Right now our entire country is mourning. Not because of COVID or some other catastrophe, but simply because an actress has died. Dame Barbara Windsor was and still is, considered to be a National Treasure. This is a concept, which to me, feels very British. It fascinates me how, having known so little of her work, I was still devastated when I walked into the kitchen this morning (afternoon) and heard tributes on the radio.
To me, she is just Peggy Mitchell. I’ve never watched any of the Carry On franchise (though I’m now planning a Brtitbox binge in her memory) or her other work, yet I had an attachment to this actress. In Barabra Windsor’s case, it may be how she died that makes me feel so close. Just last week marked 19 years since my own grandmother passed away from dementia, but I feel like there’s more to it.
We all know that soaps are a defining aspect of British culture. Before I was even aware of what Eastenders was, I knew of it. That classic ‘dun dun’ and birds-eye-view of The Thames is a sound and image we all know. And ‘get outta my pub!’ is a phrase everyone from my generation and older has heard many times. Soap Operas are simply a part of who we are and there’s no way of fully avoiding that.
However, it isn’t just soap actors that we regard as National Treasures. A few weeks back, I sat through this year’s Children in Need missing Sir Terry Wogan. Again, I barely knew his work but felt a sense of loss when he died and still do almost five years on. Every time I hear Tess Daly introducing the band on Strictly, I get frustrated that it isn’t Brucie describing them as a ‘wonderful, wonderful orchestra’. Yet I never knew of Sir Bruce Forsythe before Strictly Come Dancing. It’s genuinely terrifying to think how we’ll all react when Sir David Attenborough passes.
So much of British history is built on the concept of pride. And when googling the topic, it appears it’s something still at the forefront of many people’s minds. It’s constantly being researched and reported upon. There’s no doubt this sense of worthiness is dwindling. Just looking at the snippets of the articles that popped up from my search, I’ve learnt that the young no longer feel it and neither do Londoners. But it seems even if we no longer have faith in our government or the integrity of our country’s history, we’re all still united by our love for certain celebrities.
This was just something that entered my mind tonight, it’s not something I’ve done extensive research into. But the concept of ‘National Treasures’ really intrigues me. What does it take for a person to become loved by an entire nation? Is it their level of success and achievements? Their personality? Their level of relatability? Or is it just totally random?
I guess a good way of judging what we, as a nation, hold dear, is looking back at the 2012 Olympics’ Opening Ceremony. Key aspects of the ceremony included: the industrial revolution, the NHS, literature, music and the invention of the World Wide Web. Even the beloved TARDIS made a brief appearance (though it should have been more prominent for sure!). David Beckham delivered the torch and James Bond accompanied the Queen. The official ceremony began with a four-minute-long film that even featured the classic Eastenders’ Thames shot and ‘dun dun’ and it was closed by Sir Paul McCartney.
Admittedly this took place eight and a half years ago now. Culture has evolved a lot since then. But it seems there are some things that just never lose their value. Some people who always remain loved. Dame Barbara Windsor is definitely one of them. And, especially in times like these, that’s what we need to remember. This was never meant to become political, however, it is losses like these that remind us just how key the arts are to our culture and our livelihood. I mean, without people like Babs, would we really be who we are?