Babs evaluation – going past the sexist ‘giggle and the wiggle’ to the true Barbara Windsor | Barbara Windsor
It’s 1993 and Babs (Windsor, not Streisand) is lying on the floor of the Pavilion theatre, fur-coated and heavy-hearted, having “a few hours’ kip” between shows. It’s the end of the pier, and the end of an era. Babs is skint, knocking 60, divorced (again), and all she can afford is fish and chips for tea. “I’ve made a right old mess of things,” she concludes, unaware that her savior Peggy Mitchell is just around the corner, poised to bar everyone in Walford from the Queen Vic for the next two decades. Ah, you can take the girl out of the East End…
So begins babes (BBC1, Sunday), a heartwarming and only occasionally cliche-ridden biopic by ex-EastEnders writer Tony Jordan that seeks to get beyond the legendary (and still sexist) “giggle and the wiggle” to the real Barbara Windsor. The girl born Barbara Deeks who sang On The Sunny Side of the Street at auditions but lived in the shadow of an unhappy home and a controlling father. The success, bad men, typecasting and Cockney brass required to keep on keeping on. It may not be the familiar version of Windsor’s life – EastEnders isn’t mentioned and Carry On … only cursorily – but it’s such a standard showbiz arc you feel you’ve seen it all before.
It’s the Barbaras who make it. Samantha Spiro as end-of-the-pier Babs is all sad eyes and flashes of sauciness as she reminisces with her dad (Nick Moran), appearing as a charismatic figment of her imagination to backchat her through the past 50 years. Jaime Winstone is delicious as the younger Babs: sweet and self-knowing with an up-do so outrageous it looks less like a bun and more like a giant round loaf rising atop her head. We first encounter her backstage, being instructed to strap up her chest because “the director says your tits are too big”. Which induces a perfect Babs laugh, deep and dirty as a drain. Both Barbaras are a bit Dolly Parton, a bit Marilyn Monroe, and a lot Cockney sparrow. They were so good that when the real Windsor pitched up in a couple of scenes I found myself thinking: “She’s okay, but I prefer Spiro.”
It’s a tough start, with the young Barbara evacuated during the war and forced to testify in court during her parents’ divorce. A touching moment comes when, asked by the judge if her father ever swore at her mother, the young Barbara guiltily writes “FUCH” on a piece of paper. For this he refuses to talk to her for years.
Unfortunately her mother, as is so often the case in daddy’s girl narratives, remains an opaque, poorly drawn figure who disappears from the story.
Success comes in Joan Littlewood’s uncompromising Stratford East theater company where Windsor shows promise as a serious theater actor. It’s Littlewood – in a lovely chain-smoking performance by Zoë Wanamaker – who warns Windsor that “if you’re not careful you’ll end up playing this sexy little blonde for the rest of your life”. And so it comes to pass. Babs is also an icky reminder of how it has always been deemed acceptable to bang on about the size of Windsor’s breasts. Even her dad mentions “those boobs of yours – God knows where you got those from”. Some things, unfortunately, don’t change.
Neither does the increasingly dull and unedifying formula of sending white men to far-flung places in search of “strange and quirky” aspects of other cultures. The latest are Irish comedians Dara Ó Briain and Ed Byrne who, in Dara and Ed’s Road To Mandalay (BBC2, Sunday), travel across Malaysia in the first of a three-part series exploring south-east Asia, “one of the most rapidly changing places on earth”. This entails watching a chicken beauty pageant in downtown Kuala Lumpur, where their jokes fall flat, and performing some “brand new material” at a comedy club, where they get some laughs.
The insights are as scant as the comedy, such as Byrne observing that “everyone on a motorbike has their jacket on backwards”. Occasionally it makes for genuinely uncomfortable viewing, such as when they travel to Taman Negara, one of the world’s oldest rainforests, to meet the Batek, a nomadic indigenous tribe who have been pushed out of their homeland by deforestation and forced to resettle in a village by the government.
Struggling to adapt to their new way of life and understandably afraid of outsiders, the tribe clearly just want to be left alone. Ó Briain and Byrne fail to get the message and keep bothering them, eventually trying to win over the Batek children by putting on an egg and spoon race. Barbara Windsor would have done a much better job.
This article was amended on 8 May 2017 to remove the word “British” in connection with the Irish comedians Dara Ó Briain and Ed Byrne.