EastEnders star and British institution Barbara Windsor talks to TV Times about her life on stage and screen…

Congratulations on your Lifetime Achievement Award at the British Soap Awards. How do you feel?
“It’s fantastic. I’m floating on air, I really am. I just can’t believe that nobody told me. Not my husband or my agent. At the ceremony, I looked round and I saw that Steve McFadden (Phil Mitchell) had left his seat and I thought, ‘What’s going on?’ When it dawned on me that I was getting this award, a tear came to my eye. Then I thought, ‘Oh God, I’m going to have to give a speech!’ Now I am going around telling everybody that I am a bone fide legend!”

What did getting the part in EastEnders do for you?
“The show has given me the opportunity to reinvent myself. When I went into it, I was a scared little lady and I really felt that I was in the twilight of my career. I had no idea it was going to carry on and get even better. There was a lot of pressure on me to do well when I joined and at the time, I wished I was unknown. But I worked hard to really discover Peggy Mitchell and it paid off. I love coming to work at EastEnders – even on a Monday when it’s cold! It’s like a family. It wasn’t like that when I did the Carry On films because you never saw each other in-between.”

Who inspired you as a young girl?
“I grew up in the war years and we went to the movies a lot. Betty Grable was one of the greatest and I wanted to be like her. My whole life revolved around going to the cinema and stage shows. I made my stage debut at 14 and it was meeting Joan Littlewood and joining her Theatre Workshop and getting a part in a West End show for two years that really changed my life. I became a working actress which is all I ever wanted to do.”

What about fame?
“I never wanted to be famous. It was always the work that I loved. At home, I am ordinary Barbara Mitchell – isn’t that funny, it’s my husband Scott’s surname. Before that I was Barbara Deeks. When you go into my house, you won’t see lots of pictures of me with various celebrities. I’m not one for all of that. But I do have a sideboard with my awards on – including Bottom of the Year. And a TV Times award for favourite soap star, which you gave me in 2007, which I was thrilled about.”

Still you also have a special relationship with the British public?
“I love it when people stop to talk to me. I go out to get a paper and I am gone for ever. I am more than happy to sign autographs because I know how hard it can be to ask for them.”

Do you ever get starstruck?
“Yes. It happened to me when I met Paul Newman. I was doing Oh What A Lovely War on Broadway and was nominated for a Tony Award. My agent came up to me and said, ‘There is somebody who wants to meet you.’ I turned round and there were these piercing blue eyes. It was Paul Newman. I was all in a tizz. I couldn’t speak. I got my napkin and asked for his autograph – and I got one for my nan and one for my Auntie Ivy. I was like that when I met Larry Lamb for the first time. I was such a fan of his for years. I was really nervous when I heard I was going to meet him and I put on my high heels because he’s so tall. But I soon relaxed and before long, Larry and I were laughing like drains!”

How do you keep looking so amazing?
“People think I wear a wig, but I don’t – it’s hair extensions. As for the rest of me. Well, I don’t have any big regime or anything. I’m lucky. My father was a very good-looking man and I have his colouring. And you should have seen my mother, she had this thick, wonderful red hair.”

Do you ever think about retirement?
“Not the way I feel at the moment. Especially not as the last 18 months on EastEnders have been the best so far. It’s been fabulous. Everyone is a darling and there are no rotters. I was watching a scene I did with Steve McFadden the other day and I thought, ‘Wow, we really bounce of each other well.’ He’s a brilliant actor and it’s such a privilege have the opportunity to work with people like him. I’m a very lucky lady.”