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Billy and Barbara!


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At the age of 61, Barbara is experiencing an extraordinary resurgence.
For seven years she has been in EastEnders, as Peggy Mitchell, landlady
of the Queen Vic, enjoying such a new wave of fame that it has prompted
another Sixties star, Anthony Newley, to join her. The BBC is filming a
documentary about her; and now, albeit by proxy, she has a starring role
in Terry Johnsonís play, from which she emerges as chirpy, cheeky,
flirtatious, shrewd and warm-hearted.

Her qualities shine all the brighter when we learn that the other Carry
On stalwarts were little like their screen personae - James, the eternal
self-assured spiv, lecherous, sad and desperate in private; Kenneth
Williams, master of the camp riposte and eloquently flared nostril, a
whingeing, doom-laden motherís boy, endlessly complaining about either
his fee or his hemorrhoids. Most of the action takes place on
rain-drenched locations, with a scantily dressed Barbara crouched over
an electric heater in Sidís trailer while Sid and Kenny snipe at each
other. Was life behind the scenes really so dismal?

"We didnít get a lot of money and we did always seem to be doing outside
shots in winter," she says. "But it paid the mortgage and I loved it.
Joanie Sims would be standing around saying, ďThereís meat at Tesco
today, 50p offĒ and Kenny would be telling some filthy joke. It was a
laugh. "Itís true that Sid was homophobic and that Kenny hated him -
though I didnít realise how much until I read his diaries. But it was
really only the last one I did, Carry On Dick, which wasnít a lot of
fun. And we never had trailers, by the way. Weíd sit on chairs and
freeze, darling."

She still looks the same bubbly Cockney sparrow, tiny, unaffected and
intensely feminine in a neatly pressed blue and white T-shirt over
mid-calf length leggings and a cripplingly high pair of white
wedge-heeled sandals. As the unnatural tidiness of the place testifies,
she lives alone. But there is a man in her life, her former manager
Robert Dunn, and after a career hiatus in which she did endless tours of
chilly regional theatres, life is good. "The other day I had to do a
crying scene and I thought, "Iím going to find it very hard to draw on
anything because Iím really happy," she says. "I sat there and sat there
and then I thought, "Oh Sid died and we werenít talking", and thatís
what motivated me." In the event, Samantha Spiro gives an eerily
convincing performance - as does Geoffrey Hutchings as Sid. Barbara, who
admits to being nervous about seeing the play for the first time at its
opening tomorrow, was not perturbed by the departure of its original
star, Anthony Sher. "I canít imagine Tony as Sid, can you?".

Several people have told her they were amazed she allowed the play to go
ahead but she is completely open about her three-year love affair with
James which was conducted in secret while she was living in Stanmore
with her first husband, the gangster Ronnie Knight. James, who had
become famous as the foil to Tony Hancock, was also married and -
despite a face famously described as "looking like a piece of knitting"
- an inveterate womaniser. Until Barbara joined the cast to make Carry
on Spying, he would never eat lunch with the rest of the team, instead
entertaining a succession of what were known as his Ďlunchtime ladiesí
in his dressing room.

After Barbara came along, there were no more lunchtime ladies: "Sid used
to keep on and on and woo me and flirt with me. But I always managed to
get out of it until we were in a revue and got thrown together on tour.
"We came back to London and had to do the Pete Murray radio show live
from the Victoria Palace. They asked the artists to stay in a hotel but
I said no. Sidís face went like thunder and next thing the publicity man
comes and says, "Please, Barbara, stay, Sidís giving us shit. You have
all these geezers on the go, it isnít going to hurt you. For Gawdís
sake, put him out of his misery." "And I thought, "I like this man. Iíve
slept with plenty of men I donít like, so why shouldnít I sleep with
him?" And thatís why I went to bed with him. I swear I never mentioned
it to anyone, but when I read the play, Terry had written a speech which
says exactly that. How did he know what I was thinking? It really made
me weep."

Barbara hoped that sleeping with Sid would help him get her out of his
system, but she was wrong. "Iíve got about 10 years left and I want to
spend them with you," he told her. In fact, the comedian, who was 25
years older than her, had already had one major heart attack and drank
and smoked heavily.

But Barbara did almost leave her husband for him - something Knight
apparently never suspected. "Sid started to phone me on Sundays and
Ronnie said, "Youíre with him in shows at night, you film together all
day. If he wasnít so old, Iíd think you were having it off with him." It
was very wrong of me. But I kept Ronnie happy and I kept Sid happy."

When she decided the affair had to end, it was, as Johnson reflects in
the play, the end of the road for James too. "He drank and smoked
himself to death," she says. Despite his pleas, she refused to return
his calls. "I cut him out of my life. "It was the only way I could stop it."

In 1976, aged 63, James went on stage for the opening night of the farce
The Mating Game at the Sunderland Empire and had a heart attack. Barbara
heard the phone ringing as she opened her front door in Stanmore. "It
was the Express. They said, "Weíve got some sad news for you." The first
thing I did was ring Ronnie at his club and say, "You have to come
home." Then I just went to pieces. I remember Ronnie saying, "Blimey,
Barbara, I hope you cry like that when I go." If only heíd known."