SHE might have been 4ft 11in with a 24inch waist and size 1 feet, but when it came to fighting spirit Dame Barbara Windsor could rival Mike Tyson.
That spark and determination endured until the very end when, eight years after first being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she finally passed away at a North London care home, with devoted husband Scott Mitchell holding her hand.
She died in the room he’d decorated specially so it would seem familiar to her.
Aside from family photos of ‘mummy and daddy’ and her wedding to Scott, there were framed posters of her stage plays Sparrows Can’t Sing and Entertaining Mr Sloane, a photo of her, Paul O’Grady and Cilla Black at the Royal Variety Performance, and, her proudest moment, receiving her Damehood from The Queen.
The death of ‘Babs’ – born Barbara Deeks in 1937 – may have been the final curtain on a showbiz career spanning more than six decades, but yesterday’s outpouring on social media proves that her hard-earned, ‘national treasure’ status means she will live on in our hearts and minds for years to come.
That will be a comfort for Scott who first met ‘Bar,’ as he calls her, 27 years ago and understood the special relationship she shared with the British public.
Scott was a rock with his unwavering love
“Scott’s my rock,” she was fond of telling me. And indeed he was. Without his unwavering love and protection, her final years might have been very different.
On the day of her diagnosis in 2012, she leaned across to him, squeezed his hand and said; “I’m so sorry,” because she knew what was coming and that the brunt of her care would fall to him.
Not only did he face the challenge head on but he fought hard to maintain ‘normality’ for Barbara as long as he could, embracing the all-important sentiment that she was ‘living with Alzheimer’s’ and not ‘suffering’ from it.
At first, they kept the diagnosis a secret from all but family and closest friends – myself among them – because, knowing how much she loved acting, Scott wanted Barbara to carry on working for as long as she could without anyone knowing what lay around the corner.
But in May 2018, they made the difficult decision to go public, via an interview with me in The Sun.
“It’s becoming a lot more difficult for us to hide,” Scott told me at the time.
“She loves going out and it’s good for her — she comes alive. And of course, the public are naturally very drawn to her, which I don’t want to stop. But as soon as we leave the house, I live in constant terror that she’s going to say something, or suddenly have a panic attack, or get photographed when she’s not looking right.”
In October 2019, we took Barbara to see the staged concert of Les Miserables at the London Palladium and I saw first hand how the decision had been the right one.
During the interval, she needed the loo and the queue was already 100 strong. But the women who were waiting propelled us to the front in a Mexican wave of love and obvious understanding for Barbara’s condition.
When she emerged from the cubicle, they formed ‘team Barbara’ – with one washing her hands, another drying them with a paper towel, and others helping her to the exit. It was unbelievably touching. On the way back to our seats, she stopped to chat to just about everyone and waved at those further away.
For Scott, the sight of Barbara in these moments are what kept him going through the tougher times.
The last time I saw her was this February – just before the pandemic put paid to my regular face-to-face visits. We sat in the homely living room of her and Scott’s mews house in London’s Marylebone and looked at old photos from an awe-inspiring showbiz career that was about so much more than just the Carry On and EastEnders roles she was most famous for.
She knew the names of every single actor I pointed at; many of them long forgotten by the rest of the world but still very much remembered by a woman for whom performing on stage and screen was like oxygen. Yet five minutes later, a shadow of confusion would cross her face and she’d say apologetically, “I’m so sorry, what were we talking about? I have this thing wrong with my memory . . . ”
For a woman who prided herself on her professionalism and ability to memorise scripts, it was a particularly cruel blow.
But in all the time we spent together, I never saw or heard a shred of self-pity.
“I’m one of the luckier ones,” she’d say. “I have my lovely Scott.”
It was perhaps harder for her husband of 20 years who was slowly losing the wife with whom he’d shared so many happy memories.
There were still flashes of the old Barbara, with her trademark quick wit, but there were also many heartbreaking moments when she would forget who Scott was and believed she was still living at her childhood home.
He was determined to keep her at home for as long as he could, but the pandemic and the inability to go out seemed to hasten her symptoms of dementia.
Husband’s emotional roller coaster
And, in spring this year, Barbara’s neurologist advised that she needed full-time, specialist care in a residential home.
The move eventually happened in August and, when I popped round to see Scott, now 58, at their mews house shortly afterwards, I found a broken man.
“I feel I’m on an emotional roller coaster. I walk around, trying to keep busy, but then suddenly burst in to tears. It feels like a bereavement,” he told me. It’s still so raw. I always said we were like two little munchkins in our little house . . . and now there’s just one munchkin.”
Since then, he and Barbara would either have tea in the garden of the care home or, if she was having a bad day and couldn’t go out, he would speak to her on FaceTime.
Last weekend, her condition deteriorated and he moved in to her room so they could be together when the end finally came. Ironically, when they first met, the 25-year age gap led certain cynics to brand Scott a ‘gold digger’ who was only after Barbara’s money. How wrong they were.
For starters, he had more money than her when they got together, but that aside, he has proved beyond doubt that his love for her was genuine and, in the spirit of their vows, ‘till death do us part.’
I sincerely hope that, eventually, this kind and wonderful man finds the strength to carry on with his life and be happy. It’s what Barbara would have wanted and is no less than he deserves.
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