I went to Barbara Windsor’s house today to rehearse her solos for the London Requiem recording. What an absolute legend that woman is – and genuinely one of the kindest, most interesting and intelligent women I’ve ever met. Her husband, Scott, is also a very wonderful man. I could have sat for hours listening to them both. Long before she did the Carry On films, Barbara was a regular on the West End stage and even a member of Joan Littlewood’s (in)famous Theatre Workshop. She was in the original Broadway cast of Oh! What a Lovely War. What an extraordinary career.
Her memories reminded me that the 1960s were the days when theatre really seemed to matter to people. Theatre was political. Theatre was a lifeline to many; a much-needed escape from the real world. A proper treat - but an affordable one. The audiences got fired up. They threw tomatoes at the actors if the play was a flop. We talked about Lionel Bart, and his musical Twang!, which is perhaps the most famous flop of them all. Barbara, who was in the show, remembers walking onto the stage and getting catcalls from the circle. One of the lines she had to say was “I don’t know what I’m doing here”, and on one occasion someone shouted “neither do we, love!”
She talked about growing up in Stoke Newington, and her interest (bizarrely) in gravestone inscriptions. She’s even written a book about them! She spent long hours as a child exploring Abney Park cemetery, which is where the London Requiem is being premiered. I feel so privileged to have her singing in the piece.
Her very dear friend, Victor Spinetti died this morning. He was one of the last leading lights of that generation and I would have fully understood if Barbara had been too distressed to sing, but I think she saw the experience as a little tribute to him – just as Arnold had with his daughter. She was very taken with the words on one of the graves; “loved you yesterday, love you still, always have and always will.” I’m sure it’s one of those quotes which rather regularly finds its way onto gravestones, but it’s very touching all the same.
As has become the custom with this requiem recording, I photographed her at the end of the rehearsal for the CD inner sleeve, holding an object which reminded her of a loved one who had passed. She held a photograph which Victor had sent to her, and caressed it so lovingly and smiled so broadly that my heart almost broke. She plainly loved that man very dearly.
350 years ago, and Pepys was up by 5pm. In the 17th Century, people’s lives were still very much dictated by the hours of daylight. Theatres performed in the afternoon. Candlelight was expensive, and, as Pepys found out to his great cost, writing by candlelight was very bad for the eyes.
London was going Portugal-crazy as a result of the arrival of the new queen. Various merchants, and dignities followed Catherine de Breganza over from her homeland, and London was awash with Portuguese trinkets and souvenirs. Pepys met a very attractive woman in a goldsmith’s who had been given a “gilded glassful” of Portuguese perfume by Don Duarte de Silva, a Portuguese merchant;
“she poured some out into my hand, and, though good, yet pleased me the better coming from a pretty lady!"