Most actors dream of Hollywood, some might have their sights set on Broadway or the West End.
However Dame Barbara Windsor’s dreams have always been much more humble.
Despite enjoying a glittering career in showbusiness over the past 65 years taking her from the West End to Eastenders via the legendary Carry On films, her ambition – for as long as she can remember – has been to switch on the Blackpool Illuminations.
And the 79-year-old actress is finally getting the chance to fulfil that dream tonight, more than 70 years after she was evacuated to the town during the Second World War.
Barbara Deeks, as she was known back then, was seven-years-old when she was evacuated from her home in the East End of London.
Reminiscing on the time, Barbara gave a stark reminder about the harsh realities of war through the eyes of a little girl.
It’s been a big year for me, I asked Peggy Mitchell to die and now I’m ending it with something I’ve always wanted to do
“I’d walk to school and there was a girl who I used to walk to school with, everyday she’d wait for me on this wall,” she says.
“One day the wall wasn’t there and neither was she.”
Barbara was, rather unusually for the time, an only child and she says this played a big part in her eventually ending up in Blackpool.
“We were being bombed in the East End all around us, my dad was in the army and my mother said: ‘right I’m going to send Babs away’
“The funny thing is, I was an only child which was very rare in those days, all my friends came from big families.
“I got on a train to come to Blackpool and I was on my own, I remember getting put with a lot of random people and when I arrived at the other end, there was one place left in one of the cars and they put me in that, whereas everyone else seemed to go off with another person.”
It was in Blackpool that Barbara was first introduced to performing.
Florence and Henry North, who invited Barbara to live at their home in Norbreck, noticed they had a very energetic little girl on their hands. Instead of telling her off, they decided to try and channel that energy into dancing, something their own daughter Mary did.
Barbara said that this decision is one that completely changed her path in life.
“People ask if it changed my life, well it started my life so my love for it, oh I cannot tell you.
“I was fortunate enough to stay with the most wonderful people, Mr and Mrs North.
“They wrote to my mother and said: ‘she’s a very energetic little thing and she plays in the street a lot which we don’t like here’, they weren’t posh but were a little bit more so than we were, so they said, ‘we’re going to send her to dancing school, where Mary goes.’”
This was very much Barbara’s introduction into performing and when she finally returned to London, after just over a year, it was the only thing she was interested in doing as a job.
“When I came back to London there was a letter saying: ‘it’s been lovely having Barbara, she’s a bit loud but she’s a born show-off. We sent her to dancing school, please let her continue on because she loves it.’ So my mother sent me to a local dancing school.
“My mother said I walked in as Barbara Deeks, and I walked out the stage door as Barbara Windsor.
“I was lucky enough to get the highest marks in the whole of North London so I could do what I wanted, jobs wise. But I’d taken up this dancing and I got into showbiz when I was 13, there was no ordinary jobs for me, so me what I am now, it’s all from Blackpool.”
It was 37 years after Barbara was evacuated, that she returned to the resort for a season to appear in ‘The Mating Game’ at the Grand Theatre, interestingly enough staying in Norbreck once again and Barbara has fond memories of her returns to the town.
“It was a wonderful season and then I went back and did a Carry On musical, which was twice daily on the pier. I used to come out and run down that pier like crazy, the great thing was, when I went back, the lights were on and it hadn’t changed that much.
“One thing that had changed, the last time I went, was that all the shops on the front had gone, because it was quite posh on the front, it had nice shops a bit like Oxford Street in London, but they’d suddenly all gone and it made me sad.”
However Barbara says it’s the people of Blackpool, more than anything, that gives her the fondest memories and she’s glad she can finally give something back.
“It’s something that I can give back to Blackpool as it was a wonderful year of my life.
“It’s the kindness, I’d also never been to the country so that was lovely and I saw all the seasons because I was there for just over a year.
“There’s a great warmth up there, people are very honest, a bit too honest sometimes!
“But there’s been happiness every time I’ve gone back.”
Fulfilling her lifelong ambition of switching on the Illuminations caps off a landmark year in the Dame’s career, which saw her leave Eastenders after 22 years, as she approaches her 80th birthday. Barbara now says that the only thing she has left to do is return to Blackpool one last time: “It’s been a big year for me, I asked Peggy Mitchell to die and now I’m ending it with something I’ve always wanted to do.
“I can’t wait.”
THE BIG SWITCH-ON - ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW
All those with tickets will have received them by now. No tickets are available on the day.
4pm - Doors open
4:45pm - Introducing stage
6pm-6.30pm – Club MTV
6.30pm – The Vamps
7.30pm – Fleur East
8.30 – Diversity
9pm – Switch-On
9.10pm – DJ Fresh and Club MTV
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