The goodbye girl

She's famous for her dirty laugh. But life's been short of comedy since the day her father disowned her. So is it just the desire to be loved that led to five abortions, all those celebrity boyfriends (including two Krays and one Bee Gee) and Barbara Windsor's determination to carry on smiling?
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Off to a smart London hotel suite to meet the brilliantly iconic Barbara Windsor. Or "Babs". Was there ever, I wonder, a Barbara who was more a Babs? " 'Allo darlin'," she says. "'Ow lovely to meet you."

Off to a smart London hotel suite to meet the brilliantly iconic Barbara Windsor. Or "Babs". Was there ever, I wonder, a Barbara who was more a Babs? " 'Allo darlin'," she says. "'Ow lovely to meet you."

She is shockingly tiny, only 4ft 10in with, yes, that much-celebrated, seaside-postcard figure. You know, big on top, with those magnificent Carry On knockers, the ones just made for double entendre and bras pinging off and the doctor who is, possibly, Leslie Phillips with a superb lisp - "Nithe big breaths". "Yeth, and I'm only thixteen."

But, thereafter, she tapers down to practically nothing. Her feet are a size one. She has to get her shoes especially made. Today, she is wearing terrifyingly high-heeled denim ankle-boots. "Jimmy bloody Choo, darlin'. Cost me an arm and a bleedin' leg." I admire her vivid pink top. "I'll buy you one," she says. Don't be silly, I protest. "I will, sweetheart," she insists. "I'll get you one."

She is thrillingly eager to please. She's totally ecstatic when she discovers that I am Jewish. "I love Jewish people. I love Jewish men. At one point, I thought about converting, but didn't want me barnet off." She will rabbit on and on. "I thought that Ronnie [Knight, her first husband] was Jewish because he had a big nose. When we went on our first date, he said: 'You don't 'arf talk, Babs. I don't mind that, but just don't look at me. I 'ate my big nose.'

"So I said to him: 'But most Jews have big noses, don't they?' He said: 'But I'm not Jewish, Babs.' He always said when he got a few bob together he'd have a nose job, and he did. Now, 'ow about a little sandwich, darlin'? Shall I order you one?"

I'm all right, actually, I say.

"You don't fancy a little sandwich, darlin'? You sure?"

She can be spectacularly camp, spectacularly Abigail's Party. "A little cup of coffee then, darlin'?" But it would be foolish, I think, to dismiss her as just that, or as just a pair of joke breasts. Not that she minds that, actually. After all, the bra-pinging scene from Carry On Camping is one of the most famous and best-loved stills in British cinema. And, as she happily puts it: "Actors are only ever as good as their parts, and mine have done all right for me."

Still, though, she is a great actress. She's done Brecht and Shakespeare in her time. In the early 1960s, she was the nightly show-stopper in Joan Littlewood's stage production of Lionel Bart's Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be. And now, she is great as Peggy in EastEnders. Indeed, she had a crying scene yesterday, and she is particularly great at crying scenes. She isn't like the younger cast members, she says, who have to have tear sticks to get them going. "At their time in life, they 'ain't got a lot of tragedy, 'ave they? But I've got so much heartache..."

Well, it's the one heartache, I think, that has led to most of the others. Indeed, and seriously now (which is something of a remarkable first, I admit), if there is one thing you should know about Babs that goes beyond the nudge-nudge-phwoar!, it is possibly this: at 14, her parents separated.

"It was probably six of one and half a dozen of the other. Mummy could be a right bugger and there was the occasional right-hander from Dad." However, at the divorce-court hearing, she was called upon to give evidence against her father, which she did. She didn't really understand what was going on, she says. "I was asked if I'd ever seen Daddy hit Mummy. I said: 'yes'. I thought I'd then be asked about Mummy, but it didn't happen."

She adored her father, a bus conductor. "I think all little girls love their fathers more than their mothers. I was very much a daddy's girl. We giggled a lot together, much to Mummy's annoyance. We had the same raucous laugh, which she thought was vulgar and unladylike."

But when she left court, her father cut her dead. "He walked right past me, without speaking." She took to waiting along his bus routes - the 643 or 647 - waving as he drove past. But he never waved back.

I think you should know this, because it goes on to account for so much. Her eagerness to please, which might be an expression of what? Her need to be loved? Her desperation to be loved? She says she's always had to keep working over the years, because she always blows her money.

"I'm silly with it. I'm always picking up the tab." It may explain her promiscuity, even. OK, it's always been known that Babs is a bit of a goer. Or, as Kenneth Williams once told one of her boyfriends: "You're wasting your time with her. She'll have it off with anybody." Not that Kenny despised her. He adored her, actually. Indeed, she was one of the few people to ever have his home phone number - "although I wasn't to call between 9am and 10am, because that's when he cleaned his toilet" - and he once even asked her to marry him. "He said there'd be no sex, mind. So I said, 'Piss off, then'."

Sex. It wasn't so much that Babs was the original get-your-tits-out-for-the-lads girl, more that she rarely buttoned them away. Read her autobiography, All of Me, and you'll see what I mean. It's not just the marriages (to Ronnie; then to Stephen Hollings, a chef; now to Scott Harvey, an actor-turned-recruitment consultant, 26 years her junior) or even the affairs (most notably, of course, her adulterous one with Sid James), it's those plus the astonishing high turnover of quickies.

With? Well, Reggie Kray. And Charlie Kray. And Maurice Gibb, George Best, Ronnie Scott (and his trumpeter and trombonist), Anthony Newley, Victor Mature, John Reid (who went on to manage Elton John), Bing Crosby's son Gary, and... well, those are just the ones you might have heard of. Good God, Babs! Promiscuous or what? Couldn't you ever say no?

"Once I started to have sex, I suppose I got a bit carried away. I just thought, this is nice. This person likes me. That's why I had a lot of sex. I think I was kind of mistaking love and sex."

I think she was. Or, if you like, she waved down every passing bus, to get on board, to see if Daddy was there. Although he never was.

She was born Barbara-Ann Deeks in Whitechapel, east London, in 1937, the only child of John and Rosie Deeks. Rosie was a dressmaker - "who worked for Mr Bloom in the West End". She was a fabulous snob. She always considered John as rather beneath her, and hated it when, for example, the publicity stills for Fings showed Babs in a housecoat. "She was traumatised. She wanted me in some fabulous négligée type thing, with a bit of fur or marabou at the collar."

Still, she says, she loved her mother, and always knew her mother loved her. But what, I ask, does it say about her, that she made you testify against your father in court? "Oh," says Barbara, "Mummy was going for the divorce, and that's what I was told to do, I just thought that was the thing I had to do. What does it say about Mummy? Do you know, I've never really thought about that." The thing about Barbara is that, while not unintelligent - when she took the 11-plus, she got the highest marks in north London - she has absolutely no reverse gear.

The sex. Once she started - at 18, with an Arab she met in a club - there truly was no stopping her. She even had three abortions before she was 21, and then two later. So that's five. Five, Babs! She says that the first abortion was unavoidable. She didn't know where babies came from. "Do you know - and I swear to God this is true - when I first had a period, my mother said I'd strained myself, and it would most likely happen to me again next month. I didn't know how you got pregnant."

So how did you account for it, when you discovered you were, the first time? "I thought it was because I'd fallen in love. I'd had sex before, when I wasn't in love with anybody, you know what I mean? There was no emotion, no love there, and then I fell madly in love with this jazz singer and I thought it was being in love which made me have a baby."

She had the abortion, but then got pregnant again. And again. And again. And again. Stupidity? I'm not so sure. I think it might be that she gives of herself so much, so wants it to be the real thing, that she just does not stop to think. She doesn't stop to think that she might get pregnant. She doesn't stop to think that someone might not be entirely kosher (like Ronnie). And without that reverse gear, how can you stop yourself making the same mistakes again and again?

I ask her what her longest period without a man has been. She says: "I don't think there ever has been, actually." What, never? "No. Even when Scott and I split up [as they did temporarily before their marriage], I'd found another bloke within three months." Oh, Daddy, Daddy, you bastard. Indeed, I think if they ever made a Carry On Sylvia Plath, Babs should definitely star.

I wonder, of course, if she thinks about the children she never had. I wonder if she wonders what they might have been like. "I suppose I'd be lying if I said I didn't. Obviously, you do think, well, that one would be 40-odd now. I'm sure if I'd had a boy he'd have been gay. I'm positive of that. Because of my theatrical life. I've always had a lot of gays round me. It wouldn't have worried me.

"I do like going to pop concerts a lot. When I got into my late forties, and was still going to pop concerts, I always thought that if I had a son there would at least be a good excuse. But I don't think about it too much. It's not something I ever really wanted."

Does he have a name, this imaginary gay son of yours?

"Yes, actually. Daniel."

I don't know if she thinks about Daniel when she has to get weepy on EastEnders. I didn't ask. However, I do think it's interesting that, over the years, she has gone from a man old enough to be her father (Sid James) to one such as Scott, who is young enough to be her son. I hope it works out with Scott. He is Jewish, at least.

"He's not practising or anything, darlin', but we do go along to his family on Friday nights and have chicken and latkes and everything. I love all that, don't you?"

I like Barbara Windsor. It would be hard not to, I think, even though the sandwich thing does get irritating. "Go on. 'Ave a little sandwich." And the pink top thing. "I'll send you one." DON'T! I'LL SEND IT STRAIGHT BACK! Still, we have a good chat. We talk about Kenny Williams. "He once said to me: 'I love you, Bar. You're the only person round here who does their teeth after lunch, like me.'"

And Sid. No, it would never have worked if she'd left Ronnie Knight for him. "He needed his wife, Val, you see."

We talk about Chinacraft in Golders Green. "I bought my first set of glasses from there!" We talk about death. No, it doesn't frighten her. Neither does ageing. Although she'd hate it if her legs went. "I always want to be wearing these high 'eels." Come now, I say. I think you'd look most fetching in Dr Scholls and support pop socks.

She laughs her dirty, Carry On laugh. You know, head back, chest out, a tremendous gurgling sound, like the last bit of water going out of the bath in a cheap hotel with ancient plumbing. That must be her father's laugh, the one her mother hated so much. The thing about Babs, I now realise, is that, however old she gets, she'll always be young. She'll always be that small girl waiting at a bus stop, waving.

* 'All of Me' is published by Headline at £18.99