BUSHELL ON THE BLOG
Jan 17. Only in today’s Sunday Express, my thoughts on the legacy of punk… which might ruffle a few feathers… also my interview with sixties pop legends the Hollies, and a chat about telly with Jenny Powell.
Jan 14. RIP Sylvain Mizrahi, aka Sylvain Sylvain, the beating heart of the New York Dolls, who died yesterday after a long battle with cancer. All together: ‘Got a personality crisis, you got it while it was hot…’
Jan 10. A quick update for fans of my pulp fiction character Harry Tyler. This morning I finished the fourth book in the series. It is on schedule to be published in May this year. Book five is now officially a work in progress...
Dec 31. I won’t wish you a happy new year. I did that last year and look how that turned out. Instead I’ll wish an awful, stinking year in the hope that 2021 turns out better than this one.
Dec 15. Here is an edited version of my tribute to Barbara Windsor which ran as a pull-out in the Sunday Express last weekend. I wrote it on the day we lost her, so it’s quite raw:
BARBARA Windsor – Bar to her friends, never Babs – was a special sort of star. I doubt that we’ll ever see her like again. Talented, funny and saucier than a Heinz factory, the Cockney pocket rocket personified a much-loved style of salty, working-class humour that dreary killjoys have done their best to stamp out for the past three decades. Although she was rightly made a Dame in the 2016 New Year’s Honours, and often rubbed shoulders with the great and the good, at heart she was always Barbara Ann Deeks, a ballsy upstart from Shoreditch, then the fag-end of East London. Just to see her in those classic Carry On roles transports us back to a more innocent time – an age when comedy was king and you didn’t need an Oxbridge degree to get a TV booking. Her laugh alone was a national treasure, pitched somewhere between sweet innocence and unbridled filth.
Bar was of course much more than the giggling blonde we saw as Nurse Sandra May (Carry On Doctor) and Daphne Honeycutt (Carry On Spying). She proved her acting chops in Joan Littlewood’s 1963 kitchen sink film drama Sparrows Can’t Sing – proper drama, dear. She was Bafta nominated for the part of cheating wife Maggie Gooding in that. And later she was Tony nominated after starring in a Broadway production of Oh, What A Lovely War! Both arguably a little more prestigious than winning Rear Of The Year in 1976. Tsk. And to think some people claim she was only famous for her breasts...
Barbara never resented the fame the Carry Ons brought her. She didn’t feel defined or “objectified” by them. They had made her. And she continued to defend them as a treasured British institution, even when po-faced media types raged against them – Channel 4 banned the films as “sexist” in the late 1980s but have since had a rethink. Bar had appeared in other films of course, the first was as a schoolgirl in 1954’s The Belles Of St Trinian’s when she was just sixteen. But it was the Carry Ons that rocketed her to stardom. She appeared in just nine of the franchise, most memorably as “Babs” in Carry On Camping when her bikini top famously went flying – it was pulled off, she said “by an elderly prop man using a fishing rod and line... on the first take it wouldn’t budge but he wouldn’t stop reeling me in, the next thing I knew I was being dragged through the mud on me bum”. The next take worked splendidly, but in true Carry On tradition, Barbara’s bare bosom was never shown on screen. The films were cheeky, not pornographic. Kenneth Williams said she had “a chest like a confectioner’s counter”. But years later Bar told me: “I don’t know why people bang on about my boobs, they were never much to write ’ome about.” She’d got into the Carry Ons by accident. She just happened to walk through the restaurant at Pinewood Studios at the same time as producer Peter Rogers and director Gerald Thomas were tucking into a meal and wondering who they could cast as a bubbly blonde for 1964’s Carry On Spying... Her favourite of the long-running series was 1971’s Carry On Henry, which was she first time she had worked opposite Sid James. They’d both trained as dancers, and did the gavotte for that film in one take.
Barbara was in fewer than one third of the movies but she made the biggest impact of any of the female cast. She saw the Carry Ons as being in the great English tradition of McGill seaside postcards – “that naughty but nice humour, loaded with double entendres.” When she played a season in Blackpool, she said, she’d realised the cartoons on the postcards were just like the Carry On characters – “There was the fat lady – Hattie Jacques. The lech, which was Sid. The little camp man, like Charlie Hawtrey and there was the bosomy blonde who was me.” Her final appearance was in 1974’s Carry On Dick, after sensibly swerving Emmannuelle. She had other film roles over the years, including a small part in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang opposite Dick Van Dyke, Ken Russell’s The Boy Friend and On The Fiddle with Sean Connery. But none that endured so wonderfully.
Bar was a huge fan of Max Miller and Benny Hill, and supported the campaign (still ongoing) to raise an 8ft bronze statue of Benny in Southampton. She could never understand why ITV “bastards” had treated him so disgracefully. Not surprisingly Music Hall legend Marie Lloyd was another huge influence on her. Barbara played her in the 1970 run of Sing A Rude Song at London’s Garrick Theatre, later reprising the role on the BBC’s The Good Old Days. In Marie, with her risqué humour and turbulent love life, Bar had found a strong echo of her own life. I first knew Barbara in the 1980s when she was on her uppers – those down-on-her-luck years after the Carry Ons had petered out and she was stuck in provincial theatre roles or doing a Marie Lloyd act in small but welcoming theatres such as Wilton’s Music Hall, then in London’s Brick Lane.
The Carry On franchise continued to be shown on TV but Barbara never made a bean from the repeats, or from the video and DVD sales or even from having her image on the merchandise, ranging from t-shirts and photographs to tea cups and posters. By 1993 she was describing herself as “skint... with another marriage down the toilet” (after the collapse of her marriage to toy-boy chef Stephen Hollings, 20 years her junior.) Frustrated by her fall from the headlines, I argued in print that she should be cast in EastEnders. Chris Evans backed the idea on the radio and Barbara was duly signed to play formidable Walford matriarch Peggy Mitchell, “muvver” of the thuggish Phil and Grant (which she always rendered as “Gwant”)... It didn’t seem to matter that actress Jo Warne who had first played the character had been at least seven inches taller – Bar was 4ft 10 – and several stone heavier. Her lack of height never bothered her. As she famously told second screen husband Archie Mitchell: “My, you are tall. Never mind darlin’, we’re all the same height lying down.”
The Peggy role showed the public a very different side of Barbara. She was playing her own age for a start, a mature woman rather than a sexy saucepot; and, being a real East Londoner, she brought extra authenticity to the role... as well as the ability to pull a pint properly. Unlike her Carry On parts, Peggy was a tough cookie, sharp of tongue, quick of temper and often pig-headed. Like many Cockneys she was big-hearted and easy-going right up until the moment you crossed her. Then you saw the inner steel. Not for nothing did “Get outta my pub!” become her catchphrase. In one of her finest screen moments as Peggy, Bar delivered stinging slaps to both her screen husband Frank Butcher, memorably played by Cockney comedian Mike Reid, and Pat Wicks – his bit on the side. (Pat in turn labelled her “a mad old tart”.) This was very much what the real Barbara could be like if pushed too far. The Bar who turned on Kenneth Williams on the set of Carry On Spying and snapped, “Don’t you yell at me with yer Fenella Fielding minge hair stuck round your chops. I won’t bloody stand for it.” (Kenny was thrilled). What’s less well known is that at the start Barbara used to vomit in her dressing room with nerves before going on set.
She bowed out of the BBC soap for good four years ago, when rather than be slowed consumed by her cancer, Peggy took a lethal overdose and died in her sleep. Her performances as Peggy Mitchell won her several awards including best actress at the 1999 British Soap Awards and best exit at the 2016 Inside Soap Awards. But her most prestigious accolade when she was made a Dame in for her services to charity and entertainment from The Queen in 2016. Bar said she had based her portrayal of Peggy partly on her own mother Rose, partly on Mike Reid, and partly on Violet Kray, mother of the infamous twins. In her own words, Barbara Windsor was “as common as muck”. Her father John Deeks, sold fruit and veg in the local market. Dressmaker Rose was “a Cockney snob” who sent her own daughter to elocution lessons to rid her of her accent. Mercifully the lessons failed and Rose’s dream of her daughter becoming a foreign language telephonist bit the dust. Bar made her stage debut at 13 and her West End debut two years later in the chorus of the touring musical Love From Judy which toured the country.
Throughout her life, Bar stayed true to her roots – even if some of them were hugely controversial. Her first husband was Ronnie Knight, an associate of the infamous Kray twins. She finally divorced him after 21years when he fled to Spain to avoid arrest for his part in the £6 million Security Express robbery of 1983. The writing was on the wall early on when, shortly after they’d met, Knight was jailed for receiving stolen goods. He was later acquitted of the murder of the man who had stabbed his brother but in his book Memoirs And Confessions, he owned up to having hired a hitman to do the job. Barbara insisted that she had believed he was innocent when the police let him go, and was shocked to discover the truth, saying “I picked up his book in Waterstones and I just couldn’t believe it.” She was famously friendly with the Kray family. She was pictured with the Twins at the premier of Sparrows Can’t Sing and at their Soho nightclub El Morocco in the 60s. She also slept with Reggie Kray once and had a long affair with his elder brother Charlie.
Barbara supported my 1980s campaign to reduce Reggie’s 30year sentence for the murder of hitman Jack “The Hat” McVitie. Even in her official autobiography, published in 2000, she defended the Twins, describing them as “real gentlemen: old ladies never got mugged in those days.”
In many ways, she was an unusual signing for the BBC, being the very opposite of the kind of “Cockneys” they portrayed in EastEnders. Barbara was patriotic, a Royalist (she adopted her stage name in 1953 the year of the Queen’s coronation), an optimist and, like her close friend Kenneth Williams, a natural Conservative. She thought feminism had gone too far and men were being emasculated. She also loved the kind of stand-up comedians that TV executives have banished from our screens – like Mike Reid, Jimmy Jones, Jim Davidson, and their unsung apprentice Mickey Pugh, all of whom had honed their brand of fast, hard comedy playing to tough crowds of London dockers and blue-collar workers.
Although she was close to Kenny all of her life, it was her Carry On co-star Sid James, 30 years her senior, who badgered her into bed – “not up to much” was her verdict. She added, “I didn’t even fancy him. But he obviously thought I was this raving, sexy little thing and I thought if I did the dirty deed he’d leave me alone... ” One of the joys of knowing Barbara was how indiscreet she was. When she had to film a scene in the Queen Vic for a DVD release that involved Grant and Phil naked from the waist down, she was quick to report back about which of the “bruvs” had most to be proud of. She married again after Hollings, finding real happiness with her last husband, former actor Scott Mitchell. Psychologists would probably blame Barbara’s long history of dallying with unsuitable men – “blokes who did me up like a kipper” – down to her parents divorcing acrimoniously when she was 15. A self-confessed “Daddy’s girl”, she was cruelly forced to give evidence in court resulting in the barrow boy father she loved so dearly abandoning her. She told me she was “gutted” that she wasn’t asked about her mother’s short-comings too.
Used and abused by various lovers – she said she’d had over a hundred in her autobiography – she certainly adored the less risky company of gay men and was close to the late Dale Winton and Danny La Rue, and Christopher Biggins. Many consider her a gay icon. One of her less impressive couplings was with jazz club owner Ronnie Scott who invited her on their first date in London’s West End. They were supposed to meet outside a sandwich bar but, when she got there, he was already inside tucking in. Ronnie offered her half his sandwich and then took her up a rickety staircase to a dingy room. “The next thing I knew we both had our clothes off,” she said. The second “date” was exactly the same. On the third she said “You know, Ronnie I’m really not enjoying this. It’s not a proper date, as such, is it?”
Barbara’s private life was as messy as Tracey Emin’s bed, more the life of a soap character than a soap star. She had a large number of abortions, sometimes she said five, other times seven; three before she was 21. She also had a nervous breakdown, and then, after going through two divorces and HRT treatment, in 2003 she suffered an attack of the Epstein-Barr virus and had to take two years out of the soap. Sadder still, six years ago she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. But all the time I knew her she was a giving person. When Peggy Mitchell contracted breast cancer, she wrote numerous letters of advice to viewers who had contacted her about their own struggles with the disease. She gave me welcome and useful advice after my first live TV appearance in 1989, and did the same for many an aspiring actor and starlet. All the time she was well, Barbara would turn out for charity events. I have two special personal memories of spending time with her. One when she appeared on my ITV TV series (for free), and the other at a charity night in Canterbury organised by the late and much-missed Kent comedian Dave Lee. After the show we sat in the bar of the Marlowe Theatre – she with Scott, me with my wife Tania – and sang old Music Hall songs as the drink flowed.
Oh, and another one... when the EastEnders executive producer stumbled across us on a merry night in a West End restaurant and then banned her from “fraternising” with me. He may have had a point. She did love to gossip. In 2017, the BBC aired Babs, a biopic about her life penned by EastEnders scriptwriter Tony Jordan. Jaime Winstone and Samantha Spiro played younger versions of the star. She said watching it back and reliving the biggest moments in her life was a “very emotional experience for me... I managed to get through it without completely breaking down but at the end I stood up and walked out of the room and had a good cry.” Barbara was, as I said, a special star, and as things are going, an irreplaceable one. It wasn’t just that dazzling smile and the irresistible chuckle. It was the big heart as well. Barbara Windsor had a unique place in British popular culture. She was as much an institution as the BBC itself, but a resolutely working class one.
Dec 13. A quick update: I don’t know when my book on the 1979 metal revival will be published. I finished compiling it over a year ago and as far as I know the publisher is still sourcing pictures. At the rate they’re working my money is on 2029...
Dec 6. I’ve had an email from an academic asking about gay skinheads in the 1980s. It’s not something I know much about. But I do remember sitting in the Nags Head in Covent Garden with a few of the early Oi crowd when a couple of punk girls first brought up the subject. It was the late summer of 1980, and we were sceptical. None of us had knowingly encountered a gay skin, but the women insisted that there were a few to be found in Soho clubs and pubs. Our attitudes were pretty typical of young working class men of the time, we found it funny. We weren’t so much homophobic as unaware. Our idea of homosexuality had been shaped by TV sitcoms and blue collar stand-up comedians like Mike Reid who used to joke that he’d dropped his wallet in theatrical circles and kicked it home rather than risk bending over in such company. Puerile I know, but of its time. No-one then looked at stand-ups to be the voice of revolution. Even the Trotskyist IS/SWP (which I’d been a member of), were hostile to the gay rights agenda, breaking up a gay caucus organised by comrades Bob Cant and Don Milligan. Back then even Elton John was in the closet...
Our second-hand experience of older gay men was more disturbing. The music business was rife with predators back then, from the Walton Hop to the biggest record companies. One good friend of mine in a punk band was targeted by a powerful gay TV pop executive who acted as blatantly as Harvey Weinstein did with starlets many years later. (My own close encounter with the late great Frankie Howerd came later that decade – and he tried it on in a restaurant when my wife had gone to the loo. Ooh, err, missus, no thanks. Not that is stopped me campaigning to get him back on telly).
It’s well documented that punk incubated in Soho gay clubs but it took Tom Robinson, a polite middle class ex private school-boy from a folk trio, to really push gay issues into the pop spotlight. His 1978 Rising Free ep included ‘Sing If You’re Glad To Be Gay’ and carried the Gay Switchboard number on it sleeve. It was Tom’s second hit after ‘Motorway’. Did it change attitudes? Maybe some. When I watched Tom perform it at the Anti-Nazi League festival in Victoria Park most straight blokes in the crowd looked distinctly uncomfortable, but for gay people it must have been inspirational and liberating. My attitude has always been each to their own – even when I was writing lame, and frequently misinterpreted jokes for a certain infamous red top 30odd years ago. Looking back, it shouldn’t have surprised us that the hyper-masculine skinhead image appealed strongly to gay blokes. But what did shock one famous street-punk band was a gig in West Germany way back in the early eighties. A small gang of German skins came backstage after the show. The biggest one promptly dropped his Levis and asked if they were ready for “skinhead love”. He was sorely disappointed. We didn’t see that kind of thing at the Bridgehouse, Canning Town.