Before Carry On typecast her, Barbara Windsor was a brilliant kitchen sink star

For a certain generation, she is pub landlady Peggy Mitchell in the BBC TV soap EastEnders, commanding wrongdoers to get out of the Queen Vic with the same defiant and imperious passion as Evita singing from the balcony (and I think she could have done that role). Barbara Windsor was the matriarchal pop-culture exemplar of the white working class with a Cockney accent flavoured by a certain kind of showbiz-nasal quiver – Bruce Forsyth had something similar (he was born in Edmonton, she in Spitalfields, a true east Londoner.)

I myself as a kid saw her in panto as a wonderful Cinderella at north London’s Golders Green Hippodrome in the 1970s on the bill with Benny Hill’s straight man Bob Todd and wrestler Jackie “Mr TV” Pallo. And I met her in the 90s at a party – sweet, shy, amazingly and instantly lovable and very petite.

Of course, for the older age-group, Barbara Windsor will forever be the saucy juvenile lead of the depressed Brit cinema industry of the 1960s and 70s, doing her exercises with all the other girls in Carry On Camping in that very chilly and unsexily British field full of tents, her bra pinging eternally off into the bushes and Kenneth Williams and Hattie Jacques doing the regulation pop-eyed “shocked disapproval” reaction shot, Barbara girlishly embarrassed and Sid James and Bernard Bresslaw chuckling appreciatively away. She appeared in nine Carry On films: Spying (1964), Doctor (1967), Camping (1969), Again Doctor (1969), Henry (1971), Abroad (1972), Matron (1972), Girls (1973) and Dick (1974) – together with Christmas TV specials and stage revues – and always brought her own kind of innocence and charm.

Windsor was the naughty-but-nice “dolly bird” – and only that ancient term will do for the way she was eternally cast as the smutty, sexist, seaside postcard figure. She was the other side of the supposed womanhood coin from Hattie Jacques – she and Hattie were condemned to be the anode and cathode of Carry On femininity: sex-bomb or battleaxe.

Windsor with Jim Dale and Hattie Jacques in 1969’s Carry On Again Doctor.
Sex bomb … Windsor with Jim Dale and Hattie Jacques in 1969’s Carry On Again Doctor. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

How funny were the Carry Ons really? My view is: not as funny as we always find ourselves thinking and hoping. People who affect to think they’re great are just remembering a few gags and a handful of clips, or really just one clip: Barbara’s bra pinging off. Sit down and actually try to watch a single Carry On film all the way through and you’ll have your nostalgia sorely tested. They were pretty ropey compared to what Britain could do in the theatre and TV.

And the melancholy thing is that Barbara Windsor’s persona in the Carry Ons was a cartoony derivation from her genuinely powerful and Bafta-nominated performance in Joan Littlewood’s kitchen-sink drama Sparrows Can’t Sing (1963), adapted from her 1960 stage show. It shows a far more unsentimental attitude to sexuality and comedy. Windsor is Maggie, the cockney sparrow whose husband Charlie (James Booth) has abandoned her and she and her baby are being looked after by Bert (George Sewell).

Unsentimental … Windsor and James Booth in Joan Littlewood’s Sparrows Can’t Sing.
Unsentimental … Windsor and James Booth in Joan Littlewood’s Sparrows Can’t Sing. Photograph:

Heartwrenchingly, Windsor sings the theme song:

“Ain’t it a shame, sparrows can’t sing /
Think of the joy sparrows would bring /
But all they can do is fly in the sky /
And fly and fly and fly…”

Windsor did great work on stage for Joan Littlewood but (like another Littlewood alumnus, Harry H Corbett) she went into more undemanding comedy. Yet maybe the Carry Ons didn’t allow her to sing the way she could.

Windsor did plenty of other work on stage and screen – she had a small role in Bill Douglas’s Comrades (1986) – but of course it’s down to the Carry Ons and EastEnders and on both Barbara Windsor really was the real thing, a tough working-class survivor who could see off all the condescension and sexism that the business could throw at her. Maybe the movies couldn’t do as much for her career as TV and theatre. But cinema made her an icon.