together with a skein of sadness.
Winstone, whose father is the celebrated actor Ray, says that, perhaps because of her previous connection with Windsor, she felt unusually passionate about securing this role. She went into the audition thinking, “’This is my part’. I go for some parts, like any actor, and have a terrible audition and cringe for a week!
“And there are other parts where you go, ‘Oh… yes. This is my role, this is where I’m supposed to be’, without any arrogance at all, without any shame. I walked into that room to audition feeling nervous, because I knew that I wanted to take this on.” Once she had landed the role, Winstone felt elated. “I was so excited to step into Barbara’s national-treasure shoes.”
While preparing for the part in Babs, the actress met her alter ego many times. She laughs that Windsor gave her one crucial piece of advice: “Keep it camp!”
Winstone delivers a memorable performance as Windsor, channelling the widely adored “Cockney Sparrow” with uncanny accuracy. But that is not to say that the actress wasn’t nervous about doing the part justice. “There was a huge amount of pressure – this is Dame Barbara Windsor! She’s a national treasure. But I did my research, I watched every Carry On film I could and I was true to the script.
“As soon as I sat down with Barbara, I got to analyse her, to see how she moved – and I instantly related to this wonderful woman. She is so generous and easy to talk to and connect with. So, for me, the pressure just faded away as I talked to this amazing woman. These roles don’t come along that often. It was an honour.”
Even so, Winstone admits that she still experienced some trepidation when 79-year-old Windsor showed up on set. The actress recollects that, “She came in one time to watch filming – she often did – and I was a bit terrified. I could look over in the middle of a scene and see her looking at me, and the nerves were overwhelming.
“But then she’d make me feel instantly better by saying, ‘Darling, you’re more me than me.’ She also said, ‘At the end of the day, this is your role.’ Which is amazing really, given this is her life story. It’s so generous of Barbara to open herself up to this.”
One potential problem that Winstone had to guard against was imbuing her portrayal of Windsor in her 20s with our current perception of the actress as an icon of popular culture.
Winstone, who has also starred in Kidulthood and Made in Dagenham, muses that, “I had to keep a certain amount of distance from who she is as a person now – I didn’t want to bring that to the Barbara that I was playing.”
Jordan, who has also created Life on Mars, Hustle, Dickensian and Moving Wallpaper, weighs in that for him it was vital to depict aspects of Windsor’s character that we are unfamiliar with. “I was trying to avoid showing the Barbara we all know. I wanted to show another side. I also didn’t want to show the Barbara that everybody knows in a boring chronological order fashion.
“What I wanted to do was give viewers the real Barbara; not the one we see on screen. I wanted to get behind the wiggle and the giggle and find out the person who is really there.”
Jordan was understandably worried when he first showed the screenplay to Windsor. “I’ve delivered a lot of scripts in my life – I’ve written about 300 or more – and I’ve never been so terrified as I was the moment I gave Barbara the script of Babs!” Fortunately, he says, she loved the script.
Windsor, who makes a cameo appearance in Babs, has long been known as a chirpy Cockney, an image only heightened by her role as Peggy. However, the film does not shy away from some of the darker moments during her life. It does not flinch from addressing her difficult relationships with either her father or her first two husbands.
It may well be that Windsor’s plucky resilience in the face of such adversity is one of the many reasons why the public have warmed to her so much.
The director Dominic Leclerc stresses that it was important Babs was not a straight hagiography. When tackling the tough things that had happened in her past, “Barbara didn’t want to be coy or to shy away from it, and I didn’t want to make it sentimental or gooey. Our access point for this drama is 1993. The 55-year-old Barbara is working at the end of the pier, down on her luck and not in the best place. She’s not at the strongest point in her career and she’s reflecting on her life.
“The emotional journey she will go on in 90 minutes will change her completely. She takes control of a childhood emotional trauma and a complex relationship with her father that has haunted her life. She moves into her own future, on her own terms, controlling her own destiny. It’s a strong, positive message – that you can change your life.”
Finally, did Winstone ever have to reassure Windsor as she watched her life play out in front of her? The answer is an emphatic no. Winstone laughs that, “The moment you try and reassure Barbara, you realise that she’s a seriously strong woman. I don’t think I’ve ever glimpsed any insecurities. She was so brave with this project and let us all do what we love doing. It was such a blessing.
‘Babs’ goes out at 8pm on Sunday on BBC1.