When Barbara Windsor died in December aged 83, precious little of her raucous life and times was spared examination. She wouldn’t have minded.
In life, the irrepressible national treasure with the famous wiggle and throaty laugh was an open book, always ready with an eye-popping story normally involving the men in her life. So why would death be any different?
The name of Bob Dunn was, however, notably absent from the extravagant obituaries. Perhaps that is not altogether surprising, since his 20-year relationship with Barbara was a closely guarded secret.
At the time, it suited him fine but Bob, 75, now feels that events and individuals have conspired to airbrush him from Barbara’s history entirely. ‘And it’s about time that changed,’ he says in an interview with The Mail on Sunday.
Nightclub owner Bob Dunn first met Barbara Windsor in 1979 at a hotel in Devon. Pictured at Wayne Sleep’s 50th Birthday Gala
He blames his relegation mostly on the TV and film legend’s widower, Scott Mitchell. ‘Barbara told me, “It’s no good, he’s so jealous.” It upset me then and it upsets me now,’ he says. ‘How can your dearest friend be stopped from talking to you? Suddenly, I went from being the big love of her life to a nobody.’
A desire to put the record straight is why he is speaking out, why he feels compelled to disclose previously unknown details of the life he and Barbara shared. He recalls, for instance, that he got Barbara pregnant at the age of 42, while she was married to the first of her three husbands, East End gangster Ronnie Knight.
‘I suppose I should have been terrified of her having a baby that might have looked like me when she was married to someone who had served time in jail,’ he says. ‘She decided to abort it.
‘She was doing Calamity Jane in Nottingham and she had it in the hospital there. But later on, she told me she wished she’d had the baby and, of course, she never went on to have children. It’s a shame as she would have been a great mother.’
The pair’s week-long fling led to Barbara making him her manager so he could accompany her in public without suspicion. Pictured: Bob and Babs alongside Cliff Richard
The thrill of their affair was tempered by the fear of what Knight might do if he found out. Pictured: Bob and Barbara in the Queen Vic in 1998
Not all of Bob’s memories are tinged with regret. Indeed, many episodes could have graced a Carry On film script. There was the time, for example, when they flagged down a passing motorist for help when Bob’s sporty Fiat X19 got stuck in a muddy ditch after they pulled over to have sex.
‘Give us a push, darling,’ Barbara told the Good Samaritan, who was stunned to encounter the actress in such circumstances at 3am.
The couple first met in 1979 at a Devon hotel. Bob caught Barbara’s eye because she thought he resembled Al Pacino.
While nightclub owner Bob was no Hollywood legend, he did have showbusiness connections of sorts as a friend of actor Jon Pertwee, who was filming Worzel Gummidge with Barbara.
After a long day, the cast and crew unwound at the bar. Bob joined them, but initially proved immune to Barbara’s charms, later passing out on a sofa, the worse for wear.
Bob had initially proved immune to Barbara’s charms. Pictured: Bob and Barbara with her on-screen son Ross Kemp
Looking back, he recalls, it was hardly the most auspicious start to his love affair with the nation’s favourite pin-up, but Barbara was undeterred and instructed a couple of colleagues: ‘Take him up to my bedroom.’
Even by her standards, it was a bold gambit, but as Bob jokes, the character she played in Worzel Gummidge wasn’t called Saucy Nancy for nothing.
Next morning, Bob awoke beside the 4ft 10in actress with no memory of how he’d got there. ‘Nothing happened as I’d been asleep,’ he laughs.
Bob, then 34, could scarcely believe his luck when their week-long Devon fling led to Barbara making him her manager so he could accompany her in public without arousing suspicion. However, the thrill of their affair was tempered by the fear of what Knight might do if he found out.
‘She did think about having the baby as a possible way to try to salvage her fading marriage to Ronnie,’ says Bob. ‘I ended up saying if that was how she felt she should speak to Ronnie about keeping it,’ says Bob.
Eventually Ronnie Knight (pictured with Barbara) did find out about her ongoing relationship with Bob
Eventually Knight did find out about their relationship which, one imagines, caused Bob sleepless nights.
As it transpired, Knight didn’t seem to mind, largely due to his own extramarital dalliances. In fact, the two men later became friends and if anything, says Bob, he even encouraged his wife’s adultery.
Barbara felt the same about Knight, believing his affairs gave her an excuse to be unfaithful. By her own admission, her lovers during her marriage to Knight included Bee Gees singer Maurice Gibb, Bing Crosby’s son Gary, Carry On co-star Sid James, footballer George Best and another gangster, Reggie Kray.
Bob says he got closer to Barbara after Ronnie was accused of murdering the gangster who killed his brother – a charge he was acquitted of in a 1980 trial.
He recalls: ‘When Ronnie was in custody for murder, Barbara said, “I’m going to tell Ronnie I need someone to protect me on the road.” Barbara also asked me to help her with Ronnie and I put my Hampshire cottage up as bail for him.
‘After he was acquitted, I got to like him very much and we became friends. He used to come down to Hampshire and walk my two Great Danes with me.
‘By then Ronnie knew all about the relationship between Barbara and me.
‘I knew he was having an affair with a barmaid, so at times he urged me to spend time with Babs.
‘When an Australian TV channel wanted Barbara to go out to do a show for a week, Ronnie actually urged me to go with her. But I never tried to take her from her marriage. One day, on Bondi beach in Sydney, I got talking to two attractive women and a guy, and Barbara got very jealous and we later had a row in the car on Sydney Harbour Bridge. She gave me a couple of left hooks from the passenger seat. I raised my arm in front of me while driving to defend myself and my ring caught the side of her eye.
‘I immediately thought of Ronnie’s last words when we left England – “Look after her’ – so I thought it best to quickly make up with her.’
For several years, the unconventional arrangement seemed to suit all concerned and Barbara even gave Bob and Ronnie near-identical gold medallions.
But it all changed when Knight fled to Spain in 1984 following the theft of £6 million from a Security Express depot in East London the previous year. Although he denied involvement, he was jailed ten years later for handling some of the proceeds.
‘I was away with Barbara the day Ronnie did a runner to Spain with his girlfriend,’ says Bob. ‘Barbara was in bits. She wanted some stability with a man – she always wanted it throughout her life – probably because of what happened with her dad shunning her as a child.
‘And Ronnie was her husband. Irrespective of what she was up to and who she was seeing when she was away five days a week, and whoever he was seeing, Ronnie was always the rock she could go back to for Sunday lunch. In fact, when he was in nick she would take him Sunday lunches. However many flings she was having, she always wanted a man like that. She couldn’t handle Ronnie going or believe he could run off like that.
‘What riled her even more was that the Spanish villa he ran off to was funded with the money she made from her “Naughty but nice” cream cake adverts.
‘If Ronnie hadn’t left her and had an affair with his barmaid, I’m sure I would have stayed with her as it suited her. But it was another man gone in her life, like her dad, and she couldn’t process it and she wanted to rethink her life completely.
‘We both decided to back off because she was so devastated, which suited me as my nightclub business was doing well in Hampshire. I suppose our relationship could never be classed a normal one, but it worked well for us both until her situation was turned upside-down.
‘There wasn’t a big parting day, or row, or sit-down chat as such – she just got engrossed with problems and wanted space. Neither of us finished with the other.’
After divorcing Knight, the Carry On star soon met and quickly married restaurateur Stephen Hollings, who was 19 years her junior. She later admitted she had been ‘on the rebound’.
Bob also married, but remained in contact with Barbara until she met Scott Mitchell in about 1993.
‘Barbara said from the start that Scott was always jealous of me because of our history, but he needn’t have worried then because for a few years I didn’t hear much from her, and I went abroad for a period,’ says Bob.
When he returned in 1998, newly divorced, Bob read in a newspaper that Barbara, by now the matriarch of EastEnders, was seriously ill in hospital with suspected pneumonia.
He says: ‘I sent her the flowers I’d always given to her, yellow roses. She later told me Scott had removed my message, but she still realised they were from me and got in touch with the florists and got my address – it was the pub I was then running.
‘Then she came down to see me one Sunday lunchtime in a huge white limo. After that, she regularly phoned my pub, too, and it became a standing joke with my staff when they answered. They would call out, “It’s Barbara Windsor on the phone again.”
‘Scott had a big, sharp shock when I came back on the scene and he left her to go to California with an ex-girlfriend. We soon became an item again. I had divorced in 1998 and so we had no need to hide it as we were both single.’
The couple went to the Bahamas together courtesy of a magazine. ‘I took a photo of Barbara in front of a waterfall which she used for her Christmas card, writing, “Merry Christmas from Viagra falls.” ’
While they didn’t live together, Bob says Barbara suggested marriage but he was reluctant. ‘Then I discovered Scott had come back from America one day when I saw six champagne bottles had been rearranged in Barbara’s home,’ he says. ‘A champagne company Barbara and I once visited gave us the bottles with a picture of us together on the labels. She kept them on the cabinet in her kitchen. I said, “What’s happened to these?” and she told me Scott turned them round so our picture couldn’t be seen.’
The final straw came when she invited Bob to a function but said he would have to sit on a separate table as Scott was accompanying her. He refused.
‘I couldn’t be the man to give her the stability she craved whereas Scott could,’ he admits. ‘At that point, I just finished it. Barbara said that I would always be her best friend and that that’s how I left it.
‘Very soon after that Barbara and Scott got married. The sudden way I went from the big love of her life to a nobody was illustrated by her autobiography which came out in 2000. It had just one photo page of me. After Barbara said for 20 years that I was the real love of her life, I feel like I was brushed aside as the forgotten lover when she looked back at her life in the book.’
Bob is sad that he was not able to say goodbye to his old lover, whose last years were clouded by Alzheimer’s disease.
‘At one time Barbara certainly expected me to be with her to the end,’ he says. ‘She said to me, “You’ve got to promise me one thing – if you ever have to put me in a nursing home, I don’t want you to have to wipe my a***!”
‘In the end I wasn’t even invited to her funeral. Still, she will always have a special place in my heart – no one can take that away.’