The Enduring, Gloriously Déclassé Style of Barbara Windsor

Barbara Windsor in Carry On Doctor.

 

In 1969, the English actress Barbara (Babs) Windsor costarred in her fourth motion picture in the Carry On franchise, a succession of low-budget, campy comedies that dominated national cinemas for two decades. For Carry On Again Doctor, she assumed the role of a walking trope named Goldie Locks: a comely but rattlebrained blonde who’d fallen while modeling for a baby-food commercial, and thus required a checkup. In a now cult scene, a stern hospital matron peels back a blanket to reveal Windsor’s milky, bruised flesh, privates obscured only by heart-shaped nipple pasties and a matching glitter G-string. A male doctor gawps and splutters and spins around at the sight of her. The matron shoots him a censorious glance. Windsor, or Goldie Locks—all alabaster skin and towering, curly beehive—asks, “What’s wrong?” with Gorblimey cockney intonation. A clichéd comedy of errors ensues.

Since its inception in the late fifties, Carry On was an easy, if surprising, cash cow for its founders: deliberately slapstick, smutty and formulaic in plot, expert in recycling themes and motifs to engineer maximum audience delight. It internalized a then-lowbrow English attitude to sex; scripts were carnivalesque, replete with all the bawdy innuendo, double entendre, and wheezy wisecracks of a seaside postcard. (A writer for the Telegraph would later opine that Carry On adopted “innocent smut that plays Grandma’s footsteps with its subject, furtively creeping up on it, then freezing and corpsing when it comes face to face.”)

As the second-longest running British film series, bested only by James Bond, it leveraged a universal-adaptor cast of comics to send up various Blighty institutions: the monarchy and the Empire, the police force and trade unions, the National Health Service. Perhaps that irreverence and lack of prudishness is why viewers hung on. Thirty-one films in total were churned out, conveyer-belt style, from Pinewood Studios, about twenty miles west of central London. Sometimes they took as little as six weeks to make. There were other spin-offs, including four Christmas specials, a thirteen-episode TV series, and three plays. Carry On was always cheap and high-energy, increasingly interspersed with nudity, always a lot of the same (ditsy plot, cheeky dialogue, rudimentary, drama-school costuming). It was whipped-cream and zany slapstick chase scenes and jovial leering at Windsor’s ample cleavage. 

Except, it never really felt cheap or crass to me—at least, not in the early days, when the rhyming slang and middle-class jabs landed well over my head. I first watched Carry On Again Doctor three decades after its release, as a ten-year-old inheriting my parents’ guilty cinematic pleasures. I remember it well. It was December; summer holidays in Sydney, and the blistering, wax-melt yellow sun was stretched out like a Southern drawl. I was sitting in our living room—fan blasting, limbs spread across the couch—guffawing uncontrollably at jokes I half understood. And then, without warning, Barbara Windsor appeared on-screen, and the matron revealed her tawdry two-piece. Everyone on-screen was watching her. I fell immediately in love.

During those holidays, I consumed all ten Carry On features that starred Windsor, including 1969’s Carry On Camping, in which a strong gust blows her bikini top off. In spite of costume changes, I soon learned she embodied the same character type each time. She was a saucy, buxom, telegenic blonde, a “good time girl” in possession of a certain minxy coarseness that felt unashamedly working class. She’d stave off the attention of various older rogues. She’d wink with mock coyness, shriek with delight; eject unwanted males from her quarters with a defiant screech. She imbued every interaction, even those less noble, with a sincerity that felt heartwarming. She batted her eyelashes. She played dumb. (In French films of the sixties and seventies, sexually awakened women might be typecast as femmes fatales; in England, they were pegged as silly tarts.)

My initial attraction to Windsor was entirely superficial: I liked her hip wiggle and her gravity defying hair; her boisterous, blasting cackle. I liked the way other characters became pliable and puttylike around her; I liked the fact that she knew it. When I found she was from decidedly working-class stock—her father was a costermonger, her mother a dressmaker, and she’d taken on the stage name Windsor to mimic the queen—I liked that, too. My dad was a mechanic who owned an auto-repair shop; maybe Babs and I were similar. In not quite evading her origins, in occasionally exaggerating them, she made them appear glamorous. I wondered if she’d ever helped her dad, working behind his roadside stall.

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Barbara Windsor as EastEnders’s Peggy Mitchell, in 1994.

Let me dwell on that shape-shifting hairdo for a moment, the most titillating facet of Windsor’s physique. Whatever her Carry On costume—nurse’s garb, Harem separates or Tudor-era corset—Windsor’s hair was always so uppity it stole the show. (It continued to do so in the later years of her career, when she played Peggy Mitchell on the BBC One soap EastEnders.) When watching for long, uninterrupted stretches, I’d mentally catalogue the nuances of her coiffure. Sometimes it was anchored with pigtails and cheesy, oversize bows. Sometimes it was as fat and round as an astronaut helmet, a buoyant mop of space-age curls. Sometimes it was worn as a chic bouffant with bangs, a style I discovered was achieved through violent back combing. In Carry On Again Doctor, it was freakishly coiffed and curled, an elongated halo. It looked like the famous images of cherubs I’d bought in postcard form from gift shops: a precise and solid marvel chiseled by faceless assistants. This was no usual mass of protein filaments, not a ponytail like my own, or a mom-length, sensible crop. This was hair that made people notice you—it was designed to do precisely that. It was big and blonde and weird.

As a kid, I knew little about altitudinous hairdos. I hadn’t seen Ronnie Spector’s conical pileup, secured by layers of Aqua Net. I wasn’t privy to press shots of the Supremes or Diana Ross. We didn’t own a computer until I reached middle school, and so I didn’t quite get how the Internet worked—how digital libraries stored the history of the world, how everyone managed to access it. To me, Windsor’s gigantic puff lived in a cultural vacuum, and I was curious about its mechanics. How many clandestine pins were required as scaffolding to keep those bleached strands upright? (And did I own that precise amount?) Could you sleep in that hair? Could you hide food up there? Were there health concerns (mood swings, migraines)? And what was the likelihood of a layperson emulating this look successfully—one aged, say, ten or eleven, who lived far away, in humid, subtropical conditions?

Soon after I became aware of Windsor, I tried to emulate her sculpted hair, a task that quickly proved impossible. I’d sit cross-legged before the mirrored doors of my wardrobe, isolating sections of hair to be vigorously teased until they resembled the nose of a B-52. I knew you were supposed to stretch the smooth outer portion around the tangled mess beneath, disguising any signs of labor. But in practice, the disappearing act felt like a chimerical fantasy. It didn’t matter how much hair I used or how carefully I pinned it, I couldn’t conceal the slanted shit storm underneath.

I’d later learn that Windsor had donned wigs and hairpieces through most of her Carry On movies. Her locks, she said, were naturally very thin. But it didn’t matter that her do wasn’t real. No one else did it the same.

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 After I stopped watching Carry On, I kept up with Windsor’s personal life intermittently, via celebrity gossip blogs and Google alerts. It wasn’t that her affairs were particularly salacious (she’d been married three times, had five abortions and no children) or that she’d grown unhinged in her later years. I simply couldn’t shake the pang of affection, couldn’t stop listening and looking. I often thought I’d unintentionally fetishized her, tried to carbon freeze the buoyant showgirl veneer. But that wasn’t true. I remained enamored as she aged. And Windsor remained smiley and brassy, a fixture of TV soaps. She seemed unconcerned with public perception, a smarter, more studied version of her small-screen self. Occasionally during interviews, and without apology, she’d lapse into a comment so wonderfully uncouth—about sex or bad manners or an old affair with Sidney James, one of her costars—it justified my own propensity for roughness, my willingness to say too much. In 2016, she was made a dame, minting her status as a national treasure.

Windsor’s mane remains yellow-blonde, its shape redolent of a mushroom cap. Her voice is still cockney, sometimes raspy and sometimes shrill. This year, the BBC released a largely panned biopic of her life, in which four different actresses play her at different stages of her life. They skipped the Carry On years.

 

Laura Bannister is the editor in chief of Museum. She writes for numerous other magazines about contemporary art and culture.

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