Monday, 8 May 2017

Babs (5 Stars)

I'll jump straight into the controversy about this biographical film by giving it a full five star rating. It was first shown on the BBC at 8pm yesterday, less than a day ago, but the first reviews are already online. Critics are mixed in their opinions. Some find it brilliant, others poor quality. According to an article in the Daily Mail, most viewers were disappointed, complaining that it was difficult to understand. I'll wait for more representative viewer polls to come in, but I can understand the viewer response. The film probably wasn't watched by its target audience. Barbara Windsor is best known as an actress in the long running soap opera "Eastenders". The film about her life is an intellectual, well crafted drama, the opposite of the trashy stories presented in soap operas.

First a word of explanation to my readers who aren't from England. Barbara Windsor is one of the best known actresses in England. She's known for two things in her career. She appeared in nine of the 30 Carry On films from 1964 to 1974; she appeared in "Eastenders" from 1994 to 2016. The Carry On films are still frequently repeated on British television, so she's well known as a Carry On star even to the younger generation.

What did she do between 1974 and 1994? Not much. After the last Carry On film her career was in a slow decline. She was famous for what she had done, but nobody was interested in seeing her any more. All she was offered was poor paying singing and comedy shows at English holiday resorts. That's where "Babs" begins. It's 1993, the low point of her career. We see her sleeping on a wooden floor on a pier, because she can't afford a hotel room before she goes on stage. Her father appears to her as she knew him when she was young. He encourages her to look back on her life, see where she went wrong and make a new start.

The film's style has been much criticised, so I'll try to describe it as best as I can. The whole film takes place in a series of flashbacks, from 1943 to 1968. (The years are approximate, which I'll go into below). Four different actresses play Barbara at different ages (child, teenager, twenties, aged 56), as well as the real Barbara Windsor appearing. In most of the scenes two incarnations of Barbara appear together. The 56-year-old Barbara, played by the excellent actress Samantha Spiro, stands watching her younger selves. Often she's accompanied by her father, with whom she discusses or argues about the choices she made in her life.

Jaime Winstone as Barbara Windsor, posing with the Kray twins.

Samantha Spiro as Barbara Windsor.

The film shows key points in Barbara's career, but omits many others. She was born in London in 1937 as Barbara Deeks. When she was 13 she began a career as a music hall singer and dancer. When she was 15 she adopted the stage name Barbara Windsor. After a few small film roles she appeared in highly acclaimed stage productions in 1963 and 1964, winning acclaim as a serious actress. In 1964 she appeared in "Carry on Spying", after which she was typecast as a dumb blonde with a lower class London accent and lost the respect of her peers.

More important than her career is the relationship with her father. He was no saint. He lost his temper and sometimes hit his wife, but Barbara idolised him. In 1993 (and presumably still today) she expressed regret that she hadn't spent more time with him. After her parents' divorce Barbara didn't see her father for more than ten years. When she finally found him, her stepmother didn't allow her to speak to him.

The film shows her affairs with men. Some of the men. She had many more affairs not shown in the film. The 56-year-old Barbara expresses regrets for all of her affairs. She says she was young and foolish, and her father confirms that the men weren't good enough for her.

Barbara Windsor in 1967.

I greatly enjoyed the way the film has been made. It's a much better biopic than "Hattie", the story of her fellow Carry On star Hattie Jacques. My only criticism is that the dates are unclear in the film itself. Apart from the opening scene in 1993 it's never stated when things happened. All the dates that I've given above are inserted from my own background knowledge, for instance I know when "Carry on Spying" was made. Some of the other details are more difficult for me to date precisely, such as when her parents were divorced.

This must have been a very emotional film for Barbara Windsor to appear in. She officially retired from acting last year, but she has returned to make "Babs", probably the biggest film of her life. She appears briefly in scenes during the film, and at the end she performs "Sunny Side of the Street", the song she used to sing with her father.

Barbara Windsor in 2017.

Grab your coat
And get your hat,
Leave your worries on the doorstep,
Life can be so sweet
On the sunny side of the street.

Can't you hear that pitter-pat?
And that happy tune is your step,
Life can be so sweet
On the sunny side of the street.

I used to walk in the shade
With those blues on parade,
But I'm not afraid,
Cos I'm a Rover
Who crossed over.

And if I never, never had a cent
I'd be rich as Rockafella,
Gold dust at my feet
On the sunny side of the street.

Samantha Spiro, Barbara Windsor, Jaime Winstone.

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