Dame Barbara Windsor was a wartime evacuee when she first strapped on a pair of dancing shoes.
But by then she’d already seen plenty of drama in her life, before she ever took to the stage.
Born Barbara Ann Deeks, on August 6 1937 to a bus conductor and a dressmaker in London’s East End, she was as salt-of-the-Earth as Peggy Mitchell ever was.
Just two when the Second World War broke out and five when her dad marched off to fight, her mum Rose kept her at home until, as Dame Barbara once put it, “my friend Margaret was hit by shrapnel and killed”.
So aged six, she was put on an evacuee train at Euston “with a warning from Mummy: ‘Don’t go off with any strange men’.”
That train took young Babs fittingly to the very home of British entertainment: Blackpool.
It did not start well. In the first home she was placed, the ‘husband’ would sneak into her room to try to abuse her.
She was taken in by a schoolfriend’s mother, Florence North, and – somewhat reluctantly – went to the local dance school, where to everyone’s surprise she immediately took to singing and performing “like a duck to water”.
Once back home in London it became her passion, with her mum scraping together the money to send her to a weekly class. Her performing went from strength to strength.
At 12, a talent agent got her her first audition for panto in Wimbledon.
“On stage I felt special and wanted,” she said.
She won a place at another stage school, where snobby girls would titter and snigger about her working class roots – and she would put them in their place, once showering them with theatrical face powder.
But at home life was harder. Her parents’ relationship was volatile, her mother, who hated her roots and sent Barbara for elocution lessons, was forever snapping and picking at her “happy-go-lucky” Cockney dad John, annoyed he didn’t have her social ambition.
It came to a head when Barbara was 15 and she had to testify in court that she’d seen her dad hit her mother. She was estranged from her dad for 30 years.
Babs got her big break touring in the chorus with the show Love From Judy, before a small part as a feral schoolgirl in 1954’s The Belles of St Trinian’s.
At 20 she was working in a nightly revue at London club Winston’s, where she became, in her own words “a right little goer”.
At the time of the Coronation in 1953, the future Queen of the Vic copied the new Queen of England and changed her surname to ‘Windsor’.
She learned her trade with Joan Littlewood’s acclaimed Theatre Workshop, appearing on stage in Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’be and and later winning a BAFTA best actress nomination for Littlewood’s kitchen sink film Sparrows Can’t Sing.
It was her actor friend Ronnie Fraser who changed her life – by taking her for dinner with the Carry On bosses, the day they “just so happened to be looking for a busty blonde.”
Dame Barbara would go onto star in nine Carry On movies, the first Carry On Spying and the last 1974’s Carry On Dick, never being paid more than £4,000 a time, but still becoming queen of the cheeky double entendre.
The most classic of all moments was in Carry on Camping, when her bikini top accidentally flies from her bust during an exercise class, slapping Kenneth Williams in the face. Filming it wasn’t glam by any means.
“We made all those films in the winter,” she said. “They got a field in the back so they didn’t have to pay Pinewood Studios.
“They painted the ground green. They put leaves on the trees.” (Kenneth Williams once said Babs had complained: “My breasts are all goose pimples!”)
The ‘special effects’ meanwhile were a fishing rod which would hook her top off at the right moment.
On the first attempt she was knocked down in the mud, and on the second it flew off with such speed she exposed her right breast. The third take was a success.
Babs recalled the censor John Trevellyan not being as uptight as had been feared however. “He said: ‘Well, I don’t think Miss Windsor’s right boob is going to corrupt the nation, I’ll pass it’,” she later recalled.
Babs won over the notoriously-feisty Williams on Day One of 1964’s Carry On Spying by being as quick witted as he after she fluffed a line and he sent a barb in her direction.
He even once asked her to marry him, with the disclaimer “Mind you, there’d be no sex!”
Her favourite was Carry On, Henry, set in the court of Henry VIII, because she loved period pieces and “got to wear one of these wonderful frocks” – the same gowns as had been used for serious Henry VIII film Anne of a Thousand Days.
There was the early collaboration with another EastEnder Wendy Richard in Carry On Girls, “She was Miss Eider Down and I was Miss Easy Rider,” said Barbara.
Of all the Carry On co-stars it would be Sid James who would be the biggest impact on her life…. but that’s another story.
For the little evacuee, there was only one regret about her early career, that she never was as “posh and sophisticated” as her mother had wanted.
But if she had, we’d never have had her as a Great British Institution, and probably would never have had EastEnders’ Peggy Mitchell.
And wouldn’t that have been a sad way to Carry On?