Dame Barbara Windsor is one of those rare stars who cut across the generational divide.
To some she will always be the ditsy, buxom blonde in the Carry On films. To others, she’ll remain the bottle-blonde Cockney sparrow landlady of the Queen Vic in EastEnders.
Her character, Peggy Mitchell was best known for her catchphrase: ‘Get out of my pub!’ When she’s out and about off-screen, she is constantly approached by people who want to talk to her.
Actress Barbara Windsor, 80, pictured with her devoted husband Scott Mitchell, 55, last month
There are those who know her and those who only think they know her. Having a personality that’s every bit as ebullient as her on-screen characters, Barbara has always, until recently, been happy to chat to anyone who approaches her as though they’re her oldest friend. Until recently.
These days, going out into the wider world has become a growing nightmare for her. She’s found it frightening and bewildering. And people, inevitably, had started to ask questions about her wellbeing.
That is why her husband Scott Mitchell, 55, took the difficult decision to reveal what only her closest friends and family have known since 2014: Barbara has Alzheimer’s.
The news that she has this cruel, progressive illness has come as a shock to her many fans. For though she is 80 now, she has always exuded a bubbly youthfulness.
One of the few people who have been aware of her fight is Paul Bennett, a close friend for more than 30 years. ‘I spoke to Scott last week and he said she had gone downhill rapidly over the past couple of weeks,’ he said. ‘I talked to Barbara as well and she just said: “I’m not so well now.” ’
Mr Bennett says Barbara was deeply upset by the death of entertainer Dale Winton, aged 62, last month. The pair had known each other for years and were very close. ‘I think she took that quite badly,’ he says. ‘Since the diagnosis, there have been up days and down days, but I think there are more down days now than up days.
‘But she still goes out. Two weeks ago she went to see the Tina Turner musical.’ Scott says: ‘I want the public to know this, because they are naturally very drawn to Barbara and she loves talking to them.
‘So rather than me living in fear she might get confused or upset, they’ll know that if her behaviour seems strange, it’s due to Alzheimer’s and accept it for what it is.’ Ben Douglas, a PR who also runs a theatre company, ran into Barbara a year or so at a West End show and was struck by her altered behaviour.
‘She’s a lovely lady, one of those people who always has time for fans. I was having a chat with her in the foyer on this occasion when this chap came up who obviously knew her and started chatting away.
Barbara plays her character, Peggy Mitchell (right) best known for her catchphrase: ‘Get out of my pub!’ in EastEnders. She is pictured left with her husband Scott Mitchell
‘Normally Barbara would chat away happily back but she recoiled, she seemed alarmed, she looked at him as though she didn’t know him from Adam, and she grabbed hold of my arm and turned her back on him and said: “Let’s go over there,” and pointed to a corner.
‘She seemed confused. I thought maybe she’d had one tipple too many. But now it all makes sense.’ Barbara first noticed something was wrong in 2009 when she began having difficulty memorising her lines in EastEnders, which she joined in 1994.
A true professional who made her stage debut aged just 13, she had always prided herself on learning her lines on time and being able to pull off a scene in one or two takes.
Paul Bennett adds: ‘She would get annoyed if one of the younger members of the cast weren’t prepared.
‘Then here was Barbara having trouble with her lines. She told me she was leaving EastEnders because it was getting more and more difficult.’
She admitted in an interview in 2012 that she was finding it frustrating. ‘You hit an age when you have to study that bit harder,’ she said. She also revealed that cooking had become a problem.
Knowing what we know now, the signs were there when she described how Scott had banned her from the kitchen.
‘I used to cook but he says I have got a little bit scatty, so I understand that. That is a bit of old age I have got, scattiness. I just forget things.’
And last night the devoted husband told The Sun she even forgets they are married.
‘She suddenly has no recollection of our history,’ he said. ‘She’ll look at her wedding ring and say, “Are we married?” But that’s the thing about this cruel disease, isn’t it?
‘She’s not frightened of me, so I’m thankful for that. Over the last couple of days, the conversation has turned to, “I just think it’s wonderful that you come here to look after me” – and she keeps thanking me.
‘I say: “Barbara I’m not here to look after you, I’m here because I love you”.’
To many, Barbara was known as the ditsy, buxom blonde in the Carry On films (pictured with Jim Dale in Carry On Doctor in 1969)
But by now she had already received the Alzheimer’s diagnosis — which she’d kept from all but her very close friends and family.
‘At first she and Scott thought her forgetfulness was part of getting older,’ says Mr Bennett. ‘But then they began to worry it was more than that and Barbara had some tests done. Scott phoned me after they had seen the consultant. It was important to the family to keep it a secret.
‘Because I used to see her a lot I didn’t notice the change so much. But she started calling me sweetheart, instead of by my name. I don’t know if she just couldn’t remember it.’
Another friend, actor and presenter, Christopher Biggins, who has known Barbara for 40 years, says: ‘Scott has done exactly the right thing in going public.
‘Barbara has her good days and bad days. Sometimes it is not as good. Scott is so wonderful and he is there 24 hours a day.
‘Barbara is incredible. Now she has come out of the closet, so to speak, hopefully we might be able to find things to help her.’
Last May, the BBC screened a one-off drama, Babs, about her life. There was, says Paul Bennett, a fragility to her then that he’d never seen before. At a special screening of the film, Paul says that while she was as charming as ever, she also appeared nervous.
‘She used to be full of confidence but she seemed more nervous. She’d lost a lot of weight, too.’
Dame Barbara’s life off-screen has been dramatic and eventful. She had a troubled relationship with her father, John Deeks, an East End charmer with a fondness for drink, whose marriage to her mother ended in the divorce courts, where the then 16-year-old Barbara had to give evidence.
She had to admit to the court that her father, a costermonger, sometimes lost his temper. When the case ended, her father swept past her without a word. She never recovered from his rejection. ‘It haunted me for so long because I was such a Daddy’s girl,’ she said in an interview last year.
‘It had a huge impact on me and started a relationship pattern of always trying to please men.’ After the divorce, Barbara lived with her mother, a dressmaker, whom she believes had never wanted a child.
Her mother’s lack of maternal feelings was to have a profound effect on Barbara in adulthood and she went on to have five abortions — something she was always open about, and deeply regretted.
She once said: ‘My mother never told me anything about the facts of life. I’d make a mistake then go straight on and do it again.
‘I was so naive. I’m from the generation where you kept your feelings to yourself. But I went through a lot of mental stress. I thought a lot about God and what he would think of me.’ She had her first termination aged 20 while in a relationship with her first serious boyfriend, a singer called Cliff Lawrence.
Four more followed, the last aged 42, during her marriage to Ronnie Knight, a small-time crook whom she married in 1964 after they were introduced by the notorious East End gangsters, the Kray twins.
That marriage ended in divorce in 1985 and the following year she married Stephen Hollings, a chef whom she divorced in 1995. Then she met Scott. She was 55 to his 30. The age gap attracted comment and there were suspicions he was a gold-digger.
‘Little did they know that after the breakdown of Barbara’s second marriage, she was £1 million in debt and we were talking about her coming to live in my two-bed flat,’ Scott said recently.
They married in 2000 and remain devoted. ‘She relies on Scott totally,’ adds Mr Bennett. ‘He has been her rock.’
One of the many showbusinees personalities who posted tweets yesterday in support of Dame Barbara was daytime TV star Lorraine Kelly who said: ‘I hope she knows how much she is loved.’ A sentiment that will be shared by the rest of the nation.